Are Our Political Leaders Losing the Narrative?

One of the most powerful predictors of success in politics and public policy is the strength of the narrative. Yet, time and time again, political leaders lead with data as opposed to emotion -- often with limited results.

Presenting facts about America's aging infrastructure (did you know that 69,000 U.S. bridges are structurally deficient?) does little -- compared to one powerful visual and personal narrative.

Take the recent bridge collapse outside of Seattle.

Twenty-year-old Bryce Kenning told the Seattle Times he was able to momentarily slam on his brakes as he saw the bridge collapsing in front of his orange Subaru. He flew into a giant puff of dust and down into the river. "I saw the trusses falling with me, and I seemed to fall perfectly in the middle of everything," he said in the Times article.

Sixty-nine thousand bridges -- one story.

Maybe political leaders have lost the narrative.

After all, there are no shortage of problems but there are a lack of actions. Actions need influence and influence needs a story -- not just facts. Facts quickly become irrelevant unless they have an emotionally compelling narrative to back them up.

Luigi Pirandello, a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, laid it out in his Italian accent: "A fact is like a sack -- it won't stand up if it's empty. To make it stand up, first you have to put in it all the reasons and feelings that caused it in the first place."

This doesn't mean you get to be untruthful (as some political leaders seem to think).

In fact, it means the opposite. It means you need to use narratives to present factual information. A good story helps you influence the interpretation people give to facts. "Facts aren't influential until they mean something to someone," Annette Simmons, noted in The Story Factor.

Stories provide the context for the facts.

A team of researchers from Wharton School, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Oregon illustrated this "fact." The researchers were trying to figure out why people donate to charities. In other words, what motivates people to give?

As part of the study they designed a hypothetical fundraising letter dealing with famine and poverty in Africa. The researchers designed a test using two different types of fund-raising letters -- one that provided a significant amount of data and facts about famine in Africa, the number of children affected by food shortages, rainfall deficits in the region and more. The other letter told an emotional story about a little girl in Mali named Rokia, and how any money donated would go to help support her and her family as they faced hardships.

Based on their results, the researchers showed that when people were given more facts and statistics about the problem a charity was trying to address, they were less likely to donate. The group that received the emotional narrative donated nearly 50 percent more than the group that received the fact-based letter. In fact, donors who were shown more details and facts about famine in Africa not only gave less but also were less likely to give at all.

The best approach for a charity raising money to feed hungry children in Mali, the team found, was to simply show potential donors a photograph of a child and tell a short narrative to them including her name and age.

This provides an emotional context for the giver; and connected the facts of the situation (famine, children affected by food shortages) without explicitly needing to bog down that person with the data.

The narrative provided the influence -- it provided action.

Hopefully the next time political leaders speak about 69,000 deficient bridges they will illustrate it with one simple story.