How Obama’s Story Telling May Shift the Conversation on Health Care

The debate on health care has reached a fever pitch with both sides — those for and against it – dug in for the fight.  Until now, President Obama, the most cerebral of presidents, has used the logic of his argument to try to communicate to the American people the details of his health plan.  But it hasn’t been working.

So, in a town-hall-style meeting in Colorado over the weekend, he reverted to the oldest form of communication on earth – story telling.  As my friend and fellow blogger Annie Hart in says in her blog Stories Change the World, “Storytelling is the oldest, most powerful form of communication on the planet. Stories create powerful images that inspire us to think and act in new ways. By harnessing the power of story, you hold the power of creation in your hands.”

In his entreaties to the crowd, the President talked about his own grandmother to push back against unsubstantiated claims that his plan would deny care to elderly parents.  “I just lost my grandmother last year.  I know what it’s like to watch somebody you love who’s aging deteriorate, and have to struggle with that.”  He vigorously denied that the notion that members of congress who have to vote on health care legislation would pull the plug on the elderly.

Story telling appeals to our emotions.  And Obama made a direct appeal to the emotions of his listeners – could anyone believe the government would deny care to grannie?

That’s what reporters want to hear – stories with a middle, beginning and end.  As writing becomes more informal, a direct result of the internet, even news stories look more and more like feature stories.  The old shibboleth of starting a news story with the traditional “who, what, where when and why” has given way to stories that begin “American military women have changed the way the U.S. goes to war and they have done so without the disruption of discipline and unit cohesion that some feared.” (NY Times). This is the beginning of a story, and you want to hear more.

Or, “Khalid Khan’s small construction firm (in Afghanistan) was supposed to build a road here that would open his strife-scarred land to commerce and improve its prospects for peace. Instead he wound up in the hands of the Taliban, hanging upside down.” (WSJ).  You definitely want to know what happened to him.

Have you noticed when you are watching local TV, a reporter covering an accident will begin an interview with the question, “What happened?”  Then a bystander will tell the story, “I was sitting on my stoop when all of a sudden I heard a loud crash. I looked over and saw two cars.  They were a wreck.  I ran to the scene of the accident and with help from other people I tried desperately to pull the passengers from the cars before there was an explosion, but I couldn’t get them out.  I was never so scared in my life.”   Here is a neat little story with a beginning: the crash.  A middle:  he ran to scene but couldn’t get them out.  An ending: he was scared to death.

So, the next time you are trying to get a response from a friend, or a customer, try telling a story.  Involve them.  Tug at their emotions.  It often works as you engage your friend in a story that you both create.

Leave a Reply


  1. This is a great article you put together. I totally agree with what you said about storytelling. It is definitely the oldest and perhaps wisest way of communicating.

  2. I agree that story-telling is a more powerful way to convey a message than any simple recitation of facts and arguments since it engages the emotions and imagination of the listener. Being human, they can associate and have experience the full range of human emotion with respect to the characters in the story. The process leaves a wide variety of the forms available to a creative storyteller. Here is the trick. Politicians want you to think that they are conveying something akin to Jesus’ Prodigal Son parable, when in fact we’d be wise to realize that it’s closer to Poe’s “Decent in the Maelstrom” or “The Pit and the Pendulum”.