John Capecci is a Minneapolis communication trainer and co-author (with Tim Cage) of Living Proof: Telling Your Story to Make a Difference (www.livingproofadvocacy.com). He will be appearing at Magers & Quinn Booksellers June 29 at 7:30.
Think of a time when you were moved and motivated by hearing someone’s personal story. Not just moved—to laughter, to anger or compassion—but actually motivated to do something. You listened to the story and signed on the dotted line. You picked up the phone. You reconsidered your actions, rethought a belief or repeated the story to someone else. What was it about the story that made you take action?
Chances are it wasn’t the story alone that made an impact.
For more than 20 years, my colleague and I have been interested in how advocates for causes or organizations use personal stories as persuasive agents of change. Every day, thousands stand up to tell their personal experiences and millions of organizations rely on them doing so (search online for “tell your story” for proof). What does it take to tell those stories powerfully and effectively?
As much as we may believe in the power of story to engage and move audiences, persuading with personal stories is not a call to simply “Insert Story Here.” Too often, we rely on the “magic” of story to carry the day, but a story alone—or an advocate who’s not suitably prepared—can miss the mark. Being a public advocate and persuading with a personal story requires practice with elements of persuasion, public speaking, media interview skills and storytelling—not to mention healthy doses of fortitude and commitment.
One way we measure whether public advocates are preparing to deliver a successful advocacy story is whether they’re striking the balance between raw and canned stories. When you hear a raw story, you might perceive the speaker as nervous, fragile, unfocused or out of control. He or she may ramble on too long or seem overly frank. Often, response to a raw story is to feel for the advocate, rather than connect with the advocate. A canned story, by comparison, feels overly prepared: it appears slick, detached, scripted. You know a canned story when you hear one. It’s when your first response is, “He’s told that story a lot,” or even, “She’s really good at this.” Stories perceived as either raw or canned distract you from the advocate’s purpose and focus you instead on the advocate. A raw story may make you worry about the advocate’s emotional state; a canned story may make you skeptical of the advocate’s intent.
Between the raw and canned extremes, is the delicate balance we try to strike: neither under- nor over-prepared, neither fragile nor distanced, media-ready and not at a reporter’s mercy. The effective advocacy story is crafted, confident and flexible. It’s authentic and focused on the audience and message, enabling listeners to empathize so you not only move them, but also motivate them to act.
While the practice of advocating with a personal story is as familiar as saying “Let me tell you what happened to me …,” to do it powerfully and consistently as a public advocate often is not as easy as many presume. But with attention to the dynamics of this specific communication context, the effective and persuasive personal story is within anyone’s reach.