Narrative Bias – Personal story edition

As we sat in a circle on the floor of our large conference room, I looked around at those sitting next to me to see how they felt about this next exercise.  Our group’s leader was to teach us the best way to tell our personal story.  That’s how they refer to it.  Your personal story.  The purpose of the story, we are told, is to convey succinctly our personal connection with the message so as to build a personal connection with our audience.  I could tell that about half of the young people in my group (including myself) had already been through a similar training exercise.  The other half seemed genuinely interested in learning a new communication skill.  They stared up at our group’s leader with rapt attention, nodding when appropriate, agreeing to obey the instructions and think about their personal story.

That’s step one.  Think about your journey here.  How did you get here?  Why are you working in this field?  What about your past has brought you to the present?  Why are you personally interested in working for progressive causes?  Think about your personal story.

Step two is to think about that in a way that crystallizes in one single moment of your life.  It’s better to be specific than general.  Think of one specific moment in your life that “opened your eyes” to put you down the path you are on.  Our group leader may have used the term “pivotal moment of your life.”  As she asked us, “what has been the pivotal moment in your life that changed the way you see the world?” I looked around once again at my group to see how hard they were thinking.  We were all in our early 20s.  Most of us fresh out of college.  What kind of pivotal moments could we have?  Looking back now, I can say we were mostly all naïve with barely much work or life experience to reflect upon.  Any “pivotal moments” we came up with were stretches at best and outright lies at worst.  But that’s step two, so we did it.

Step three is to talk about that crystallizing moment as if telling a story.  First you need to set the stage – introduce when it happened, where you were.  You should lay a foundational background to show your audience what kind of state you were in before the epiphany.  Then you should build up continually in the story until you hit that critical peak.  That peak should be a change or a transformation or an epiphany.  Either way, it should affect how you see the world and ultimately why you are doing the work you are doing.  The story should then end with something like “and that’s why I’m out here today.”  Step three is where you mold the story into a narrative you can repeat.

Step four consists of simply shortening that narrative into a repeatable, memorized 45 second clip.  Our group leader would work with us on what parts of our story to keep and which to cut out.  We needed an introduction, build up, peak and transition.  We could do without all the extraneous details to whittle our story down.

Once we got to step four, we had to practice.  Our leader told us to pair off with the person sitting next to us and practice our personal stories to each other.  So we did.  Again and again and again.  This part of the training was scheduled to last another 30 minutes.  We were told to give feedback to our partners to help them tweak their personal stories to make it pop more.  We switched partners and told our stories again.  Repeating again and again and again our 45 second narrative about how a pivotal moment in our lives has brought us to where we were right then.  We repeated our personal story so much in those 30 minutes that we eventually started to believe it.  Yes, the key to my understanding of the world happened instantaneously when I was 15 years old and it has led me to this shitty conference room of a Marriott hotel in Boston telling a bunch of other 20-somethings about it.  That’s exactly what happened.  That’s not a myth at all.  It’s my personal story.

I’ve been involved in progressive politics for over a decade.  Telling one’s personal story is one of the bedrock principles of progressive organizing.  I’ve taught organizers how to tell their personal story for congressional, Senate and Presidential campaigns. I’ve met staff from other campaigns who have, upon meeting me for the first time, told me their personal story without prompting. Telling one’s personal story does work.  It connects the audience with the speaker on a deeper level and thus allows the audience to open up, telling their personal story and building relationships between the speaker, the audience and each other.  It works much better than going around the room with each person saying what issue they care about most.

Telling your personal story casts yourself as the hero of your own life.  We all like to think of ourselves as fundamentally good people.  Our personal story starts with a good person living his or her own life.  Then this good person comes across a challenge that he or she must overcome.  It may be difficult, but eventually our hero overcomes this challenge and in the process learns an important lesson.  Our hero then works to implement this lesson ever since overcoming his or her challenge.  That is our personal story.  That is also, according to famed mythologist Joseph Campbell, along with tragedies, every other story man has ever told each other.  Star Wars.  Billy Madison.  Scarface. The Godfather. Happy Gilmore.  Almost every single movie you’ve ever seen follows this simple 3 to 5 act pattern.  Why is that?  People prefer to give and receive information in narrative form.  That is the essence of the narrative bias.  That is why personal stories work when organizing for a candidate or issue.  Personal stories package information in a familiar, engaging narrative form.  The more engaging and familiar the narrative form, the more people will connect with it.

So when you want your information processed, tell a story.  Politicians have learned this simple trick. They like to point to a person in the crowd to tell their story.  That story will then serve as a compelling reason to achieve the politicians policy goals.  Do political parties have narratives?  Do ideological movements?  We’ll tackle that later.  For now, just remember that when you want people to remember and repeat new information – tell them a story.