Stories, Not Stats, Win Hearts and Minds

January 26, 2011

If during last night's State of the Union address, you were more moved by Obama's words than by Michele Bachmann's PowerPoint charts, you're not alone. Sure—data has it's place. But when it comes to inspiring people and garnering the support necessary to create change, it's all about the stories we tell.

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama used a story that evoked our shared memory, history, and pride.

“Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs. This is our generation's Sputnik moment.”

Using that Sputnik narrative as his starting point, he then made the case for meeting the challenges of our generation with large-scale investments in clean energy, information technology, and biomedical research. Regardless of what one may think of the overall message Obama delivered, the method is right on.

He could have stood up there and cited statistics from Mark Zandi of Moody’s about how each federal dollar we spend in infrastructure investments generates $1.59 in economic stimulus, but that would have fallen flat. Worse, it would have been met with skeptics who have adverse knee-jerk reactions to “government spending” of any kind. Instead, he used a powerful story that evoked a sense of pride, and in doing so re-framed the debate based on our shared history and understanding of the world. That’s how we are going to win hearts and minds.

It is through stories like these that we are able to process new information and facts. Jeff Chang and Brian Komar expanded upon this concept in an article entitled, “Vision: Bringing our Culture into Progressive Politics is a Winner,” posted on Alternet today.

“Culture is the space in our national consciousness filled by music, books, sports, movies, theater, visual arts, and media. It is the realm of ideas, images, and stories -- the narrative in which we are immersed every day. It is where people make sense of the world, where ideas are introduced, values are inculcated, and emotions are attached to concrete change…”

That is, culture – in the form of stories, shared experiences, metaphors, and the like – is the way in which people make sense of the world. It’s the way in which facts are processed. This understanding has greatly informed the work of United for a Fair Economy (UFE). It’s part of the reason we have put the stories and culture of change at the forefront of our work.

  • Stories: When discussing her support for a progressive tax system and strong estate tax at a UFE press conference, Abigail Disney made a compelling case about how her family’s wealth (she is the granddaughter of Roy Disney, Walt’s brother and business partner) would not be possible if it were not for the highways that brought Americans to Disneyland and the courts that protected the copyright of Mickey Mouse.
  • History: In our most recent State of the Dream report, we retell the story of how the broadly-shared prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s was created through massive public investments in infrastructure and people – the interstate highways system, aerospace industry (Obama’s Sputnik story), and the GI Bill – interwoven with the story of race in America.
  • Art and Theater: To explore inequality in our workshops, we use a popular UFE exercise involving 10 chairs and 10 volunteers. Each chair represents 10% of the wealth and each person represents 10 percent of the population. By the end of the workshop, one person representing the top 10 percent is laying across seven chairs while the remaining nine are crammed onto the last three chairs. These exercises create a powerful set of shared experiences for participants that are far more memorable than watching a Powerpoint presentation.

Clearly, much work remains to be done, but the road ahead is clear and it’s lined with the stories, history, art, and shared experiences that define our culture.



I am a 59 year old who has been widowed for 14 years.  My husband left me a fair amount of money in his 401 (k).  Over the years, I have had to pull money out due to illness that Social Security Disability Insurance had refused to recognize.  I have been fighting for years to receive what I have paid in to for many years.  I have had to re-mortgage my home to get my dad through his final years and have had to pull a good amount out of the 401 to cover personal expenses since I have not been able to work at all over the past two years.  Last year I withdrew $58,000 to clear up delinquent accounts that had accumulated over the past five years.  This year I have to pay the government $22,000! I don't have it!  I'm having to re-mortgage my home again.  A widow with health problems that S.S.D.I. will not acknowledge should not have to be put in this situation!  I have to send the I.R.S. everything in my savings account tomorrow and call and beg them for more time until this Re-fi goes through.  Husband did not live long enough to collect S.S., never tried with his cancer to collect S.S.D.I. (he made pretty good money and paid his fair share of taxes), I paid into S.S. and S.S.D.I and had to wait 22 years to finally be approved for S.S.D.I. and because I had to wait, I had to pull taxable money out of 401 (k).  Sound fair to you?  Let the wealthy start taking on their fair share of the debt and LET THE GOVERNMENT STOP SPENDING FOR PORK BARREL PROJECTS!  i'd like to not starve to death because I have no money for food while millionaires are busy cruising on their yahats and taking them as tax deductions!

Minneapolis Mar