Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan’s distance-learning portal RaganTraining.com. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations, and interactive courses.
In the early 1900s, the Endicott-Johnson shoe company—located in speechwriter Eric Schnure’s hometown in upstate New York—was one of the nation’s largest employers.
Immigrants, he says, often arrived in Ellis Island knowing only enough English to ask, “Which way E.J.?”
When President Ronald Reagan visited the town of Endicott in 1984, he referred to the story, telling his audience that his Air Force One pilot had gotten lost on the way. “And I told him just to radio down and ask a simple question: ‘Which way E.J.?'” the president said.
Schnure, then a teenager and later a speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, heard the speech and wondered, “How the hell did he know ‘Which way E.J.?'” he recalls in a Ragan Training session, “Once upon a time: Why stories work—and how to work in a story.”
Reagan expanded his opening joke about E.J. into a story about America’s immigrant roots—and the nation’s adaptability. He segued into the creation of IBM down the road. “He said, ‘Your story is America’s story,'” Schnure said. Given that Schnure is still telling the story 30 years later, it must have resonated.
(Schnure will join speechwriter Bob Lehrman at Ragan’s Speechwriting and Storytelling Workshop in Washington, D.C., Oct. 15.)
Stories don’t only provide a chuckle at the start of the speech. They change the outcome. Stories make speeches memorable, compelling. Listeners are more likely to act. But why?
This video clip is taken from the Ragan Training session, “Once upon a time: Why stories work—and how to work in a story.” Sign up for Ragan Training for this and other video education on cutting edge strategies and tactics.
Here are some truths about stories:
1. Storytelling is white hot.
Even your befuddled bigwigs have figured it out: Lists of statistics and PowerPoints with flow charts get you nowhere with an audience.
“Storytelling is white hot right now,” says Schnure, who has also served as director of executive communications at GE. “And the reason it’s white hot—through not just communications organizations but through businesses as a whole and organizations as a whole—is because it’s really the most powerful tool for communicating that we have.”
That’s why Reagan’s team took the trouble to dig up a bit of local history and expand on it. As Schnure tells it, a speechwriter came to the president and said, “Here’s what resonates in that town. Here’s how you can make a connection by telling a small story that becomes … a bigger story about all of us.”
2. Audiences remember stories.
In a famed study at the University of Minnesota, researchers tested 5-year-olds by showing them 21 flashcards with pictures of seemingly unrelated pairs of images, Schnure says. A tree and a microphone. A car and a hat. A shoe and a bar of soap.
After sending the kiddies out to play for an hour, the researchers called them in and asked how many pairs they remembered. Answer: only one out of 21.
They tested another group. This time, before the kids headed out to the jungle gym, they were asked to think of a sentence involving the paired objects. Their score: eight out of 21.
A third group was told to include each set of objects in a question, such as, “Why did Chloe put soap in my shoe?” These kids remembered 16 out of 21.
Conclusion? The question implied a narrative, Schnure says. A kid would think, “I remember when I answered Mrs. Smith’s question right, and Chloe was mad at me because she said her hand was up in the air, and she wanted to get even with me…”
That’s why that wretched Chloe stuck the soggy bar of Ivory in her poor classmate’s shoe.
More than anything else, stories helps us retain information.
3. Stories elicit action.
Speechwriters write to persuade. So, consider another study cited by Schnure: After answering researchers’ questions, college students were asked on the way out the door to make a donation to Save the Children.
One appeal attempted to persuade them with statistics, citing the millions worldwide who don’t have clean water or enough to eat.
The second told the story of one child: “This little girl’s name is Rakia,” Schnure recounts. “She’s 7 years old. She’s from Mali. If you give two pennies a day, you can save her village.”
The envelope with the personal appeal garnered twice as much in donations.
4. Stories must be more than bookends.
An old Far Side cartoon illustrates the problem, Schnure says. Abe Lincoln stands at a lectern at Gettysburg, holding a speech that reads, “And so the bartender says, ‘Hey! That’s not a duck.’ (Wait for laughter.) Four score and seven years ago…”
That’s how speechwriters often approach stories: as openers and closers in a data-choked speech. Though you can’t have your speaker do nothing but retell Icelandic sagas, stories should be better integrated than a joke at the start and anecdote at the end.
Schnure says, “Why don’t we look at every data point as an opportunity to tell a story?”
Why not? And, hey, before you go, have you heard the one about the panda that walks into a bar?