Thursday, May 1, 2014

Something we can all learn from President Obama: The power of storytelling

I've been thinking a lot about the speech Jon Favreau gave in Dublin about what he learned from President Obama. In it, he lists several things that have impacted his own writing - like how a simple logical argument is more important than a snappy applause line, that shorter is better, and the value of honesty and authenticity. But Favreau says that the most important thing he learned from President Obama was the power of storytelling to instill a sense of hope, and why that's so important today.

Its interesting to think about why stories are so important. One of the people who has articulated that is Marshall Ganz, professor of community organizing at Harvard and the man the President called on to develop "Camp Obama" during the 2008 election. You can watch Ganz talk about that in this video:


Or if you prefer, you can read about it here.

Ganz breaks the stories leaders tell to engage people in a sense of hope into three parts: (1) the story of self, (2) the story of us, and (3) the story of now. One way we can see the power of that kind of storytelling is to watch Barack Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention...the moment that sparked the seeds of a campaign four years later based on "hope and change."


1. The story of self - "In a sense, all of us walk around with a text from which to teach, the text of our own lives."

Obama tells the story of his father from Kenya and mother from Kansas who shared a common dream:
My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or "blessed," believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren't rich, because in a generous America you don't have to be rich to achieve your potential.
2. The story of us - "What experiences and values do we share as a community that call us to what we are called to?...It’s putting what we share into words."

Obama shows how "his story" is also "our story."
I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible...Our pride is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago, "We hold these truths to he self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
3. The story of now - "the fierce urgency of now. The story of now is realizing, after the sharing of values and aspirations, that the world out there is not as it ought to be. Instead, it is as it is. The difference between those two creates tension. It forces upon us consideration of a choice. What do we do about that? We’re called to answer that question in a spirit of hope."

After spending some time talking about specific issues and John Kerry's candidacy, Obama highlights the tension and the choice we face.
Yet even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America. The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?
Finally, he reminds us of stories from our past that demonstrate what it means to hope in the face of daunting odds.
It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker's son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too. The audacity of hope!
If you have any doubts about the power of storytelling, just remember that prior to this speech Barack Obama was an unknown state senator from Illinois. The moment after it was done, people started talking about the possibility of him being our first African American president - a prescient thought. That's why its the most important lesson Jon Favreau learned from President Obama. I'd suggest we might all do well to pay attention.

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