Stories Reveal Real Life and Shared Experiences
David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s political guru, believes there is more to life than finding fault and picking fights. “If you probe people’s stories, it’s harder to hate,” he says. “Sometimes you talk to people who you think you don’t admire, right? And then, there are elements of them that you learn that you do.”
Axelrod is no stranger to heavyweight political fights or captivating storytelling. He has advised elite political figures and hung out at the Billy Goat Tavern with Mike Royko, the legendary Chicago Tribune columnist who used barstool humor to expose the audacities of Chicago politicians.
Now, Axelrod practices a different brand of politics and storytelling. On his podcast, he interviews people who he agrees with – and people who he disagrees with – always with an ear to learning something he didn’t know and discovering a value he hadn’t noticed. His interviews have ranged from Bernie Sanders and Al Franken to Liz Cheney, Kellyanne Conway, Lindsey Graham and Karl Rove.
Rove, Axelrod’s political opposite, gave an interview that struck a nerve. Their conversation went beyond politics to life and the two longtime adversaries discovered they both had lost their fathers to suicide when they were young.
“He and I have this thing in common,” Axelrod recalls. “When people have struggles like that, I try to talk to them about it…so they know they’re not alone. Karl has a very hard bark. But I see him differently. We have gone on and done things together on suicide prevention.”
The Karl Rove revelation isn’t a one-off for Axelrod. His interview with Conway revealed her father abandoned her family when she was young. She described her tearful reaction when she learned only one other classmate was fatherless – because he was killed in Vietnam.
His interview with Franken drew an unexpected answer to a question about the funniest member of the US Senate after Franken, the professional comic, had resigned. “Lindsey Graham,” Franken said without hesitation. “I went up to him one day and said, ‘Lindsey, if I lived in South Carolina, I’d vote for you.’ Lindsey quipped, ‘And that’s my problem.’”
Axelrod’s podcasts share a truth worth considering: People aren’t good or bad. People are the product of the stories of their lives. If you never ask about people’s stories, you may not know what makes them tick or the values they live by. It’s an impressive insight from a political pro who earned his reputation by spinning messages to woo voters.
There is lots of advice about how to tell a good story. There is a lot less advice on how to seek out a good story, especially if you don’t host your own podcast.
Mother-and-daughter Sherry and Alexandra Borza have created a game called Tell Me Another that prompts storytelling. “TMA is a fun game of strategy, but the best part is hearing stories from family and friends. There is laughter and surprise, and each time I walk away with an enriched understanding of those I thought I knew best!” says Alexandra Borza, who is a professional content creator. “Sometimes, the things you learn can be a real shocker, but in the arena of life storytelling you can also discover pleasant surprises and gain invaluable lessons, too.”
You don’t need a high-profile podcast or a board game to elicit “life storytelling”. Mostly, you need curiosity, opportunity and an eagerness to listen – the ingredients of intentional conversations.
If you probe people’s stories, it’s harder to hate.
Not every conversation, intentional or otherwise, will produce revelations or nuggets to treasure. But these conversations can fetch the sinew of someone’s life – a life-shaping event, the impact of an influential person or someone’s example that triggered an epiphany.
The events, impacts and epiphanies are secondary to discovering something personal, something to like, admire and appreciate that puts a person’s humanity in relief. These conversations aren’t interrogations as much as explorations. The discoveries can be forward-looking, positive and the basis for friendships, despite disagreements that otherwise would divide.
There is a lesson here for strategic communications, which is often mechanized, focusing on the ritual of situation analysis, objectives, target audiences, strategies, tactics and channels. The ritual can lead to content without the heart and power of a good story.
Storytelling is a tried-and-true way to speak to the heart. Axelrod’s insight that human stories can lead people to shared interests, common bonds and collective aspirations should be a light-bulb moment for professional communicators. Real human stories can animate an outreach campaign, making it more authentic – and often aspirational.
Intentional conversations, rather than formulas, are more likely to attract stories about struggles, courage, achievements or disappointments. This may not be the most obvious or direct road to your content goal, but it could be a more rewarding path that unlocks the unexpected, compelling story.
If a storytelling safari doesn’t generate what you need or hope for, you can always fall back on your formula. But you will never know the power of Axelrod’s insight until you start listening to the stories you ask to hear.