The Underutilized Power of Storytelling in Congress | Commentary

Posted September 29, 2015 at 1:22pm

Despite my deep admiration for members of Congress and staff for their dedication, hard work and sense of public service, I am continually amazed that many of them are lousy communicators. Oh, they make grand campaign commercials for the elections and wow their audiences with marvelous stump speeches. Then they seem to turn in those winning strategies when they come to Congress and exchange them for talking points, spreadsheets and charts as their tools of choice in the democratic dialogue

In the psychology of persuasion it is often not the rational which wins the day, but the emotional. Members of Congress and their staffs tend to think research and arguments should be the building blocks of any message, speech or email to constituents. (The number of lawyers on Capitol Hill may have something to do with this.) This way of doing things bypasses the fundamental reality — we are not rational beings. As American scholar Brené Brown said, “We’re not thinking beings who sometimes feel. We’re emotional beings who sometimes think!”

So if that is the case, what tool is usually missing in the average legislator- communicator tool kit? Stories.

Citizens’ stories are both the raw material and the end result of public policy. Legislative ideas are often born when constituents tell members of congress of their plights. Or a legislator will sometimes highlight a citizen who was helped by a new law. President Ronald Reagan started the tradition of identifying a true hero, inviting them to sit next to the first lady for State of the Union Addresses, then using those stories to justify a policy.

Pop quiz for Democrats: How many of you could identify 10 constituents who have benefitted from the Affordable Care Act? Pop quiz for Republicans: How many of you could identify 10 constituents who have been hurt by federal regulations? While these are fairly mainstream positions for legislators of each party, I’m betting many politicians would be hard-pressed to find living, breathing people who embody the policies they advocate.

The reason for this deficiency is straightforward: The infrastructure of legislative organizations is designed to collect and organize facts, not stories. It’s easy to download the latest Brookings or Heritage report on the topic of your choice. It’s hard to find a single mom or small-business owner who is helped or hurt by Washington. To correct this, congressional offices need to systematically identify and collect stories, while training staff to better spot and scoop up those emotional gems.

Creating systems to collect and catalog stories can be as simple as a collaborative spreadsheet or subdirectory on your shared drive. Include links to your database with more information on the constituent so that information can be easily retrieved and shared.

All staff should consider themselves story collectors, constantly scanning their environment for the best stories. Communications staff and senior managers might need to help caseworkers and legislative correspondents — the frontline staff most likely to encounter a great story. As a team, identify criteria that make for powerful stories to make this job easier.

Finally, important and delicate component of story collection is learning to interact with constituents whose stories might be good candidates for illustrating a policy position. Not every person wants to be on the evening news or referenced in a Senate floor speech. But you’d be surprised. If approached the right way, many citizens would say “yes” to the question: “Do you want to help me so that this doesn’t (or does) happen to other people like you?”

Creating a culture and system for story collection is not easy. It takes discipline and near-universal buy-in from the member and staff. But if you don’t have these stories at the ready, then answer this question: How can you justify your investment on a policy initiative if you can’t demonstrate the impact on real people’s lives?

Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and a former congressional staffer.