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Storytelling, Earthquakes, and Getting Through

I was making myself lunch the other day, listening to a radio interview.

The guest was the director of Partners in Health, a local Boston non-profit that has worked for years in Haiti.

The talk turned, naturally, to the recent earthquake. I listened numbly as the host and guest outlined the disaster and predicted that weakened buildings would continue to collapse for days and weeks.

Then the host summarized a staffer’s urgent email:

S.O.S. – S.O.S. – Please help us – Pain meds, bandages needed.

The guest said she had heard more from that staffer’s field hospital:

There are reports of a lot of casualties that are coming
there with only one doctor and no medical supplies still.

Without realizing it, I began to imagine myself as that lone doctor, trying to attend to hundreds of injured people without supplies.

photo of Partners in Health field hospital in Haiti
I imagined myself looking over rows of makeshift beds, thinking, “Where is the rest of the world? Why aren’t they helping me?”

In the process of imagining, I had stopped being so numb.

I had begun to weep.

Before eating my sandwich, I went to the computer and made a donation to Partners in Health.

Why Was I Weeping Now?

What was so different about those two sentences? How did they break through my haze? How did they motivate me to interrupt my lunch to make a donation?

As far as I can tell, those two sentences had three important qualities.

The first quality: narrative

First, those two sentences told a little story. Therefore I had something to imagine.

But the director had told other stories already. She had told about her group’s history in Haiti and had narrated what groups were sending aid.

So what other qualities were important?

The Second Quality: A Single Point of View

The director’s other stories were about organizations, hospitals and agencies. They weren’t about individual people. Most of them weren’t even about individual locations.

But the two moving sentences evoked a single doctor in a single location.

As soon as the director described one person’s point of view in one place and time, I begin imagining empathetically.

The Third Quality: Innocence

Looking back, I realize that the immediate context of the director’s story played nearly as big a role as the story itself.

In particular, the director’s story wasn’t a “pitch.” It wasn’t (it seemed to me) pre-calculated to have an effect on me. It came up in response to a question by the interviewer.

I can imagine that the following sentences would have had a much smaller effect on me:

We need the help of those listening to this program. We have a hospital near the airport that urgently needs doctors and supplies. Please donate!

Why? Before she could even describe the need – as soon as I felt that she was trying to persuade me to take an action – I would have unconsciously closed the door to my heart.

Implications for Your Storytelling?

If you use storytelling to persuade in any way, you may want to ask yourself the following questions:

1. What stories (however brief) can I tell about my organization?
2. Which of those stories concern (or could concern) a single person in an easily imagined situation?
3. What opportunities do I have, that would allow me to present narrative apart from a plea? In other words, can I trust the story to do the work of persuasion by affecting my listeners’ hearts? Can I trust my listeners to make their own best decisions based on my straightforward narratives?

If you make any experiments along these lines, please let me know the results by adding a comment, below.

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