When we storytellers talk about the power of stories, we usually think of the stories we ourselves tell. To be sure, those stories are important and powerful.
But there’s a trend emerging that features another kind of story: the kind told by ordinary individuals about events or things that have affected their lives. Let’s call those “personal encounter stories.”
Personal encounter stories have some very practical uses. At the same time, they are easily overlooked.
Making the Abstract Understandable
Personal encounter stories can help us make abstractions concrete.
For example, it’s one thing to know that the gadget you’re helping assemble in a factory is a heart pacemaker and will save lives. But it’s something else to know the story of a few particular people whose lives were saved by the kind of pacemaker you make every day.
That’s why Medtronic, maker of pacemakers and other medical devices, brings in guest speakers to its annual employee celebration. These are not professional speakers; instead they are actual patients using Medtronic devices – and their families and physicians.
Stories About Social Issues
True personal stories can also help us understand the practical implications of social policy. That’s why Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) features stories of victims on its website, to show the concrete effects of a social attitude that condones (less now than before MADD existed) alcohol-impaired driving.
Such stories of how laws, policies, social trends and products affect individuals are very effective. And they are often even more effective when told by the individuals themselves.
That’s why MADD also provides volunteer speakers – survivors of alcohol-caused crashes or the relatives of victims who died – for all occasions on which persuasion about drunk driving issues is important: legislative hearings, sentencing hearings, policy conferences, etc.
Stories are Data Points
When people in the U.S. recently engaged in a national debate about how to improve healthcare, we had to make sense out of complicated proposals. One sense-making strategy is to say, “How will this plan affect me?” or “How will this affect those with no insurance?” or “How will this affect those wealthy enough not to need insurance?”
When we hear a projected story (a scenario) for how a plan will affect a particular type of person, we begin to understand the plan’s likely effects. In that sense, the (projected) personal testimony story is a data point, an example that shows how the abstract plan will intersect with personal reality.
Stories Show Benefits
Finally, personal encounter stories can show how a particular kind of person has benefited from a service or product – or even an artform.
Years ago, a friend told me about the movie, “The Fast Runner.” He said, “It shows an old Innuit legend. It gave me a sense of being in a completely different culture – of understanding a different way of thinking.” That small slice of personal experience was enough to entice me to watch the film. (Happily, I had a similar experience.)
In a world filled with movies to see (and products to buy, services to try, and places to visit) we are overwhelmed with choices. Often, a story can help us make sense of the info-flood and decide what to attend to, what to buy, what to do.
If someone’s needs and desires match ours and their story includes the outcomes we want for ourselves, then we can conclude that what worked for them will likely work for us.
Are We Forgetting This Power?
Ironically, we storytellers tend to forget to use stories – especially personal encounter stories – to promote our art.
Take a look at the websites of major storytelling organizations in the U.S. I haven’t noticed a single one that contains personal encounter stories from listeners. (Please let me know if you find one I missed!)
In other words, we may have been so busy telling our own stories that we forgot to ask for the stories of those who have benefited from story listening.
In that sense, the power of “their” stories is a hidden power indeed.