Using Stories for Greater Impact and EffectDate - July 16, 2019
by Jennifer R. Farmer
In many cases, if a person hasn’t experienced something directly, and if they do not know anyone who has experienced the issue or challenge, they either may not believe the problem exists or the problem may escape their radar.
When it comes to challenges such as the crisis at the southern border, restrictions on voting rights, and problematic policing, our culture has an empathy gap. While these issues register as major problems for a ton of people, countless others are not moved with compassion because, they or someone they know haven’t experienced the impact of these challenges directly.
As people of faith and social justice advocates, how can we bridge or tighten this empathy gap? One significant way is to strategically and consistently implore more story in our outreach work.
Why is this important?
If you are seeking to draw attention to a crisis, you must take people to the scene of the crisis. They must experience it visually, physically and mentally. Even if they are not physically present, they need to feel like they have experienced an issue directly.
Several genres of music provide wonderful examples. For example, many gospel songs lead with story. A memorable song from my childhood is gospel singer and recording artist Shirley Caesar’s “Hold My Mule.” In the song, Ms. Caesar talks about a man who was too effusive with his praise for the comfort of his local congregation. She describes how the man would dance around his very dignified church, much to the chagrin of the church’s elders and deacons. They would grab him and force him to sit down, and he’d jump up. He was so thankful for the blessings he’d received that he expressed his thanks by waving his arms, stomping his feet and running around the church. As she shares the story, listeners are transported to the church. Even if you’ve never been to a church, you’ve likely been at a sporting event and watched someone who was over the top with their excitement. You can imagine what the man was doing even though you weren’t there. And perhaps have empathy for him.
That is the effect our stories should have.
I have heard preachers, rappers, country singers and others use stories to great effect. A personal favorite is Pastor Jeffrey A. Johnson, Sr. of Eastern Star Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. If I am in Indianapolis, I make it a point to visit his church because I love his command of narrative. Pastor Johnson ends most of his sermons with a colorful story. The prelude to his stories features an exasperated Johnson, who often says, “Okay, okay. You all still aren’t getting it, let me tell you this way…” The story summarizes his message, explains it in a way that the text cannot and uses a memorable story that the congregation can more easily relate to and recall.
If recording artists, pastors and others appreciate the importance of stories, why don’t advocates consistently do so? Sometimes we’re amid our own crisis and can only focus on the task at hand. We can get so hurried in our work, or trapped in a cycle of responding, that we fail to focus on ways to truly engage our audience. Further, when we are in a response mode, and fending off threats to funding or the constituencies we serve, we may lose track of the importance of identifying and center story. Instead, we focus on the problem at hand. We tell people what has happened, often without outlining what we’re doing to resolve it. But if a person’s psyche isn’t transported to the scene via written words, video or pictures, you risk them not being able to feel deeply or be motivated to action.
To take the audience to the scene, you must cut through the clutter and the noise. The noise is our daily lives and the things that we care about. It’s also the distractions that take our focus such as social media, reality TV and other things that allow us a momentary escape or things that dull the senses.
To be effective, a story must tell what is wrong and invite people in. In describing what has transpired, the story must provide an entry point for broader engagement. Seldom will we try things that we do not believe we can achieve. Therefore, in telling stories, we must convince people that all hope is not lost and that they can make a difference; that the problem is also theirs for the solving.
We know stories are important. They stimulate the senses, they invite people in, and they give purpose to our action. Since we know this, let’s do this!