How personal storytelling builds trust with listeners

How personal storytelling builds trust with listeners

steiger_ NickIn a post two weeks ago, I put forth my view that, during the entire campaign, Hillary Clinton missed a multitude of opportunities to get her personal stories out to the world. Today, I would like to focus on why it would have been a good idea to integrate personal storytelling into her discourse. As I have written previously, I truly believe that her failure to express herself through the personal narrative stratagem may even have cost her the election.

In the months leading up to the voting, one of the several live interviews I saw with candidate Clinton was on NBC’s Meet the Press, in late May 2016. As I listened to the moderator’s probing, open-ended questions, I thought that this television show, with its large Sunday morning audience, would be a perfect place to delineate clearly who she is at her core, and what she believes. I was waiting for her to tell stories from her life in ways that put her vision for the nation on display. 

Once again, I should state clearly that I was not particularly a partisan of either candidate in this election. During political campaigns, I often listen to the discourse of all the participants, thinking about how I would advise them if I were their coach, in particular about how I would try to help them use their personal stories of identity to inspire the voters in their audiences.

In order to understand how personal stories could have helped her, we should consider Hillary Clinton’s position at the time of the Meet the Press interview. Opinion polls were providing undeniable evidence of the public’s negative impression of her, and indicating that it was based largely on the perception that she can not be trusted. People also told interviewers repeatedly that they had only vague ideas about who she really was.

Watching the show, I noted several ideal moments where she could have said something personal. She could have easily used two or three stories from her past to demonstrate what she truly stands for. She could have begun to use her personal narrative to express her core values and principles, and to explain how she gleaned them from her life experience.

Telling something personal would have been particularly effective in this type of forum. Keep in mind that polls were showing that many people were keeping her at a distance because they simply felt that they did not know her and could not trust her. 

The most compelling way for her to close this distance with the voters she was having trouble reaching would have been to tell something of her life story. I can make this statement with some authority, since it is completely consistent with one of the most salient conclusions of my three decades working with the power of personal storytelling: It is through the sharing of our stories that human beings come to know and trust each other

In fact, what do we do when we meet someone new who we are interested in getting to know? We tell each other stories from our past, stories that reveal who we are, and what we hold as important. We ask each other questions: Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? What was your childhood like? As such, we listen to the other’s personal stories.

As we come to know someone better, we exchange stories of a deeper nature, tales that speak to our life lessons and how we acquired them. We talk about the best times of our lives, about significant lessons learned from parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, colleagues and friends. What were the life experiences that changed us, the events and decisions that caused us to become the individual we are now? What are the central elements of our beliefs, and how did we come to discover them?

One can apply similar logic to the public arena, or to any organizational context. If we want people to feel like they know us and can trust us, our personal stories of identity are among the most powerful vehicles for helping us achieve this goal. As I have written here previously, Barack Obama was a master at using personal narrative to connect with voters. It remains a mystery to me why Hillary Clinton did not even attempt to do so.

Image: Flickr-user  Nick