by Phillip Henderson, President, Surdna Foundation

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was at my first Independent Sector conference, and was a freshly minted foundation president. So I felt privileged to follow the “CEO Track” at the conference. One of the sessions that I thought might be amusing was one on storytelling. So I wandered into that windowless, basement conference room – you know the one—along with the other “CEO Trackers” to hear some stories. What I got instead completely blew me away. It was my first experience of the world of Andy Goodman. With humor, practiced ease, and airtight logic, Andy had me completely mesmerized for that hour, and I emerged from the session a true believer in the power of stories to communicate the messages we care about.

I went back to Surdna and instructed my staff to use stories at the next board meeting, sensing that this could be a transformative moment for me and for the organization. But subtly, slowly, inexorably our old habits of presenting tedious PowerPoint slides began to creep back. It turns out that telling compelling and illuminating stories is more than just important, it’s really hard. It requires training, concentration, and focused attention to do it right and to do it well.

Fast forward a few years and I find myself reading The New New Deal by Michael Grunwald. Grunwald’s book is a terrific read, a tour of Obama’s massive economic stimulus package in 2009. The book reminds the reader of just how much value was imbedded in this stimulus and how much promise the investments made through the stimulus have for the future of the country. The book also reminds us, in painful, intricate detail, just how poorly the transformative vision of this stimulus was transferred to the conventional wisdom of the population-at-large. It’s so bad that, for a while, the Administration stopped using the word stimulus at all. The jargon-heavy description of what went wrong ascribes blame to a hijacked narrative. But what they really mean is that the Obama Administration and its allies did a really poor job of telling a good story about the stimulus. And, it turns out, just as Andy Goodman has been telling us, stories matter.

In a way, the battle to define the stimulus, in fact to define what the future of our country can and should be, is a battle of stories. Sometimes we talk about competing visions, and, yes, sometimes about competing narratives. But in the end we are talking about stories. I think too often we believe that the work will speak for itself, and at some level it does. But if we want transformative change, we need to believe in our bones that communicating good stories, repeating anecdotes of small and large triumphs, and speaking in unison through these stories about what matters most to us is core to achieving success. Story telling is not a “nice to have,” it’s a “must have.”

Surdna continues to advance the idea that stories and shared messages matter to us. We’ve been working over the past year-plus with partners in the environmental community to build a storybank and shared message platform about the clean economy, and are now working on a storybank about next generation infrastructure solutions in our metro areas. We know that merely having the stories isn’t enough. We recognize now, much as I recognized in the months after my Andy Goodman Experience, that just believing in the power of stories isn’t going to carry the day. We need to commit time, build expertise, share, and promote our stories in order to tap into their ancient and future power for transformational change.

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