Storytelling Vs Speechifying; The Difference is Important

How Someone Chooses to Communicate Tells a Lot. We See It in This Election


Reflections from the Last (Thankfully) Presidential Debate

More than enough has been written about the last Biden-Trump debate (including by me). That is NOT the focus of this little posting. But there is a bit of a connection, and a larger connection to the campaigns at large.

Like most people, I felt Biden had won that debate. I felt better about what he said, and remembered more of what he said. Why was that? I support the guy, but that is only a partial explanation. The next day, I figured it out.

Listening to the Radio

The day after the debate I was doing chores at home, listening to an internet radio news program. For a while, the program played excerpts from current Trump speeches. Shortly thereafter, they cut to a live speech by Biden. That juxtapositions brought it home for me. And it drew on two earlier experiences to connect the dots.

I have mentioned before opportunities in which I have met with or listened to the founder of Nuns on the Bus. On both occasions she emphasized the importance of telling people’s stories. We connect with each other and we convince each other with human stories that we can relate to ourselves.

I have also shared with you the power of storytelling as I have seen it exercised in my new home region. The Appalachians are steeped in storytelling, a celebrated art in these parts. My first trip to the National Storytelling Festival was revelatory. People were pulled into the storyteller’s world in a visible way. It was mesmerizing to watch, and fun to be part of as well.

Make a Choice

Speakers, and leaders in particular, have an obligation to deliver their message. How they do so is part circumstance, part choice, part proclivity. The choices they make have consequences for all concerned. Take the current presidential election as a case study (which we will do momentarily).

To some degree, it also comes down to what the speaker seeks to accomplish. Is s/he looking to put out points that they want others to agree with? Is this instructional vs any sort of exchange? Or is the speaker looking to build a connection? And within that connection, seek to share a story that is more than the content?

Great storytellers and effective leaders absolutely get the difference. Some move back and forth easily between the two approaches as the need determines. FDR comes to mind as a great switch hitter. The really good ones know that if the point is to connect with people, it requires a different approach.

And they know how to read the room to make this happen. I had a habit for many years when working with large groups. I would have outriders circulating the room. They were looking at body language and listening to small talk that I could not pick up from the podium. Their feedback helped me judge how good a job we did on that day.

A Tale of Two Orators

Trump makes speeches. He shouts out phrases, talking points, attitude. This is first and foremost, a delivery exercise. He is throwing it out there; you are there to catch it. Remember that image of him throwing out paper towels to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico? That is pretty much his talking approach. Like so much else in his life, its transactional. It is the same for him on the retail level.

Have you ever seen Trump in an actual conversation with anyone? Me, neither. Well, there was that photo of him and Jeffrey Epstein. But I digress. In fairness, Trump cannot do otherwise. A man who so lacks empathy has no chance of being a storyteller. And as a speechifier, he can be pretty darn effective. He can reinforce. He cannot reach out.

Biden is the opposite. His speeches most often are stories. They are either personal or someone else’s that he relates to – and so do we. Watch people around him as he talks. They steadily move inside the story circle. It becomes their story, too.

Same deal on the retail level. Look at Biden talking to someone one on one. He gets close (well, not right now, but usually). He makes eye contact. Biden reaches out to hug or pat a shoulder. The man asks questions and listens to the answers.

He is also famous for giving out his personal number and calling people out of the blue to follow up. The man has heroic levels of empathy and sympathy. That works today. Biden has done something no other modern candidate has done. He has actually gotten more favorable ratings, is better liked, now than at the start of the campaign. That is the personal connection of a storyteller.

Tell Me A Story

Might just be what the country needs right now. Someone who can share our stories and tell us his. In any case, may we all recognize the power of our stories, share them, hear each other.

By the time you read this, the last vote will be cast in 7 days. What stories will we all have to tell when this is over?

   Bill Clontz

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2 replies to Storytelling Vs Speechifying; The Difference is Important

  1. Excellent. It was always said of Bill Clinton that when he was talking to “you”, it was if there was no one else in the room. That’s a talent that is really special and worth aspiring to.

    • I can testify to that. I have spoken with Clinton a couple of times and watched his close in conversational effect on people numerous times. It was an impressively effective thing to watch.

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