Storytelling is an important communication tool that helps build understanding and commitment. This was the message my friend and colleague Jerome Martin and I took to the Rotary District 5370 Fall Learning Assembly, held in Edmonton on Saturday, October 22. Participants included members of the district leadership team, presidents-elect and other Rotarians from clubs from across northern Alberta, the Northwest Territories, northwest Saskatchewan and northeast British Columbia.
As a followup to this session, Jerome and I have each written an article on the use of storytelling to create a public image. While our focus was Rotary clubs, we believe these lessons can be applied to many aspects of our personal and professional lives.
Click here to read Jerome’s article on the importance of telling your story.
The image from September 2015 was disturbing: the lifeless body of a three-year-old boy, clad in a red T-shirt, lying face down on a Turkish beach where he had washed ashore.
Many of us may have thought, “That’s terrible. Someone should do something to help these people.”
That could have been the end of it. We were all aware of the Syrian refugee crisis. We had read newspaper articles and seen the pictures on television screens. The boy was another victim of the war in Syria and the hopes of families to escape the turmoil of their homeland.
Typically, these tragic images are driven from our minds by a parade of other, equally horrific pictures of other victims of war, famine and natural disasters. But there is a reason why this event did not quickly fade from of our collective memory.
Within days of the photo appearing, a Vancouver hairdresser stepped forward. She identified the boy on the beach as her brother’s son. Having escaped Syria, her brother had hoped to bring his family to Canada.
This was no longer just about the tragic end of a young life on a remote, rocky beach. The story of Alan Kurdi had become a Canadian story—one that galvanized Canadians’ attention on the plight of Syrian refugees.
Tip O’Neill, a former speaker of the United States House of Representatives is credited with coining the phrase, “All politics are local.”
I believe that journalists would make a similar observation. “All news is local.” They understand that readers and viewers become more engaged if there is a local angle to a big event or major announcement. They use the experiences of just one person, one family or one organization to report the larger story.
- We are better able to understand changes to the Canada Child Benefit when we hear a mother tell how it will impact her family.
- We care more when a report describes how a Canadian aide worker—ideally with a connection to the local community— is helping in the wake of an earthquake half a world away.
- We are interested in the insights of a Canadian living in an American neighbourhood where she is surrounded by Trump supporters.
The appeal of this type of reporting is not only the local angle, but that the reporters are telling stories. They are not just providing facts and figures.
Most of us love stories. We fondly remember our parents reading bedtime stories. As adults we read novels, watch TV dramas and go to the movies.
Suppose J.K. Rowling had written a book filled with statistics and historical facts about an educational institution—when the school was founded, the number of students enrolled by year, a list of courses offered, names of some of its illustrious grads, etc. This isn’t the formula to produce an international bestseller. We would never have heard of Hogwarts and Rowling might still be on welfare.
But she didn’t write a fact-filled book. She told us about the adventures of Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft. She told us stories.
Often the answer when Rotarians are asked, “What is Rotary?” goes something like this:
“Rotary is the world’s oldest service club. Paul Harris and four other businessmen established the first club in Chicago in 1905. Since then, Rotary has spread to more than 200 countries and territories. There are 1.2 million Rotarians in more than 32,000 clubs worldwide.”
I could go on, but I won’t. And you shouldn’t either, because no one outside your club cares. In fact, most Rotarians don’t really care either.
A better response would be to reframe the question: “Why are you a Rotarian? What is your Rotary story?”
As the media demonstrates daily, the best way to inform and explain is to tell the stories of individuals. The story of Alan Kurdi connected us emotionally with the plight of Syrian refugees.
Use your Rotary story to help people understand what Rotarians do—and to care about what you do. They may show polite interest, but likely won’t really care that your club serves meals to the homeless, that members of your club mentor students at the local high school or that your club supports a medical team that travels to a developing country. But your story can create an emotional connection that makes them care:
- What did you see when you looked into the eyes of a homeless woman when you filled her plate with food? How did that make you feel?
- How did a student react when he understood a math concept for the first time? How did that make you feel?
- What did a patient say when he discovered he was pain-free for the first time in years? How did that make you feel?
What does your club do? What difference does it make? And how does that make you feel?
What the photo and story of Alan Kurdi did was put a face on the plight of Syrian refugees. It’s difficult to get our minds around the concept of 4.8 million refugees, but it’s easy to comprehend the tragic tale of one little three-year-old in a red T-shirt on a remote, rocky beach in Turkey.
No one will remember that there are 1.2 million Rotarians in more that 32,000 clubs in more than 200 countries, but they will remember your story, the one that answers the question, “Why am I a Rotarian?” Now, go tell you story—to other Rotarians, to your family and friends, and to your community. Become Rotary’s image in your world.