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The power of storytelling to achieve persuasion

In one of the early stories of Aesop’s Fables, the orator Demades tries to address his Athenian audience. But he can’t get their attention; the crowd is highly distracted. Then, Demades asks them if they would like to hear a story. Immediately, the people hush down; now they all want to listen.

“The goddess Demeter, a swallow, and an eel were walking down the road. When they reached a river, the eel slipped into the water and the swallow flew up in the air.”

And then, Demades stopped suddenly.

Impatiently, the audience asked, “What happened to the goddess Demeter?”

Dramatically, Demades replied, “She is angry at all of you for preferring stories to politics.”

Story within a story

Demades’ own story — and the larger story that contains it — both, in the end, turn into anti-stories. The audience is promised a story, only to be reminded, exactly at the point of suspense, that it is their fault that they expect stories and neglect important matters of the state. It says much that an Athenian orator tells this story, and is part of a story himself.

The orator’s job is to persuade — make arguments that convince others. The art of rhetoric, perennially relevant from classical times to the contemporary, is the art of persuasion. This story shows that the persuasive powers of storytelling can overpower other forms of rhetoric, including political ones that were crucial to the functioning of Athenian democracy.

Persuasion is a crucial element of interpersonal communication. American author, journalist, and television host, Daniel Pink, makes the striking claim that “40 per cent of our work time is spent selling something — not just products, but trying to persuade, negotiate, and pitch ideas and techniques.” Donn Davis, who runs Revolution, a venture capital investment firm, along with Steve Case, one of the founders of AOL, says, “Getting a job is a sales job.”

Persuasion is central to sales, as well as many other domains of corporate, professional, and political life, as we see from Demades’ exemplary story. What is persuasion, really? It is a form of inter-subjective communication — the transmission of my thought, emotion, belief to someone else; the facilitation of the entry of another individual, or a group, into my mind.

History vs. fiction

Demades’ ‘anti-story’ reminds us that storytelling is a powerful means of persuasion, not least because a story is about singular, often idiosyncratic subjects and characters. This, in fact, is a key difference between the arts and the social sciences. The latter is primarily interested in collective human behaviour, usually that of specific social groups. The arts, while recognising that the individual exists against the backdrop of the social, retains a primary and lasting commitment to the private subject.

A story is always a unique event. It can be explained by social and historical forces, but can never be reduced to them. Such is the difference between history and fiction. It is not that one is made up and the other is not, because fiction is just as often rooted in real life. The real difference is that the former focuses on the public story while the latter tells a private one.

Persuasion, and the use of storytelling to achieve that goal, involves the transformation of this private story into a public one. The scale of the transformation depends on how many people one is communicating with, whether it is a private communication between two people, or a statesman addressing a crowd of millions. The power of storytelling to achieve persuasion, links the orators of classical Greece to corporate leaders of the 21st century.

Disney CEO, Robert Iger, says that in job interviews, he tries to get job candidates to craft their career stories as a way of showing who they are. Unique personal narratives have great persuasive power, not only because of the way stories command audience attention, but also because they provide a concise yet vivid abstract of candidates’ personal journeys across their educational and professional path, something which a prospective employer likes to know.

The celebration of the subjective is the unique gift of the humanities. If the natural sciences seek an objective understanding of reality, the humanities foreground the subjective. This is why storytelling is rooted in literature, and in drama and cinema, and also in the performing, visual, and plastic arts.

There are countless reasons why the arts are fundamental to education. But this one is perhaps, the most important — it teaches one to craft narratives of the self.

The writer is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University, and is the author of the book College: Pathways of Possibility.

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 2:21:32 PM |

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