Tell me a story

Liz Schwartz's picture

Project Manager


Tell me a story

In the 2006 Preakness Stakes, Barbaro, a horse widely expected to have the best chance at winning the Triple Crown as any horse since Affirmed in 1978, pulled up shortly after the start of the race, hopping on three legs while his right hind dangled uselessly. It was soon discovered that he had broken his leg above and below the right ankle, an injury that would eventually, after months of state-of-the-art veterinary care, lead to him being put down.

Racing is a dangerous sport, for horses and for humans, but Barbaro’s injury shed a light on the ways that the industry makes it even more dangerous than it needs to be. Pimlico Racetrack, where the Preakness is held, has a dirt track rather than the newer, more forgiving, synthetic surfaces. Barbaro had been raced lightly before the Triple Crown, and trained by someone who is well respected for treating his horses right, but still - his young bones were not bred for, or developed enough to withstand the rigors of racing. If this happened to Barbaro, folks realized, it was happening to thousands of other horses every year.

People who only followed racing causally before Barbaro were heartbroken at his death, and calls to make the sport safer started coming from all sides. While twenty-four horses die at racetracks in America every week, it took the story of one beloved superstar to make a large group of people sit up and pay attention. Things may not have gotten better for racehorses in the past six years, but you could see the Barbaro effect when the owners of this year’s potential Triple Crown winner were praised for pulling the horse days before the Belmont, rather than risking a minor injury becoming catastrophic. Public sentiment has shifted.

How do we convince people of something that they don’t already believe? At our cores, we humans are emotional beings, not rational ones. We are more swayed by stories than by statistics, so no matter how many times you tell your neighbor about the fact that 3.5 million children die each year as a result of undernutrition, telling them a personal story about a baby saved by nutrition programs will go farther in convincing them that something needs to be done, and hearing someone tell their own story in their own words will go farther still.

Opinions are changed by personal stories. This point came up again and again at the sessions I attended last week at Netroots Nation. When someone has a conversation about marriage equality with a gay person they know they become more likely to vote for pro-equality measures. The same is not true of people who simply know someone who is gay, but haven’t talked to them about marriage. Talking to your uncle about how health reform will help you pay for your asthma medicine makes him more likely to support the bill. A documentary about bullying can kickstart a movement in a way no PSA or informational brochure ever could.

Personal stories matter.

So, how can this lesson help with online activism?

Include personal stories in your emails, and on your website. The people you work with, whether you do direct services or advocacy, have powerful stories to tell. Feature them as a way to tell the greater narrative about why your organization exists to do the work it does.
Create narrative story arcs - this works especially well in an active email program. Instead of sending out one-off, independent emails with unrelated asks or stories, connect your messages by telling one story across several emails.
Don’t talk only about big-picture statistics. Numbers are powerful, but individual examples of how your work makes a difference for real people are more so.

So, remember Barbaro. Tell stories, not just statistics.

I see you like to read printed material. You should check out Nicco's book The End of Big: