The best stories (and storytellers) don’t run away from authentic, compelling, messy details— they embrace them.

Julie Dixon
May 4, 2016 · 5 min read

I recently had an eye-opening conversation with a policy communications colleague here in D.C. about how their organization tells stories (or doesn’t tell stories, as the case may be).

“You learn to shut your emotions off in this profession,” they said.

Yikes.

How can a profession that by its very nature is meant to advocate for policies that impact real human beings’ lives not be emotional?

The answer, as it turns out, is complicated.

We can’t resist the D.C. temptation to resort to data and jargon.

The nation’s capital is increasingly a data-driven town. Most organizations represent issues and industries that are incredibly complex, and it’s far too easy to fall back on speaking in terms of jargon — either because it’s too hard to distill the complexity, or because we really like to sound smart (or both).

Our own research at National Journal confirms this. Each year, we survey policy professionals on Capitol Hill, in federal agencies, and in the private sector on how they get their news and information. Last year, we asked these policy insiders why they typically seek out information from associations and other advocacy groups.

Visual courtesy of National Journal’s 2015 Washington in the Information Age study.

In-depth analysis, useful industry data — this is what policy professionals tell us they seek out. And what’s that down at the very bottom? Stories.

But I’d strongly argue that this isn’t because stories aren’t useful to their everyday work. On the contrary, we know they are. Rather, it’s because all they ever get from our organizations are an endless stream of packets, data, white papers, and reports — and no stories, or at least not stories that have any kind of human, emotional connection.

It’s not because they ain’t buying — it’s because we ain’t selling.

And therein lies part of the problem.

“If you’re not looking to expand your audience, you can be as nerdy and as jargon-y as you want to be,” said Fuzz Hogan, Managing Editor at New America, in a recent interview with our team.

Storytelling is an art — and many policy professionals tasked with it lack necessary skills.

Even for organizations that have embraced the idea of telling human stories alongside their more data-heavy policy narratives, there’s an ever-widening gap between good policy stories and bad ones.

Take the following two paragraphs, for example:

Story #1

Lauren Scott has been job-hunting for a while, with no success. She is a mother, and needs to provide for her 10-month-old daughter. She diligently prepares for interviews each week, many of which are far from her home and require lengthy trips on public transportation.

Story #2

She set off on the latest day of job hunting wearing tiny star-shaped earrings that belonged to her 10-month-old daughter and frayed $6 shoes from Walmart that were the more comfortable of her two pairs. In her backpack she had stashed a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch, hand sanitizer for the bus and pocket change for printing resumes at the public library. She carried a spiral notebook with a handwritten list of job openings that she’s titled her “Plan of Action for the Week.” (Washington Post)

What makes the second one so much more compelling than the first? Details. We know that Lauren is a mother — not because the story tells us, but because she’s wearing her daughter’s earrings. We know that she desperately needs this job — again, not because the story tells us, but because she owns two pairs of shoes, and the better of the two pairs was purchased for $6 at Walmart.

Don’t Tell Me — Show Me.

What these details have in common is they are intensely visual. We can picture her shoes, in a very specific way. Try picturing “poverty,” or “diligence” — both are too abstract to provide a clear visual, and without that clear visual, there’s no connection. Our goal in telling stories should be to make our issue or impact move from being an abstract idea or concept in the mind of our audience to being a concrete image or feeling.

Visual courtesy of Storytelling Strategies for Purpose, Promotion, and Advocacy,” Communications Council Member-exclusive research.

Most of the stories we come across in Washington never progress beyond telling us what’s happening, and as a result, they lack the emotion necessary to connect with their audiences and, ultimately, to move them to action.

It takes a pretty skilled storyteller to do this effectively — one who knows to ask the right questions during an interview as well as to observe things like body language, facial expressions, and the surrounding environment. But these details are the difference-makers.

Perhaps rather than shutting off our emotions as policy storytellers, we should instead open our eyes and our ears. We should work harder to find the human focal points of our work, and then embrace — rather than run from — the emotional (and sometimes messy) details that make them authentic and real.

Our stories, and our audiences, will thank us.


National Journal Communications Council delivers research and insights to Washington’s leading policy communications executives. This piece features one of the key takeaways from “Storytelling Strategies for Purpose, Promotion, and Advocacy,” a seven-month study that included interviews with more than 50 advocacy organizations and storytelling experts as well as an audit of 150+ organizations’ online storytelling capabilities. Look for more insights in the coming days, learn more at www.nationaljournal.com, and follow us on Twitter!

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Thanks to Shannan Bowen

Julie Dixon

Written by

Strategy & Trends @AMStrategy, digital consultancy of @TheAtlantic. SU Orange alum, mini dachshund aficionado & lifelong Bills fan.

NJ’s Rotunda

Rotunda features insightful and instructive pieces from National Journal experts for effectively reaching and engaging key audiences.

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