On the power of telling a story

It is impossible, in this historic time, not to comment on the US Presidential election. In particular, the significance and style of President-elect Barack Obama’s “Change has come to America” speech in Chicago, Illinois. The full text of the speech is available here. Mark the date in your diary – an historic day – the 4th November 2008 (US time).

It wasn’t the normal political speech, although no doubt constructed with the same careful consideration. Obama’s speech was personal – it reached into the personal experiences of all who were listening but also connected us to the future – the future of our kids.

The obvious story in the speech concerned the theme of change and hope personified in the life of a 106 year old woman from Georgia (USA) – Ann Nixon Cooper. Obama could have gone through a series of historical events over the past one hundred years, as if reading from a history catalogue. The Nixon Cooper story personalised a number of significant historical events that led to change. History and hope were embodied in a real person, something each of us could imagine more personally than any history lesson. Just think that this one person had lived through so many historical milestones and so many changes; and now, another historical milestone with the election of an Afro-American President of the USA.

The Nixon Cooper story also connected the theme of change from the past to the potential for positive change in the future. The Nixon Cooper story gave an historical context for Obama’s call for change, his confidence in change, and his hope that the rest of America could feel and want that change. After all, hadn’t Ann Nixon Cooper already seen tremendous change in one lifetime and seen change for the better? And if our children are still alive at the turn of the next century, Obama asks, what changes will they have seen in a hundred years in a lifetime just like that of Ann Nixon Cooper? Obama wants to initiate change and wants people to feel part of that change, participate in it, and not be afraid.

Leadership is about sharing a common purpose and direction with your people. Leadership is not just managing, as anyone who has tried to initiate change will know. We might not have the oratory skills or personality of Barack Obama in our desire to change and lead in our working lives, but the power of narrative and anecdotes to connect with people are no less important.

The speech from Barack Obama was a wonderful demonstration of the power of words and the power of storytelling to convey a powerful and meaningful message. The speech defines the leader, but the leader will still need to deliver. Obama has started his leadership journey saying all the right words.

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One response to “On the power of telling a story

  1. Pingback: Obama the storyteller - Leadership at its best « The Knowledge Management and Storytelling Blog

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