Stories help people change their minds because it is a pull rather than a push strategy in communication. When you share your opinion, you are pushing it at your audience, and the audience will often push back. When you share a story, the audience pulls it in without even noticing it contains a point of view. They think, “That’s interesting, I didn’t know that happened.”
Hearing one story rarely changes someone’s mind. As risk analyst, mathematician, and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb once said, “You can never fully convince someone that they are wrong; only reality can.” Stories are descriptions of reality.
Recently, Julian Leeser, Federal Member for Berowra, told me that if each individual could convince two others to vote “yes” in the Indigenous ‘Voice to Parliament’ referendum, the “yes” vote would likely succeed.
Here are some ideas for the stories we can tell to help the “yes” vote get over the line.
First, it has to be a story
You only get the benefits of storytelling if you are telling a story. So, how do we know if it’s a story? Here are two things it must have to qualify.
- Something must be happening. Stories are made up of events, one after the other: this happened, and as a result, this happened, but then this happened, so that happened.
- They start with a time or place. For example, “Just last week . . .” or “Back in 2009 . . . ” or “A while back . . .”
Here is my post from 2013 describing how to spot a story: https://www.anecdote.com/2013/10/spot-oral-story/
Who are we trying to change their minds?
Changing a “no” to a “yes” is very hard. Your best bet is not to try.
A better strategy is to focus on the undecideds or the “yes buts”. Anyone who is teetering. By sharing some stories, you are giving them some vicarious experiences to base their decision on.
Others have done it
People are afraid of anything that’s entirely new. It feels risky. So we need to tell stories that show other countries have done it and have a good experience.
Here’s a story from Sweden.
In 2009, the Swedish Parliament was set to ratify the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (ILO 169). But their indigenous voice to parliament, the Sámediggi, criticised the draft bill because it didn’t adequately protect the reindeer herding Sami people in the north of Sweden. Sweden is now proposing a new bill worked out in consultation with the Sámediggi.
This is happening now. Climate change is affecting the fisheries industry in New Zealand, which is, of course, a valuable resource for Māori people. The New Zealand government is sitting down with Māori representatives to find a solution that benefits everyone.
Stories to back the “Yes” argument.
If you visit https://www.yes23.com.au/, you learn four reasons why people should vote “yes”:
- When we listen, we get better outcomes
- Advice will lead to practical outcomes
- Better future for Aboriginal people
- More than 80% of Aboriginal people support it
Each reason needs multiple stories that support the argument.
When we listen, we get better outcomes
What is an example where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and government agencies have achieved a better outcome through effective communication and listening?
Or what happens when listening does happen?
Julian Leeser, MP for Berowra, shared this story last week. This is how I remember it.
Some time ago, a government agency initiated a home-building initiative for an Aboriginal community. The builders came and began laying the foundations, which came as a surprise to the local community. The following day, the builders returned to the site and found their work destroyed. They later learned that they had built on top of a burial ground.
If you have a negative and a positive story, tell the negative story first. Negative stories grab your attention. But positive stories suggest how to fix things and provide inspiration.
Advice will lead to practical outcomes
Again we need stories from people with real-life experiences. Look at the story above from Sweden or the fisheries example from New Zealand. Better still, we need some Australian stories that make this point.
Better future for Aboriginal people
A good story to share here is one where we can see a better future for Aboriginal people. Here is one that illustrates the importance of focussing on the local culture at the centre of the approach.
“Since it started in 2000, the Mampu Maninja-kurlangu Jarlu Patu-ku Aboriginal Corporation has been running the Yuendumu Old People’s Program. This program provides community-based aged care services for elderly Walpiri people in the remote Northern Territory community of Yuendumu. Services include meals on wheels, social and health support, short-term housing and personal care. . . . This means the service is designed by local people and is provided “from within Walpiri cultural practices rather than Walpiri needs being accommodated within another cultural construct” (Smith et al. 2010, p. 4). In practice, this means the service is delivered by local people (who speak Walpiri) according to local kinship and cultural protocols (e.g., respecting specific kinship responsibilities and avoidance relationships). This model, which makes culture a central consideration, is considered to be the main factor for the very high community acceptance of the service.” https://aifs.gov.au/resources/policy-and-practice-papers/what-works-effective-indigenous-community-managed-programs-and
More than 80% of Aboriginal people support it
This is an appeal to social proof. Lots of Aboriginal people support the Voice. The vast majority.
Any story you have of a conversation with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is helpful because it makes the audience feel they have had a second-hand version of that story themselves. It brings them closer to indigenous people.
And if you don’t know any Indigenous Australians, then recounting what you hear from them on TV and the radio helps as well. You are amplifying their words.
You can simply say, “I was watching TV yesterday and saw 100-year-old Uncle Wes Marne from western Sydney. He said, “he never thought he would see Aboriginal people represented in Parliament in his lifetime–it’s a dream. And it’s got to be grassroots people.”
By the way, using dialogue in your small stories is powerful. It makes it feel like you are part of the conversation. Songwriters have known this for eons.
An anti-story is an objection or negative story you will hear pitched against the “Yes” vote.
Don’t argue against anti-stories. It just reinforces their narrative. Instead, share a better story.
For example, if you hear someone say, “This is a whole new chapter for our constitution. It’s a major change.”
Reply with a story like this.
“Just last week, I was chatting with a friend who showed me the wording that will be added to the Constitution. I was amazed. It’s just one sentence! Look, (pull out your smartphone) have a look.
There are just 4 points.
- We recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia;
- We create a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice;
- The voice can suggest things to Parliament; and
- The Parliament decides how the Voice will run.
Notice how I told that as a story rather than just telling them what the wording of the change. People hear a story differently (and more favourably) than an opinion or mere description.
Here are some other anti-stories I heard and some suggestions on how to tell a better story.
There is no detail
In July 2021, a comprehensive report was delivered to Parliament describing how the Voice could work. You can download it from voice.gov.au. You will find all the details you need right there.
This is racist
Back in January 1901, when our constitution was enacted, the race provision in section 51 came into power. It says our government can create laws for any race it wants. Since then, we haven’t had any laws specifically for Italians, or Greeks, or Jews, or Vietnamese or for any race except for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. If we are making laws for the first people of this nation, it’s only fair they have a say in laws that affect them.
I’m sure you know of many more anti-stories that need a good story response. The “Yes” campaign should collect and share as many examples as possible.
What does it feel like not to have a voice?
I want to finish with an example designed to help people feel what it might be like to be without a voice. And, of course, this example goes nowhere near the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. It is more for middle-class privileged Australians.
Imagine you go to the doctor. You step inside her office and sit down. But instead of asking you anything, she pops on the blood pressure machine and pulls your chin down to look into your mouth. When you try to speak, she shushes you.
How do you feel?
You might think that stories are trivial and move us away from the argument. Yet, changing minds is more about listening, showing that you care, sharing experiences and creating experiences. So far, the “No” campaign has been better at pointing to specious examples. The “Yes” campaign needs to match the story prowess of the other side and surpass it.
Remember, you only have to change the mind of two “yes, buts”. Get your stories ready, and off you go.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: