Why Story Matters – The Power of Mythos, the Shared Story, A Powerful Tool for Persuasion

This is profound – a key lesson for speakers, and for all who craft messages of any kind.

When I teach speech, I go over the classic arguments describing the available means of persuasion’s three primary elements (all from Aristotle): logos (the logical argument), ethos (the ethical argument – the credibility of the speaker), and pathos (the emotional argument – the passion of the speaker). But there is a fourth, not from Aristotle directly. The fourth is mythos (the narrative argument).

Mythos is a “deeper” motivation. And it can be persuasive dynamite.

If you read carefully the text of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s classic, I Have a Dream, mythos oozes from the text.  This is almost the speech in a nutshell (my words):

“The United States promised justice for all. You’ve denied it to people of color. This denial is a violation of the American story. It’s time to live up to your story.”

Mythos is what explains the power of this section from the speech:

Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

In other words, he says, in essence, “with your discrimination against black Americans (Dr. King used the word “negroes” in his speech), you have violated your narrative, your story – our story.”

I've Been to the MountaintopHe repeated this so powerfully in his last speech, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, delivered the night before he was assassinated:

All we say to America is,”Be true to what you said on paper.”

So, here’s the principle: if you as a speaker can say,

“this is our story, and this step we take is part of the ongoing story – part of our story, a step that we must take it together”

then you’ve marshaled a powerful persuasive tool to your cause.

So, yesterday, I was listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR. She was interviewing Jo Becker, the author of the book Forcing the Spring. This book describes the struggles in recent years in the fight for marriage equality.

(Note: I am aware of the controversy, the criticism, against the book, by Andrew Sullivan, and others who have participated directly in this struggle over a much longer time horizon than the author covers. I side with Andrew Sullivan’s criticism, especially after the author’s inadequate response to the criticism at the beginning of the interview.  Here is just one of Andrew Sullivan’s posts about this. But,… that is another story).

In the interview, we learn about the moment that President Obama threw his support to marriage equality. Here is the excerpt from the interview. Note the power of story, the reference to the concept of mythos“equality is part of the story we all believe in.”

When the president gathered a little – months later, his advisors together, and said I want to do this, David Plouffe, who was the campaign manager of Obama’s ’08 campaign, called (Ken) Mehlman, and asked for kind of if we’re going to do this, how might we go about it in a way that would appeal to sort of middle America.

And Chad and Mehlman had made a real study of this. And what they had come to understand was that if you talk about marriage in terms of hospitalization visitation and being able to visit someone in the hospital, being able to get a tax break. Then straight people kind of think, well, gay people don’t want to get married for the same reason that we do.

But if you talk about it in terms of, like, their stories, right, these plaintive stories that they love each other, that they want to commit to each other, that they want to own this language that allows everybody to understand the reality and the commitment of the relationship, well, that really moves people.

And the other thing that they were finding that really moves people is if you talk about this issue in terms of sort of shared American values. So you talk about it in terms of the Golden Rule, right? You say, you know, most Americans believe that, you know, you wanted to be treated the way you treat – treat others the way you want to be treated.

That was moving to people. Are we really going to say to members of our military that they can’t marry the person that they love after coming home from Afghanistan? Are we going to tell the policeman in your neighborhood who keeps you safe that they can’t marry the person that they love? And what was kind of really interesting was when the president then, after Biden said what he said on “Meet the Press,” they scrambled and they got an interview ready.

And when he went and sat down for this interview with Robin Roberts, it was very much a mirror of these talking points and these very poll-tested kind of messages that were resonating with the American public.

In other words, if the story of America genuinely reflects the golden rule – providing a place for people to live their lives with the person they love… if that is the story, how can we not support this?

The point: as you deliver your next persuasive appeal, what story does your audience already believe? Find a way to make your appeal part of that already shared, revered, ongoing story.

This is the power of mythos. And it is a persuasive tool of genuine power.



4 thoughts on “Why Story Matters – The Power of Mythos, the Shared Story, A Powerful Tool for Persuasion

  1. The human brain works in two ways. The ancient brain that is modular, non-linear and most often non-conscious. Facial recognition is an example of the ancient brain in action. You see a face and without thinking you either recognize it or not (us versus not us) but you make that decision. You can count one, two and more than two but no farther.

    The new brain is about logic and linear reasoning without emotion. It evolved after we developed language.

    This perspective says that there are two ways of communicating – logic linear (reasoning, mind-to-mind) and emotional non-linear (i.e., logos, pathos and mythos). The former is about truth the later about truthiness i.e., not true but it feels true or right so it must be.

    Thanks to the philosophers (Joseph Heath et al) and the comedians (Stephen Colbert).

    So follow Randy’s advice, forget about reason, truth and the past 400 years of the enlightenment. Randy’s approach definitely works, just look at American politics and most other democratic elections where the truth and reason do not matter – its about generating truthiness.

  2. But, Andrew, they are not mutually exclusive. I do not argue against reason, truth, at all. They are important. I would completely oppose communication that is untrue. But, mythos is a powerful way to communicate truth and reason.

  3. I have been a psychotherapist for more than 46 years, which may prove that I am crazy myself, but, I have known that the meat and potatoes of my practice must be the story. I am a great believer in the use of the study of temperaments. I like the system that says that people tend to have temperaments that show up in caring most about seeking to complete a task or caring most about how the people involved in the task are used and cared for. I think people tend to be outgoing or reserved. I certainly think there are blends of these four positions, which I see everyday in my counseling rooms. All people use these four temperaments to create stories that in some way offer guidance. As Chris Arygris suggested, we are all ruled by such stories that have formed into enormously complicated codes, and the code form thousands of guiding principles that suggest and inform our every move and every decision. We cannot escape our stories, we should not try. It makes sense, I believe, to figure out the nature of our codes, our guiding principles, our private logic, to discover how fruitful our codes can be or whether they are wrong-headed, goofy, damaging or even malicious. It is this work that I do, to help those that suffer to get clarity about how they function, how their stories line up and then what to do about it. Of course, I was taught, way back when, to help those that suffer to adjust to the world. Not so much today, the world is pretty crazy. I seek now to help my patients find an inner guide of some truth and elegance. Getting harder all the time. Thanks so much for your article. Dr. Walter Broadbent

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