Framing FAQs: Why Shouldn't I Tell Personal Stories?

Question: “Why shouldn’t I tell personal stories?  The media wants them, legislators love them, and I think they can really touch people’s hearts.”

Answer: This is a question we are often asked by organizations that are new to framing. Public relations experts commonly advise advocates to communicate their messages through vivid personal stories. These stories are often about the heroic struggles of individuals who have triumphed in the face of great odds. They are usually accompanied by pictures that depict the hopeful faces of the downtrodden and neglected in organizational materials.

Scientific research shows that, if this technique works at all, it probably doesn’t work the way advocates think it does. There are three primary reasons why this kind of storytelling doesn’t work to promote policy solutions to social problems.

1- “Not all examples are good examples” — distortion effects.  People tend to generalize from the example you present, and to overestimate the extent to which the specific situation portrayed occurs in the overall population.

2- “Can’t see the forest for the trees” — episodic framing. Episodic frames are those that focus on discrete events happening to specific people at particular places and times. The more vivid the examples, the more likely they are to draw the audience to miss structural and environmental causes and conditions. In contrast, we are trying to get people to understand social issues in a “thematic” way, focusing on the trends, context, and broader societal forces that underlie the problem.

3- The “Cosby Effect” — invigorating global stereotypes. Advocates must be extremely careful not to activate a global and/or negative stereotype when utilizing examples of individual successes.  In other words, when people see a successful depiction counter to the prevailing stereotype (such as a successful, middle-class African-American family like the one shown in the popular 80’s television show about the Cosby family), it does not map onto their thinking about other members of the group.  On the contrary, research shows that people are left wondering what’s wrong with those who do not live up to the example, and the existing stereotypes are actually reinforced.

Three questions to ask before you use a vivid case example are:

1.  Is the case I would choose likely to result in a distortion of my broader policy goals?

2.  Is the case likely to narrow the discussion away from themes and systems to individual characteristics of particular people, or likely to set up a charity response?

3.  Is the case connected in any way to global stereotypes associated with the issue, and thus, likely to backfire?

This doesn’t mean that you can’t tell stories about people.  There are many powerful stories of cause and effect, environmental conditions, and policy solutions that are often neglected in the focus on vivid case examples. Much of FrameWorks material is devoted to teaching about how to tell stories that will actually accomplish your goals and change how people think about your issue.  This kind of storytelling is more difficult to do at first, but will ultimately result in the communications outcomes we seek.

For more information on framing essentials, visit our FrameWorks Product and Tools page. This article has been adapted from Framing FAQ’s Ezine.


One thought on “Framing FAQs: Why Shouldn't I Tell Personal Stories?

  1. This is a conflicting message when you first hear it but it does make good sense . I find as a society ,we do quickly blame the victim when we tell personal stories and I think we may do this because we feel so helpless in some of these tough situations. I can’t solve this so it must be their fault.
    I do think stories are powerful and should be used but it must be bigger than the individual…the story has to depict a situation where one can readily see that if they were the victim they too would not be able to fix it. It is a system issue and we want to fix it because our values are such that we need to fix it for the benefit of all people.


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