Story Power

As a journalist, I see the world through stories.

I’m always on the lookout for great ideas and often collect articles that are beautifully written.  Sometime, I analyze stories that I love and try to figure out what makes them so wonderful. Why are they so memorable? What gives them such power?

My journalism career offers some clues. Over the years, I’ve covered presidential campaigns, done a lot of investigative reporting, written all kinds of quirky features, and yes, even won a Pulitzer Prize. But what’s really surprised me is my one story that continues to have staying power.

I wrote this story for The Wall Street Journal more than 20 years ago, several years before newspapers had gone online and long before the term “going viral” even existed. But people still track me down, sometimes whispering into the phone when they call to talk to me about it.

The story was about a woman with severe body odor, the kind that literally made people gag.  The pungent odor came intermittently and without notice, and the woman could not control it. She couldn’t even detect it because a bad car accident had robbed her of her sense of smell. Still, the odor became a such distraction in her office that it eventually cost her her job. She took her company to court, arguing that it was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. But she lost her case.

Certainly, this story had its sensational elements, which fueled a bit of a media frenzy at the time. The woman appeared on Oprah, got mentioned on David Letterman’s late night comedy show, and even wound up on the cover of the National Enquirer. But the phone calls over the past 20 years had nothing to do sensationalism. They were from people who also suffered from   body odor, who wanted to speak with this woman and commiserate with her. To them, this woman had broken an important taboo. She was willing to expose her vulnerabilities and they wanted her to know that she was not alone. Their actions reminded me of the provocative title of an old collection of Esquire Magazine essays: “All Our Secrets are the Same.”

These days, when I teach writing workshops, I always talk about the power of emotion in stories. I like to invoke the work of James K.A. Smith, who suggested in his book “You Are What You Love” that to really connect with others, we can’t just behave like people are “brains on a stick.”

Brene Brown, the dynamic professor who studies shame, courage, and vulnerability, makes a similar point. The author of multiple best sellers, Brown is probably best known for delivering one of the world’s most popular TED talks, “The Power of Vulnerability,” which has been viewed more than 35 million times. She argues that the desire for connection often gets derailed by shame and fear. If people embrace — rather than hide — their vulnerabilities, they can live more authentic lives and experience more joy, creativity, and love.

At the start of the TED talk, Brown describes her discomfort with an event planner who wants to call her a storyteller, a name that she worries makes her sound like a flaky academic. But in the end, Brown welcomes the moniker and provides an intriguing definition of story, too. “I’m a qualitative researcher,” she says. “I collect stories . . . Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”

Yes. Data with a soul. That is a useful construct for the legions of companies trying to incorporate storytelling into their businesses. In this era of big data, all kinds of firms are searching for ways to present mounds of information, and many are discovering that stories can help them make sense of their worlds.

That’s why this ancient form of expression is experiencing such a revival these days. In our high-tech, fast-paced society, where disconnection is on the rise, stories can have more power than ever.