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For Heaven’s Sake, Tell a Story

West Wing junkies might recall an episode entitled “Galileo” that opens with President Bartlett at a rehearsal for a Mars briefing. Thousands of students will see the briefing as the unmanned craft Galileo returns from orbit.

Sam, White House Deputy Communications Director played by Rob Lowe, takes one look at the intro written by a NASA public affairs person and wants to change it. The NASA person resists, but President Bartlett, once he sees the intro, also wants it changed.

(It’s a great dialog. You can read it here.)

Bartlett begins to read:

“Good morning! I’m speaking to you live from the West Wing of the White House. Today we have a very unique opportunity to take part live in an extremely historic event which…” Whoa, boy…

Then critiques the NASA person’s efforts:

“Unique” means “one of a kind.” Something can’t be very unique, nor can it be extremely historic.

Bartlett instructs Sam to take over. Sam speaks as if filled with the awe of space travel:

“Good morning. Eleven months ago a 1200 pound spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Eighteen hours ago it landed on the planet Mars. You, me, and 60,000 of your fellow students across the country along with astroscientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California, NASA Houston, and right here, at the White House, are going to be the first to see what it sees, and to chronicle an extraordinary voyage of an unmanned ship called Galileo V.”

There you have story.

A story that includes you and me and really smart people. The craft has weight. There’s a broad span of time contrasted with the immediacy of the event. The generic “we” now has form and definition.

And then there’s Galileo the man.

The power of story was not lost on him. Wanting to bring his theories to light but squelched by the Catholic Church, Galileo would cloak his theories in the form of plays. He knew his devotees (his target audience, if you will) would find the messages hidden in the plays. Here was a scientist with a sense of humor who also understood there was more than one way to get a point across.


Storytelling is the newest hot topic even though it’s as old as the heavens. Successful organizations have been noticed and remembered using story in the style of Sam’s rewrite long before we called it story. They know that people want to be taken to a new place, to be delighted or dazzled, to be part of something. Organizations that do this the best, however, are often selling us stuff we don’t need. The with the best stories to tell tend to think their mission or vision is enough. That we should care. That we don’t need to be delighted or dazzled or taken to a new place.

If you don’t know to tell a better story, take the one you usually tell and then give it some weight and some shape. Make it less generic, give an example and flesh it out. Put the example into an interesting context. Helps us care. Take us to the moon.

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