Joe Biden painted on a wall

Joe Biden: Hail to the Storyteller-in-Chief

Tale’s David Landes explains how President Joe Biden’s inaugural address tells us a lot about the power of stories and storytelling.

There were many memorable moments from the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at the US Capitol on January 20th. 

The soaring rendition of the US national anthem by Lady Gaga. The riveting verse of poet Amanda Gorman. A somber, sedentary Bernie Sanders and his wooly, meme-inducing mittens.

But for me, the moment to remember was when Biden, less than 300 words into his presidency, spoke of “the American story”.

Why?

Well, as someone who has spent much of his professional career finding, creating, and telling stories, it was exciting to hear the President of the United States “speaking my language”. 

But more than that, it was uplifting to realize that Biden is a believer in the power of storytelling for promoting positive change. 

Of course, politicians of all stripes have long included stories in lofty political speeches. 

But what struck me about Biden’s speech is that he didn’t actually tell stories. Instead, he talked about the creation and telling of stories. He reminded us that sometimes the power of storytelling lies in the journey of creation rather than in the destination of recitation. 

Let’s look at a few lines to illustrate what I mean:

“The American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us.”

Here, Biden’s American story is a tool for inclusion, a tool of representative democracy. A story isn’t something to be handed down from on high that the audience is forced to accept and follow. 

Rather, a story is the product of a collective effort where every storyteller is created equal and has an equally important role to play. The story can’t be written without input from everyone.

”…together we will write an American story of hope, not fear.”

Biden then connects the power stories have to foster inclusion with their power as a tool for engagement. There is quite literally a call to collective action; a call to “write an American story” and do it “together

“Let us add our own work and prayers to the unfolding story of our great nation”

Here, Biden emphasizes the story as something “unfolding”. Something alive and unfinished – a work in progress that can still be shaped. This adds an additional incentive to the call to action as we see how our engagement can make a difference. Our contribution has the potential to change the trajectory of the story; to give us a sense of ownership which we then share with everyone else who contributed.

“May this be the story that guides us. The story that inspires us.” 

Here, Biden pivots from the power of storytelling to the power of stories themselves. He lays out how the community formed through the creation of the story can then use that story as a roadmap or beacon to follow as they move forward together. 

“And the story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history, we met the moment.”

Nearing the end of his speech, Biden concludes by highlighting how stories have the power to become our legacy. Inevitably, good stories outlive their human creators. Thus, they have the power to make us immortal, allowing us to communicate with future generations and, hopefully, help inspire them to develop the story further.

There’s no mistaking that storytelling played a central role in Biden’s first speech as president (you can read the full speech here). He reminded us how storytelling can build community, inspire action and engagement, and help intertwine the present with both the past and the future.

And it will be exciting to see what other lessons we may learn from America’s new Storyteller-in-Chief as he and the rest of the country work on writing the next chapter of the American story.

 

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