Most of my work with leaders involves true stories. Very occasionally we might call on a fable, but on the whole the truth is best.
However, when I went to the British Library as part of my quest for yet more ‘story science’, I found a paper that proves that fictional stories change minds too. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (subscribe to that one?), Psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock showed that stories change beliefs whether the reader believes they are true or not.
This made we wonder. If fictional stories are so good at changing beliefs, which story is the most influential ever told? At first I thought of the New Testament, but I decided I was just being mischievous. Then I thought about Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (UTC) was published in 1852. It was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s first adult novel and she, a strident abolitionist, wrote it with the explicit objective of improving the lives of the American slaves. Even she can’t have imagined the impact it would have.
UTC sold 300000 copies in its first year and was the second best‒selling book of the 19th century (after the Bible). More importantly, it stoked simmering tensions between the North and the South. Some think the publication of UTC helped Abraham Lincoln to become President in 1961. Lincoln himself was keen to meet Harriet Beecher Stowe but was unable to do so before the start of the civil war. When he finally stood towering above her in 1862 he is said to have said ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this big war’.
Many doubt whether Lincoln actually did say this. We do know that the quote didn’t appear in print until many years later and after both of their deaths. The quote persists today, truth or not, because, well, it’s a good story. And whatever the reality, I’m sure Lincoln would have denied the importance of UTC, after all, he was a notorious storyteller and we do know he said ‘People are more easily influenced and informed by a story than in any other way.’
UTC also had a huge impact outside of the U.S. When Harriet Beecher Stowe arrived in Liverpool in 1853 she was astonished by the size of the crowd waiting on the docks to greet her. At that time in London there were ten theatres in London hosting performances of UTC and the book had sold 1.5 million copies in a year. Queen Victoria apparently wanted an audience with Harriet Beecher Stowe but her advisors counselled against it. Nevertheless, it has been claimed that the reason that the Union won the American Civil War was because UTC created such strength of feeling in Britain that the British government was unwilling to provide military support for the Confederate cause.
Beyond merely catalysing a civil war, UTC sparked revolution and change in Russia and was a key influence on Lenin (who later, like Eliza in the novel, went on to escape his pursuers over ice). It also helped to spur on abolitionist causes in Cuba and Brazil.
Whatever the conjecture, Uncle Tom’s Cabin shows us what the right story at the right time can do.