Why storytelling is a liberator and a weapon

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

How good stories work and why they need handling with care. The Foundation Forum. Thursday 28th February. Written up with the help of Simon Caulkin.

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We love a good story but it seems to be bringing out the worst in us, persuading large swathes of people to head in directions unhelpful even to themselves. Activists and individualists are skilled at it. Organisations and institutions lamentably weak. In formal work settings we forget that we are people. and on this subject in particular, people often act very strangely indeed.

We have evolved to be better at being social than being right. A New Yorker article from 2017 described ‘why facts don’t change our minds’. Their explanation is in three parts:

· Our beliefs shape our perceptions of the world when scientifically it should be the other way around

· Our beliefs are shaped to fit with those around us

· And the strongest beliefs emerge from the shallowest understanding – true comprehension of an issue moderates our views

You'd think that evolution might have wiped this out. But for our species, the way we co-operate, from small groups to whole countries or civilisations, is the way we win. So fitting in beats being right. How do you combat this way we’re wired? Providing accurate information doesn’t help – people simply discount it. Appealing to emotions may work, but does that mean losing the moral high ground, leaving facts behind and countering one bad visceral argument with another?

Given all this, we assembled proper help, a Premier Division team of storytellers each armed with a crucial variant of the art:

· We had Tom Salinsky, a storytelling trainer, adviser to the high and mighty, who perfected his art in the world of improvisational comedy. He is co-founder of The Spontaneity Shop and they teach improv at RADA, The Actors Centre, The National Youth Theatre as well as presenting, public speaking and storytelling for a very long list of corporate clients

· We had John Morton, a satirist of the highest order, creator, writer and director of W1A and Twenty Twelve, where art imitates life and then life finds it operates in reverse too. He has multiple awards but is very understated, far more interested in the way that satire can alleviate the excesses we seem to be drawn to as a species

· And we had Gavin Esler, the widely respected journalist and broadcaster who has reported on Northern Ireland in the Troubles, the US as the BBC’s Chief Correspondent and anchored Newsnight. He has written two non-fiction books and five novels, informed by interviews with world leaders from all corners of the moral compass. He has strong views on the state of journalism and the issues of social media on legitimate storytelling today

Why storytelling is a liberator and a weapon…

The evening’s discussion, summed up by Simon Caulkin

The ability to tell stories, it is said, is one of the qualities that differentiates humans from other animals. Stories have brought us extraordinary riches – Homer, the gods (or God), perhaps even evolution: would we have left Africa without a story of destiny, greener grass or just curiosity about what lies beyond the next hill? It’s through our ability to connect utterly different elements – a butterfly’s wings and a hurricane, say – to form a narrative that we make sense of the world and allow ourselves to feel that we are in control of our lives.

But storytelling also has a darker side, as an absorbed audience heard at a February Foundation event devoted to that complicated subject. The human-ness that allows us to recognize – or invent – a good story also affects the way we receive it.

All too often stories lead us to terrible places. In a minor key, actor Mark Rylance relates how at the Globe theatre he was forced to throttle back the famous call to arms in Shakespeare’s Henry V when he realised the frenzy of anti-French hostility he was whipping up in the groundling audience. For the real-life consequences, think no further than the Inquisition, National Socialism, or Isis.

Yet the potency of storytelling takes on an added importance today, in an age that has been widely characterised as ‘post truth’ – an age of fake news and ‘alternative facts’, where our natural inventiveness on one side and gullibility on the other are sometimes supplemented by deliberate manipulation by ever more sophisticated technological means. To such a degree that, as one Forum speaker, satirist John Morton, put it, stories become all that we have, in the sense that, in the absence of absolute truth, ‘we think, okay, we live with a collection of competing narratives, that’s all we have to sustain us’.

We no longer accept having ‘truth’ curated for us by the church, the mainstream press, or the political parties. We have had enough, Michael Gove said, of experts. So which, or whose, stories are we to privilege? How do we know which to trust and which to dismiss?

And here’s the rub. As humans, the speakers noted, we respond to stories not with Enlightenment-style logic and rationality, but with a very human logic in which ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ are just the instruments that get us from A to B, B being the destination our emotions have already decided we are going to.

As story-telling coach (and comic) Tom Salinsky compellingly showed with the example of the first and last voyage of the Titanic, the irresistible appeal of stories is fuelled by the combination of a few relatively simple components: an unexpected event or paradox – an unsinkable ship that sinks, in this case compounded by the fact that it was on its maiden voyage (you couldn’t make it up); a dramatic immediate cause (the iceberg), hiding a deeper hidden one (hubris, or human folly); and a poignant human hook (the band played on).

What changes the account from an encyclopaedia entry to a story is, first, the human hook, which plays to the central importance of emotion in our responses, overriding reason in the process of decision-making almost every time. ‘The factual stuff is necessary to provide the context, but it’s that moment of emotional catharsis that we remember and that moves us,’ said Salinsky. ‘That's what gives stories their power, and why also they’re potentially so dangerous’.

The second essential feature is cause and effect. ‘Cause and effect is what stories run on – without it there isn’t a story’, Salinsky noted. No accident, then, that identifying cause and effect is the central quest of much of literature, including the entire genre of detective fiction.

Directly causal connections are much harder to establish in social and human affairs than in the physical world. Hence the flourishing of fake news, poisonous rumour and conspiracy theories. In turn they augment the violence of political or ideological arguments or assertions – about Brexit or Trump, for example. They rapidly colonise the truth-free space and crowd out less extreme interpretations.

Both of these are extraordinary illustrations of the power of a good narrative (‘MAGA!’, ‘Take back control!’). Whether real or imagined, they trump mountains of earnest but story-free facts and figures. Less obviously, both, as Morton pointed out, are classic examples of stories escaping control and developing lives of their own, independent of their makers.

He cited the ‘humiliating’ authorial experience of having characters or story-lines refusing to follow the course allotted to them in the plan. But it isn’t just that stories can take you to a destination you didn’t intend – you also can’t control how they land in and interact with the real world. Sometimes they even alter it in their own image, as, arguably, in the case of political satire. It started out with the relatively benign Spitting Image and ended up with the scabrous The Thick of It, in which all politicians are duplicitous, stupid or borderline criminal. ‘So I'm wondering,’ said Morton, ‘whether one unintended consequence of the satirical brilliance of The Thick Of It when it got out into the real world was that it was one of the causal factors in the kind of mad, terrible world we live in now’.

Some part of the problem may be epistemological. As the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously noted, while life is understood backwards, it is lived forwards. The only way the realities of a present life can be force-fitted to a destination decided in advance is by doing violence either to one’s own beliefs or those of others.

This may help explain why we live in what might be called, as in the title of a recent BBC radio 4 series, ‘the age of denial’. Life contains so many unspeakable, awful things that we can’t individually do much about – climate change, plunging biodiversity, exclusion, slavery, child abuse – that the only way we can deal with them is to blot them out. Complicating matters, blotting out the unacceptable – the ‘optimism bias’ – may be evolutionarily essential: otherwise why go on living? While its complement, the ‘negativity bias’ (the salience of bad news over good), is also essential in keeping us alert to the constant threat of danger. So where’s the balance?

There’s little doubt that all today’s tendencies, but particularly denial, have been supercharged by social media and the internet, both of which radically expand the scope for group polarisation. As a respected journalist and commentator, Gavin Esler has watched with concern as fantasy and malevolence make it ever harder for balance and insight to be heard.

Again, Trump is the tell-tale example here. Never mind all the other disqualifications: how is it, Esler demanded, that a president of the United States can get away with, on the Washington Post’s reckoning, 15 lies a day for a total of 6,420 in two years (many of them breathtakingly blatant untruths) and still retain the confidence of 40 per cent of Americans who would never allow the same latitude to his opponents?

The answer, Esler suggested, was that there was no pretence about Trump. No one could doubt that what they saw was what they got. Trump was authentically himself – a liar who knew it and acted it out to the hilt. He didn’t need to be an earnest or careful denier – he didn’t care one way or the other. This puts Trump so far ahead of the curve that some have termed him a ‘post-denialist’ – someone who is so unconcerned about truth or fact that he doesn’t even bother to justify his lies.

Generalised post-denialism would be an internet-age dystopia beyond anything that Orwell or Huxley could have invented, with implications that scarcely bear thinking about. If we are not to go that way then at some stage the fightback has to start. ‘At some point it seems to me we have to reassert that facts do matter’, said Esler. ‘No matter how flat I feel the world is, it isn’t, and if the facts don’t matter, all of us in the journalism or communications business might as well pack up and go home.’

Part of the answer, it was suggested, was to get beyond the facile notion of authenticity that certain demagogues have learned to play so effectively: the commonly-used justification that ‘I just say what I think’ doesn’t mean you are just saying is either right or clever. Sincerity, Esler proposed, was a better criterion to judge by, and on an optimistic note he added that many politicians are good, intelligent people genuinely motivated by the desire to improve lives, belying today’s fashionable stereotypes. Their story deserves to be heard.

Another part of the answer is surely to oblige social media and tech companies to face up to their responsibilities by making them accountable for their content in the same way as the struggling traditional media, as they should have been from the beginning.

It’s not just everyone else’s fault though. The stories swirling around us are ours too, and it is up to us to handle them with as much care as we can.

This subject matter sounds political but the issues run across all aspects of our lives. Certainly in business it can be difficult to tell the truth, hard to go against a popular narrative, tough to diagnose the real issue when it contradicts a more convenient and widely held belief.

Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. They must have: the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons. These are formidable problems for writers living under Fascism, but they exist also for those writers who have fled or been exiled; they exist even for writers working in countries where civil liberty prevails.’ That text for today was penned by the great committed German poet, Bertolt Brecht; he wrote it in 1935.

The Foundation’s view

An intriguing evening’s listening with a number of plot twists from the main characters and one or two from the supporting cast as well. Three points stood out to us from the knitting of the various yarns:

1. A story that works has some essential components. The crucial one cuts through to make a personal connection.

Tom described these elements using a subject we all knew well – the Titanic. The first three showed the difference between a story and an encyclopedia entry. An unsinkable ship, that sank, on its maiden voyage. (Nothing about its length or the number of people on board, fact-lovers note). He showed that removing any one meant the story doesn’t work, and the combination of the three is about something bigger than a ship – false pride. Then he added a fourth part, the answer to the obvious next question – why did it happen? The iceberg… Two words yet so much meaning and mental imagery. And finally, the coup de grace. The human detail. As it all went wrong, the band played on… This, he explained, was the human connection, the emotional twist, the idea that gets you on the ship too wondering what you’d have done, feeling the fear and the panic and the hopelessness on a human scale.

2. To change shared beliefs at scale takes real, lived experience not words (the words can build off the experiences).

As Gavin described, one of the problems with the whole European thing is that the best argument for it is peace, but it’s so long since we had a war that affected us personally we now just take the absence of war for granted. The Project Fear problem was that everything being described was just words, words that were as plausible as the opposite words that rubbished the views of the experts, pointing out that they had clearly been wrong before. Ah yes, I can remember that – a carefully edited and framed memory of a shared experience that gives people certainty – experts can indeed be wrong. But experts have been right too. In fact they usually are. It’s just that no one managed to connect back to a version of them being right that was a strongly shared experience. We have found this in our own work, helping people across organisations believe that investing in something customers value, when the financial return is not clear cut, WILL pay back. An example is reducing queues – it costs money to open more checkouts, it’s clear that customers will appreciate it, but it’s hard to lead the investment back to the return – customers coming more often or spending more each time they do. Will it happen? In these situations the only thing that will change beliefs that this kind of thing will pay back for the business is seeing it work for real. It makes doing it the first time difficult, but the second time and every subsequent time become progressively easier.

3. The person telling the story – who am I? – matters before the content of what they say.

John ran through a series of unintended consequences that just might have flowed from The Thick Of It, the swear-fest of a car crash of a peek behind the scenes in politics. As he explained, it’s satire and you’re not meant to like the characters – you watch them doing nasty things to each other. But then the story took on a life of its own. It seeped out into the discourse of journalism and especially the TV and radio political interview which became aggressive and built on the assumption the politician is as useless and as unlikeable as a character straight out of The Thick Of It. Which then led to politicians becoming defensive, going low risk and carefully worded to avoid getting their heads chopped off. And now the wider public think most politicians are robots and lack authenticity, so the mad ones that sound different are the new kings of the castle. Crikey. Didn’t see that coming. It did lead to a note of hope though. Gavin is convinced that there are plenty of genuine, decent politicians whose purpose is to make the world a better place. We are equally convinced that there are lots in business with exactly the same motivation. They just need to be seen with their true intent on show for all to see. Looking at The Independent Group in their first rounds of interviews in early 2019, it’s been remarkable how they sound – liberated, free to say what they really think, and plausibly (as Gavin put it) not just authentic and true to themselves, but also sincere and true to what they want to do for other people too. Maybe something like this will become increasingly widely believed.

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The aim is to influence customer behaviour, but this is inherently tough. Why? Because people in any organisation naturally see the world from the inside-out, with colleagues close and customers distant, and lots of assumptions about how things work that aren't challenged

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