Why The Story Matters
Each of us - writers, content marketers, journalists, speechwriters, bloggers - is a storyteller. Some of us identify with that description quite easily. Others of us feel the same disdain for that label as we do ‘creative’ or would if you described our work as a ‘craft’.
Setting aside the label though, most of us would admit that we’re telling tales, whether they are investigative, narrative or informative. Even, or especially, for entertainment or marketing purposes. Generally, our work involves little narratives from which we then move on to the next. Sometimes it may be for a more enduring brand or have a deeper context but rarely as far-reaching as an election.
Perhaps you have been a part of that process, for your publication, website, or client. Perhaps you’ve written original, thought-provoking pieces. There are some out there. However, most of these seem to have been written after the event - post-apocalypse as it were.
And one of those has struck me with particular force -
Park Howell from The Business of Story interviewed Dr Randy Olson, an Author and Filmmaker, for his recent podcast. Olson wrote the book ‘Houston, We Have A Narrative’ - Why Science Needs A Story - and spoke about why he believes Trumps ‘narrative intuition’ helped beat Clinton:
“Trump had a story. Hillary had none.”
Maybe it’s all we want to see, once we start looking through the storytelling lens. But listening to Olson it was as though the surgeon had found the root of the problem. As though there hiding behind the angry-looking inflammation, he had exposed the tumour itself.
Because of course it matters deeply what stories we tell. And if we have no story to tell, there will be a vacuum in which another story will come to life.
Without a larger narrative of a changing workforce, economic forces and mismanaged finances, it seems obvious when someone says that the money we pay to Europe is the reason why the NHS is failing. Maybe it is.
Without a wider understanding of immigration and why people would come to this country wanting to build a better life for themselves, it seems unfair on me and my family that we can’t find work, or housing, or a decent school. Maybe it is.
These are the stories that we have created and the narratives by which we live. They are the lenses through which we see the world. Our little world. Our "echo chambers". Or “segregated social universes”. And we just need to get out more.
If this sounds like it is the quiet plea of a ‘bleeding-heart liberal’ to the uneducated, unread UKIP member or Clinton-hating redneck, please know that it is only partly that. It is in fact a reminder to myself to listen to someone else’s story that doesn’t reflect my own.
And to do that - to have those compelling stories to listen to - it’s also on us to be someone who is willing to tell another story. One that needs to be told and isn’t just what people want to hear: Trump told that story. Brexit told that story. Olson states that Trump had, “Nothing more than elementary, inflammatory catchphrases."
And whilst people have valid reasons for voting for either Trump or Brexit, I think we can agree that neither campaign was telling the better story. And neither were the Opposition, who had no story at all and in turn created a vacuum for the lesser story.
So what would have happened if someone - if we - had taken a broader look at the country, beyond the end of our own fence? What if we had understood the fears of a nation - pre-Trump, pre-Brexit - and answered those fears with the bigger story, the better story?
But it’s too complicated for social media, they would have said. It’s too sensitive for advertising. It’s too painful for satire. It doesn’t fit the narrative necessary for pay-per-view journalism.
Perhaps. But we know that the more complicated the context, the better the storytellers we need. The more diverse the characters, the more scriptwriters and journalists and copywriters we need. The more painful the subject, the more authors and speechwriters and bloggers we need.
So. We need to find the real stories, listen to the stories - on every side - and then tell the bigger story, the better story. And next time it might just make all the difference.
Postscript - A ray of hope perhaps that people are hungry for a broader, better story: Newspaper stocks are up and New York Times, WSJ Subscriptions Surge After Election