Storytelling for Policy Change: promise and problems

I went to a fantastic workshop on storytelling for policy change. It was hosted by Open Society Foundations New York (25/6 October), and brought together a wide range of people from different backgrounds: Narativ, people experienced in telling their own story, advocacy and professional groups using stories to promote social or policy change, major funders, journalists, and academics. There was already a lot of goodwill in the room at the beginning, and by the end there was more than a lot!

The OSF plans to write up a summary of the whole discussion, so my aim is to highlight the relevance for ‘evidence-based policymaking’ and for scientists and academics seeking more ‘impact’ for their research. In short, although I recommend that scientists ‘turn a large amount of scientific evidence into simple and effective stories that appeal to the biases of policymakers’, it’s easier said than done, and not something scientists are trained in. Good storytellers might enthuse people already committed to the idea of storytelling for policy, but what about scientists more committed to the language of scientific evidence and perhaps sceptical about the need to develop this new skill (particularly those who describe stories pejoratively as ‘anecdata’)? What would make them take a leap in the dark, to give up precious research time to develop skills in storytelling?

So, let me tell you why I thought the workshop was brilliant – including outlining its key insights – and why you might not!

Why I thought it was brilliant

Academic conferences can be horrible: a seemingly never-ending list of panels with 4-5 paper givers and a discussant, taking up almost all of the talking time with too-long and often-self-indulgent and long-winded PowerPoint presentations and little time for meaningful discussion. It’s a test of meeting deadlines for the presenter and an endurance test for the listener.

This workshop was different: the organisers thought about what it means to talk and listen, and therefore how to encourage people to talk in an interesting way and encourage high attention and engagement.

There were three main ‘listening exercises’: a personal exercise in which you closed your eyes and thought about the obstacles to listening (I confess that I cheated on that one); a paired exercise in which one person listened and thought of three poses to sum up the other’s short story; and a group exercise in which people paired up, told and then summarised each other’s stories, and spoke as a group about the implications.

This final exercise was powerful: we told often-revealing stories to strangers, built up trust very quickly, and became emotionally involved in each other’s accounts. It was interesting to watch how quickly we could become personally invested in each other’s discussion, form networks, and listen intently to each other.

For me, it was a good exercise in demonstrating what you need in a policymaker audience: ideally, they should care about the problem you raise, be personally invested in trying to solve it, and trust you and therefore your description of the most feasible solutions. If it helps recreate these conditions, a storytelling scientist may be more effective than an ‘honest broker’. Without a good story to engage your audience, your evidence will be like a drop in the ocean and your audience might be checking its email or playing Pokemon Go while you present.

Key insights and impressions

Most participants expressed strong optimism about the effect of stories on society and policy, particularly when the aim is more expressive than instrumental: the act itself of telling one’s story and being heard can be empowering, particularly within marginalised groups from which we hear few voices. It can also be remarkably powerful, remarkably quickly: most of us were crying or laughing instantly and frequently as we heard many moving stories about many issues. It’s hard to overstate just how effective many of these stories were when you heard them in person.

When discussing more instrumental concerns – can we use a story to get what we want? – the optimism was more cautious and qualified. Key themes included:

  • The balance between effective and ethical storytelling, accepting that if a story is a commodity it can be used by people less sympathetic to our aims, and exploring the ethics of using the lens of sympathetic characters (e.g. white grandparents) to make the case for marginalised groups.
  • This ethical dimension was reinforced continuously by stories of vulnerable storytellers and the balance between telling their story and protecting their safety.
  • The importance of context: the same story may have more or less impact depending on the nature of the audience; many examples conveyed the sense that a story with huge impact now would have failed 10 or 20 years ago and/ or in a different region.
  • The importance of tailoring stories to the biases of audiences and trying to reframe the implications of your audience’s beliefs (one particularly interesting example was of portraying equal marriage in Ireland as the Christian thing to do).
  • Many campaigns used humour and positive stories with heroes, based on the assumption that audiences would be put off by depressing stories of problems with no obvious solution but energised by a message of new possibilities.
  • Many warned against stories that were too personal, identifying the potential for an audience to want to criticise or fix an individual’s life rather than solve a systemic problem (and this individualistic interpretation was most pronounced among people identifying with right-wing parties).
  • Many described the need to experiment/ engage in trial-and-error to identify what works with each audience, including the length of written messages, choice of media, and choice of ‘thin’ stories with clear messages to generate quick attention or ‘thick’ stories which might be more memorable if we have the resources to tell them and people take the time to listen.

Many of these points will seem familiar if you study psychology or the psychology of policymaking. So, the benefit of these experiences is that they tell us how people have applied such insights and how it has helped their cause. Most speakers were confident that they were making an impact.

Why you may not be as impressed: two reasons

The first barrier to getting you enthusiastic is that you weren’t there. If emotional engagement is such a key part of storytelling, and you weren’t there to hear it, why would you care? So, a key barrier to making an ‘impact’ with storytelling is that it is difficult to increase its scale. You might persuade someone if they spent enough time with you, but what if you only had a few seconds in which to impress them or, worse still, you couldn’t impress them because they weren’t interested in the first place? Our worry may be that we can only influence people who are already open to our idea. This isn’t the end of the world, since a key political aim may be to enthuse people who share your beliefs and get them to act (for example, to spread the word to their friends). However, it prompts us to wonder about the varying effect of the same message and the extent to which our message’s power comes from our audience rather than our story.

The second barrier is that, when the question is framed for an academic audience – what is the scientific evidence on the impact of stories? – the answer is not clear.

On the panel devoted to this question (and in a previous session), there were some convincing accounts of the impact of initiatives such as: the Women’s Policy Institute ‘grass roots’ training in California (leading to advocacy prompting 2 dozen bills to be signed over 13 years); Purpose’s branding campaign for the White Helmets (including the miracle baby video which has received tens of millions of views); and, the Frame Works Institute’s ability to change minds with very brief interventions (for example, getting people to think in terms of problem systems more than problem individuals in areas like criminal justice).

However, the academic analysis – with contributions from Francesca Polletta, Jeff Niederdeppe, Douglas Storey, Michael Jones – tended to stress caution or note limited effects:

  • Stories work when they create an empathic reaction, but intensely personal experiences are difficult to recreate when mediated (soap operas and ‘edutainment’ come closest).
  • Randomised control trials suggest that stories have a measurable effect, but it’s small and compared to no intervention at all rather than a competing approach such as providing evidence in reports (note that most experimental studies do not draw on skilful storytellers)
  • Stories work most clearly when they reinforce the beliefs of your allies (and when you refer to heroes, not villains), but the effects are indirect at best with your opponents.

More research required?!

So, you might want more convincing evidence before you take that giant leap to train to become a skilful storyteller: why go for it when its effects are so unclear and difficult to measure?

For me, that response might seem sensible but is also a cop out: unequivocal evidence may never arrive and good science often involves researching as you go. A key insight into policymaking regards a continuous sense of urgency to solve problems: policymakers don’t wait for the evidence to become unequivocal before they act, partly because that sense of clarity may never happen. They feel the need to act on the basis of available evidence. Perhaps scientists should at least think about doing the same when they seek to act on research rather than simply do the research: how long should you postpone potentially valuable action with the old cliché ‘more research required’?

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2 Comments

Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Storytelling

2 responses to “Storytelling for Policy Change: promise and problems

  1. Pingback: Combine Good Evidence and Emotional Stories to Change the World | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: The Science of Evidence-based Policymaking: How to Be Heard | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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