This is my 2-page pitch for the Political Studies Association’s Total Exposure 2017 event on Thursday:
People are too quick to criticise the negative role of ideology, emotion, and manipulation in politics, especially after ‘Brexit’ and the rise of Donald Trump. Yet, a good positive and emotional story with a hero or convincing theme is just as important as ‘the evidence’ to social and policy change. This programme gives examples, shows you how to do it, and identifies what stories work. Through first person narrative, it describes the experiences of people telling their own stories, or of their heroes, to generate political attention and support for their cause. It provides additional narrative by experts on storytelling as a craft, and on the science of storytelling effectiveness, to connect powerful stories with the evidence on their role in politics. The end result is a programme which is entertaining, socially relevant, and informative. It will be backed up by further (accessible) reading for people inspired by its message and keen to learn and act accordingly.
Background: telling positive stories for political change
The Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump US President, really knocked the stuffing out of people who believe in the primacy of science. Many scientists seem shocked by what they perceive to be ‘post-truth politics’ in which ideology beats evidence.
This post-truth theme has begun to dominate academic discussions on social media and academic conferences. It is a timely issue in which a clear theme has emerged among scientific circles. Its message is dangerous, with the potential to further alienate scientists from politicians and members of the public. It could undermine the prospect of pragmatic debates, in which there is meaningful conversation between people with different points of view, and instead reinforce a tendency for people to speak only with the people whose beliefs they already share.
Too much ‘post-truth politics’ discussion is self-indulgent. Too many academics are quick to demonise the cynical world of politics and politicians and to romanticise their own causes or objectivity. They need to acknowledge that ideological and emotional thinking is a natural part of life, and a part of life to which they are not immune. ‘Experts’ are storytellers for their own cause, and they tell each other the same story about post-truth politics. What separates them from their competitors is that the latter are better at telling effective stories which manipulate the beliefs and emotions of their audience.
So, what can they do about it? Tell good, positive stories, combining scientific evidence with emotional hooks, to help people understand and care about important political issues.
Tell Good Stories to Get What You Want in Politics
So, this programme portrays storytelling in a more positive light, demonstrating how to tell a story with political impact. Its main themes will be ‘hope’ and ‘fear’, to contrast two strategies:
- Examples like Brexit and Donald Trump’s campaign are associated with fear, to identify villains (such as immigrants and terrorists) and describe political or policy change as a way to punish them. As short term strategies they are difficult to counter with reference to ‘the evidence’. Some opponents of Brexit and Trump are coming to terms with this strategic problem, but often do not have the knowledge or skills on which to base an effective response.
- Examples from other fields are associated with hope, often to identify heroes as symbols of positive political change, or to identify the broad political themes that these heroes represent. The programme can draw on a long list of well-established and promising stories – in fields such as sex work, LGBT rights, immigrant rights, HIV, mental health, criminal justice, disaster relief, and climate change – in which there are skilled advocates for major social and political change.
The discussions would be interspersed with expert commentary, on how to tell stories well and on the evidence of storytelling effectiveness, to provide key ‘take home’ messages on what makes an emotionally engaging story that people talk about and act on.
The Project’s Incredible Timeliness
The project is timely as a political issue. It is also timely in organisational terms. I have been discussing with Brett Davidson of Open Society Foundations (New York) this theme of storytelling, and how it relates to ‘evidence based policymaking’ (as part of a special collection of academic articles on evidence and policy). Davidson is an experienced radio journalist and convenor of a recent 2-day workshop on storytelling. My confidence in the theme of storytelling, and of identifying key stories and commentary, resulted from attending that workshop and hearing their stories and evidence.
The Large International Market
Brexit and Trump provide UK and US hooks that receive high global attention. The stories on which we can draw include personal experiences from people in South-East Asia, South Africa, the US, Latin America, and Eastern Europe (and indirect experiences in places like Syria and Palestine). As a whole, they provide global appeal and a range of salient topics. The immediate market for our academic work is academic, but the themes are wider and should appeal to audiences of radio shows/ podcasts like This American Life. Indeed, given the theme of the programme, it would be useful to follow a similar storytelling format. It could find, for example, a BBC Radio 4 audience but also be marketed as a podcast with international appeal.
The Major Long Term Impact: producing a new generation of storytelling scientists
My ‘high bar’ aim is to prompt a process in this order:
- We produce a programme which captures the attention of (the public and) academics and scientists.
- They listen to the show and recognise the impact of stories on them: their piqued interest is followed by their emotional engagement.
- They recognise the role that storytelling might have in their own research.
- We address their initial scepticism by providing some detail on the evidence of the impact of good stories on social and policy change.
- Many get in touch with us, and work with us to help them become scientist storytellers.
Bullet 5 is the main legacy. I have begun to work with Jerome Deroy, CEO of Narativ: The Listening and Storytelling Company, to explore the idea of training scientists to be effective storytellers. It could provide a follow-up show in which scientists explain the relevance of their evidence to pressing social and political problems.