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News from the front desk: Issue No 351 – on storytelling and the power to sway

What is it about storytelling right now?

Suddenly we have a small flurry of stories telling us how important … stories are.

First was a contribution to our Spinifex section from Kaushik Sridhar, KPMG’s manager, corporate citizenship on the art of story telling, who says that organisations need to understand there are multiple ways to tell stories.

He particularly focuses on the need to tell positive stories to stimulate positive action.

Negative stories might shock but they’re unlikely to inspire and activate people towards taking action, he says, before providing some key touchpoints to remember in constructing useful narratives.

Spinifex, by the way, is our section for you, our readers to tell your stories. It’s so named because we figured our readers are the people at the “pointy end” of sustainability, doing all the hard work, mainly behind the scenes, to generate action.

The column is also named for the tough arid grass that might look like a spikey annoyance but in fact does a most important job in keeping the top soil intact.

The Conversation picked up the storytelling theme this week with a piece that seemed to be inspired partly by the recent devastating New York magazine article in July, The Uninhabitable Earth.

The New York mag piece, with its unapologetic warnings of what we’re heading into, caused a backlash even from environmentalists and climate scientists such as Michael Mann.

Mann spoke at the University of Sydney earlier this year in a talk chaired by The Fifth Estate. See our article, Finding hope in a time of madness

Mann was not happy and said of the NYmag piece, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence … [and this] article fails to produce it.” Regardless of this, there is a lot of evidence around that things are very grim indeed, including in Mann’s own work.

What’s fantastic about uncompromising scientists such as Mann is that the drive to always speak the truth and reveal the nuances that make the truth compelling and he reliable and authoritative. There’s actually no point otherwise.

You need to get the science totally right he says.

For instance, he says, “The article paints an overly bleak picture by overstating some of the science. It exaggerates, for example, the near-term threat of climate “feedbacks” involving the release of frozen methane (the science on this is much more nuanced and doesn’t support the notion of a game-changing, planet-melting methane bomb. It is unclear that much of this frozen methane can be readily mobilized by projected warming: http://www.realclimate.org/…/2012/01/much-ado-about-methane/).

He challenges the claims further in his Facebook post.

Underlying Mann’s concern and of other environmentalists is that a story of doom and gloom will create inaction and depression, not action. We need hope to carry the fight.

Mann says, “It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change, and I frequently criticise those who understate the risks. But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability, and hopelessness.”

In the Conversation piece, Jon Christensen of the University of California Los Angeles, says facts are not enough to drive change.

“This is not saying that facts are not important. They are. But you can try to pump as many facts as you want into people’s minds and it won’t necessarily change their opinions, let alone motivate action.

“Frames, narratives and values matter…Numbers numb and stories stick,’ he says.

It’s the point that Howard Parry-Husbands from Pollinate made when he MC’d our Mad Men events and presented findings from his company’s strategic work on values and generating change in behaviour.

Christensen describes a series of videos called, “Bending the Curve: Ten Scalable Solutions for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Stability” that he was involved in creating to see the type of message that resonated most with audiences.

In the series of videos he was involved in to test what works and what doesn’t he reports that the three most popular were those that shared some important characteristics:

  • The stories connected individual actions to collective actions.
  • They showed agency – people taking action.
  • They modelled a positive spillover effect.

Christensen says these videos were about “why we need to be nudged to think about climate and like to compete to be greener than others, how we can reduce consumer waste individually and collectively, and how simple solutions can lead to big reductions in wasted food.”

This, when you think about it, is what underpins the way we think at The Fifth Estate.

We are all about stories and in our very first words, we promised to be always optimistic. Tough call at times, but overall it’s really the most powerful weapon we’ve got.

It’s the stories of action and playing a bit with our competitive nature that we’ve seen over the years has the biggest impact.

Christensen also says it’s important to concentrate on changing the minds of people whose minds are open to change.

“Trying to change the minds of the dismissive is a waste of time. But the rest are potentially movable, from the concerned to the cautious, disengaged and even doubtful.”

That’s a point we learned long ago from Australian climate scientist Tim Flannery and which we’ve often cited: you’re wasting your time to focus on the entrenched denialists. There’s always going to be a small percentage of people who will deny anything, be criminal, insane, believe the Earth was made in seven days, that it’s flat, and so on.

It’s why we don’t engage with climate deniers and their pals. But in an antidote to all this belief in the power of narrative, came a tweet pointing to a provocation from The Griffiths Review a while back that questions the craze for narrative, evidenced by radio favourites such as The Moth Radio Hour and This American Life. Not to mention TED Talks.

But in an antidote to all this belief in the power of narrative, came a tweet pointing to a provocation from The Griffiths Review a while back that questions the craze for narrative, evidenced by radio favourites such as The Moth Radio Hour and This American Life. Not to mention TED Talks.

(The Griffiths Review is always an interesting read. But dense. We’re still ploughing through the edition Brendan Gleeson edited not long ago Imagining the future that included a host of great articles on our built environment.)

In a piece entitled, This narrated life, Maria Tumarkin, quoting Joan Didion, says, sure stories have the potential to make “our view of the world less despairing and defensive… make life itself more bearable,” but a story may not “in itself or by itself take us closer to the truths of our lives with anything like the inevitability that gets ascribed to it”

She points to Rai Gaita who warns that “our culture’s emphasis on crafting good stories exists, at least partly, at the expense of good thinking.”

The two are not necessarily linked.

We have to agree.

If a good advertising story or narrative works to foster coal mining for instance, with the manifestly morality-laden (fake) call to ease poverty in the developing world, that’s a good story. It might tweak at the heart strings and lean on a government’s propensity to favour coal for instance, but it’s not good thinking, at least in the rational evidence based sense. It’s morality-washing.

We use the term deliberately because we see and hear about green washing all the time and this is no different.

The advertising world is fully of great, effective, but fake stories.

The fear of being accused of greenwash apparently makes many corporates refrain from telling their green stories, in New Zealand in particular, we hear, for fear of peers tearing down their claims.

When a company is embarked on good work but hasn’t got there yet is when we need nuanced stories the most. Hard to get this in a Tweet. But what we don’t want is to lose an opportunity to seed influence and create momentum because someone’s idea of purity is offended.

Tumarkin mentions too, Benjamin Bratton, in a TED talk about the failure of TED talks, mentioning “middle-brow megachurch infotainment” where stories “wrap around themselves a cult of faux simplicity… which obscures the artifice involved in packing the entire world into a series of tellable tales.”

“If the story part that elicits an emotional response is all that matters, then where does that leave our scientists, our thinkers, our educators, our artists, our journalists, our human rights advocates? “

Especially if they are not skilled in storytelling.

Tumarkin finishes brilliantly:

“I am not against stories. I am, in fact, very much for stories – a big fan, that’s what I am – but these days when I hear someone talk about the universal power of storytelling I do feel like reaching for my gun. No one needs to convince me of storytelling’s power, but it’s not a no-brainer, okay, not a ready-made thought. It has to be, or rather it should be, what journalist Katherine Boo calls an ‘earned fact’.”

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