The power of narrative: telling our story
An historic mistake of the Left has been to attempt to convince people through careful, reasoned argument. If we can just patiently explain our ideas clearly enough, surely everyone will join us in building a better world. This highlights an interesting conundrum: across the world, in survey after survey, when asked about specific policies – a health service free at the point of need, comprehensive education, transport and energy infrastructure in public hands – the vast majority of people clearly favour socialism. And yet right wing parties keep getting elected, and even the nominally left parties fail to implement progressive ideals.
What is happening here?
As human beings, we respond a lot more readily to narrative – story telling – than we do to reasoned argument. This has been thoroughly grasped by the advertising profession, which encourages us to tell the story of our lives, and seek validation from others, through the products we buy. It is also something the populist Right has been very good at: they tell a simple story of a once-proud nation (the formula works for any nation), now in decline, threatened by (usually) immigrants. UKIP in the UK is a prime example of this, but there are many manifestations across the world.
They have also reinforced the narrative that we are greedy, self-interested, have gold-plated pensions and so on.
No amount of pointing out the absolute nonsense of this story, and the general lack of policy coherence on the right, seems to make any difference. Once people identify emotionally with a story, it’s very hard to shift them from it.
And the time we spend attempting to debunk the right wing version of events is time not spent telling our own story. This is a shame, because we have a very compelling narrative:
From the first recorded strike by tomb builders at Deir el-Medina in Ancient Egypt, in the reign of Ramses III in 1170 BCE, through to this week’s action by civil servants or teachers or train drivers, we have a dynamic, heroic, three thousand year long tale to tell of ordinary people standing up for themselves, standing together in solidarity, and working to create a world of fairness, equality, justice and dignity.
This is a social struggle of an almost mythic scale, and encompasses many key narrative archetypes: good versus evil, David and Goliath and many other elements that make a gripping story. It’s complicated and intricate, but the popularity of Game of Thrones, The Wire and many other complex TV programmes shows people have a real appetite for this kind of story. And ours has two distinct advantages:
- It’s true
- Anyone can get involved and be part of it!
Isn’t that a much more exciting way of looking at things than another dry leaflet about spending, affordability and statistics?
We’re not suggesting that you use storytelling as a substitute to well-argued, fact-based campaigns: this is the fundamental, ethical difference between ourselves and our opponents. But we need to give people a reason to engage with our arguments, and a narrative framing really helps answer the question: “why should I care?”
How to tell a good story
All good stories have certain elements that catch people’s attention.
- Strong characters
A good story needs to have strong, compelling and human characters. People identify with other people. So if you are campaigning about a union dispute somewhere, make it about real people. Asking people to show solidarity with Sarah and Jane and Andile is a lot easy than getting them to show solidarity with an anonymous group of workers in some city far away. You don’t need to share people’s personal details to personalise the story.
- Narrative structure and plot
Any good story needs a compelling plot. There are many variations, but the most important elements are hero, villain and conflict. Does is help to think of our campaign in this way?
Identifying the villain is usually easy: it can be the government – the Tories readily provide pantomime villains – or a big company like G4S, Walmart or Amazon. People love a good villain, and the more villainous the company, the more they’ll be engaged in wanting to defeat it.
The conflict, of course, is the specific issue: the cuts, the strike, the lockout or the environmental poisoning.
And who is the hero in this case? It might well be the brave workers who are standing up to this villainous, bullying company, and who need all our help and support. But maybe the hero is missing! This is an opportunity to invite people to get involved: a big company is doing something terrible, and we need you to step in and do something about it. Invite people to participate, to be heroes in a crucial story.