In defence of story
“It sounds to me that it would be Russia based on all the evidence they have,” Trump told reporters. “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”
Most great cultural epochs begin and end with the loss of Truth. The loss of God, of King and Country, Good and Bad, Right and Wrong; of Communism, Socialism, Capitalism. The last century was full of this loss, and now, in the fledgling years of the next, we find ourselves sheltering, a bit miffed, in the ruins of these grand abandoned notions; noting that even in these brave new worlds – in the midst of global warfare, state controlled propaganda, the profound destruction of social values and the industrialised transformation of human possibility – it would still be possible to agree on the facts of the day. Facts were facts, spades were spades. Solid things, inarguable things. Things that just were.
Today, we find ourselves in a new kind of era: one in which my facts are not necessarily your facts; where objectivity crumbles into spin; where Truth is what you make it, if you know the tricks. And it is here that Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality finds us: bruised and a bit sad, quite probably at the end of the echo-chamber we fell down again after parsing the morning news. Like Hector Macdonald, author, long-time friend and writer at The Storytellers, it offers us a smart, insightful guide to this smoke-and-mirrors terrain: astutely observing the dangers ahead, the dangers unknown and the dangers within – all illustrated, of course, by many wonderful stories.
Stories, deservedly, play an important role in Truth. Not simply as a means to demonstrate points in memorable and meaningful ways – which of course is just one great power of storytelling – but as a possible suspect: dealing in the shady art of truth-selection and suggestive construction that has come to figure so prominently in any narrative about the success of Trump or Brexit.
Storytelling, argues Truth, is a form of partial truth. As its opening inscription reminds us, there was a time where this was not a problematic assertion. “To hell with facts!”, iconic 60’s author Ken Kesey declares in its opening inscription. “We need stories!”. But for the modern reader, post-all of it, alarm bells ring. Trouble, we suspect, lies ahead. Because in the construction of this refrain (worthy indeed of the very brashest Brexiteer and the tools Truth itself offers to arm us against such verbal foul play) story isn’t just better than fact (more effective, more emotive, more coherent – all of which believe to be true). It’s counter to it. Worse – it’s superseded it. This is the age of story! To hell with the facts. Welcome to the age of Post-Truth.
Truth defines story as ‘a selective account of a process of change, which emphasises causal relationships between situations and events’. Neutral descriptor or loaded gun? It’s a tough call, in this particular moment, where story stands accused of aiding and abetting a most troubling state of affairs. In the selection, we all know, there is an ocean of agenda to navigate – usually in the micro-seconds our brains have to process such content. We’re shown the power of extreme, but effective, selection in the example of Mervyn King’s story of the credit crisis; a narrative in which the huge, unyielding complexity of that period is chiselled, cleanly, into a coherent domino-effect that most of us could really, genuinely grasp – perhaps for the first time. That’s quite a feat – and for Truth, where the ‘true value’ of stories lie. ‘They make complex stuff simple and clear’; and by ‘seem[ing] to show how one thing leads to another, they help us make sense of a chaotic world’. In Truth’s example of Kew Gardens – transformed, by the act of storytelling, from a lovely irrelevance with no place in Austerity Britain to a vital global hub of cutting-edge ecological research, deserving of public funds – we see the power of this selection for unequivocal good. And yet. There’s a price to pay for this partiality. ‘Real life’, we’re reminded, ‘is rarely so black and white’. By emphasising ‘seeming’ causation, we can attribute significance where there is none. What we gain in simplicity, we lose in complexity. We habitually forgo the multiplicity and difficulty of experience; we over-engineer cause and effect. Worse, we expose ourselves to agenda of another person’s selection. We trust that the facts they string are the ones we need to know. All this is undeniably true, and easily exploited (we agree with mutual head-shaking) in a cynical, cynical world.
But we would like to add another, more wholesome, dimension to story, rooted in countless experiences with our clients, and with the world at large, and even, perhaps, a preference for optimism. For us, a story is a selective account of a process of change which connects our emotional and rational minds: contextualising the relationships between people, situations and events in order to make meaning, take action, and adapt continuously to a changing world. Storytelling, then – the primary means by which our brains evolved to navigate our environment as a collective, finding patterns that allow us to prioritise survival-critical information – is the process by which we enact that process of change in ourselves and in those around us. The thing about stories, as Truth reinforces, is that it’s innate. We tell stories, naturally, all the time, as our primary means to deny the chaos of life. When no story is offered, we can’t help but find patterns in the mess. For public entities of any kind, the conclusion is undeniable: if you’re not telling your story, you’d better believe somebody else is. And that story might be big – a political campaign, a biopic, a history book – but it might also be small.
The power of anecdotes is profound, as Truth notes, because their defining characteristic is their reality. When wielded by an organisation as a means to share learning and shape behaviours, they can indeed be ‘extremely powerful tools’. But of course, anecdotes aren’t just tools to be wielded. They’re a fundamental form of human exchange, sprung from the well of collective, daily, lived experience. Wherever there are communities, there are anecdotes. And where we find anecdotes, we find multiplicity: realities that contradict the grand origin myths of a nation, or business, or group. When hundreds of these anecdotes come together, each with their own challenge, pressing in on those foundations, the conflict in a society, organisation, or family, can be profound. And these ‘counter narratives’ tell the observant leader (or family member, or citizen) something important about their tribe. The lifeblood of a collective runs through the stories it tells. As Truth shows us, and as we help our clients to practice, by listening to these stories, we can intervene at the root: changing behaviour and shifting mind-sets by through real examples that show a different way really is possible.
Taking control of the narrative you want to tell – the things you believe, what you stand for, why you do what you do – as a leader, an organisation or an individual (all, today, expected to constantly narrate life choices and career paths to expectant employers, employee and peers) has never been a more important or essential part of life. But our discomfort lingers.
It’s a discomfort rooted in the deeply held sense that to tell stories is to fictionalise, or falsify. Indeed, it was this, Truth’s opening pages confess, that originally spurred its creation. Yet here, too, we’d like to offer a different take.
Stories might select facts, but they don’t have to run counter to them. They give meaning to the ones they hold by providing the emotional context needed to make sense of information that would otherwise be overwhelming or irrelevant. In the irresistible logic of the narrative structure – the emphasis of cause and effect that Truth rightly positions as central to the story form – we’re given a sense-checking framework that demands credibility of its author. Just as Truth offers an invaluable set of heuristics to help us assess the information we hear, so, we believe, a narrative framework holds the storyteller to account: shining stark light on the wild or implausible or misconstrued as we move sequentially through the process of change to an attainable, believable outcome.
Yes: we must be alert to the people controlling the narrative. But in today’s environment of mass communication and mass consumption, where the paralysis of information overload frequently numbs us to issues that deserve our attention and comprehension, the bigger risk is that we retreat entirely – burnt out by the analytical burden that must accompany every perspective, every thought, every action. And yes: emotional stories can be abused, as per Truth’s analysis; needlessly included in our news to elicit undeserving or unsavoury responses. But by allowing us to zoom into the emotional experience of the individual, stories neurologically reconnect us to the empathy we struggle to locate in today’s world, powerfully reconfiguring the way we respond to the people around us. By offering us a familiar structure through which to anchor ourselves – the grand narratives that recur time and time again, the stories we seem to hold inside ourselves and tell as soon as we can speak – stories offer us a steady point in a fast moving world; the context we need to stay afloat. It’s this, more than anything else, which perhaps explains why the craft of storytelling has seeped into every part of our culture in recent years. We’re all just trying to connect the dots.
Truth leaves us with an important warning: that stories can often be taken as The Truth, instead of just one truth; and it falls to all of us, in this age, to remain vigilant in the stories we consume and the weight we allow them to bear. We’d also like to propose an additional take: that story can be the framework where we define, discover and sustain a bigger (and constantly evolving) truth – of who we are, why we do what we do, what experiences lead us to this point. Our lives are characterised by the restless pursuit of this small, personal truth: and as everything else falls away, as we move deeper into this Post-Truth world, we can return to this framework, and relocate, and recalibrate, in order to bring purpose and direction and fulfilment to our lives. But Truth also leaves us with an even more important reminder: that ‘eliminating diseases, feeding billions, building global companies, defending nations, developing miraculous technologies, connecting the world: all of this has been done by humans co-operating’ – and this co-operation ‘depends on the ideas we share – the truths we tell each other’. The stories, in other words, that make the world go round. On that, I think, we can all agree.