Tories and stories, Ed without thread
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Tories and stories, Ed without thread

Numbers numb us

In my recent CIM webinar, I talked about how human beings are innately hungry for stories, since our super-social species is designed to create, spread and absorb information primarily through stories.

This may be a surprise to those in the sales and marketing industries who still tend to behave as if humans evolved solely in order to communicate via Excel and PowerPoint. Newsflash: sorry, but Microsoft products are a very recent introduction into our evolutionary history. Storytelling is a far more enduring, not to mention universal, aspect of our humanity.

When I run my courses and from the stats of the live poll we carried out during the webinar, people readily admit to drowning in a sea of charts about data, words, bullet points, more data, infographics and more data.

Yet we still insist that there is no alternative to being numbed by numbers and perpetuating what I call the “arithmocracy” – the reverence of anything that is based on numbers. This seems to arise from a misplaced belief that (as the Greeks believed) numbers are gods and anything rendered numerical must be true.

Tories and stories

Let me give you one example from the recent UK general election. I would argue that the result (and I will carefully avoid any political allegiances or anything that requires too much understanding of the UK political system) was very much down to two factors:

  1. The fact that the Conservatives understood the lessons of Behavioural Economics (that emotion is a more powerful lever of decision making than rationality, or reason alone).
  2. The Conservatives had a strong and (more importantly) coherent narrative than Labour.

The first point is for another day. Suffice it to say that the emphasis on fear – of the SNP, of letting Labour “destroy what the Coalition had built over the previous 5 years” and of change generally was, I believe, heightened by the media’s usage of the “Miliband bacon sandwich” to evoke the primal feeling of disgust.

But here I want to concentrate on the Tories’ use of storytelling.

I believe that one of the reasons for the final result was that only one of the two parties realised the importance of developing (and communicating) a “master narrative”.

Allowing for other changes in their strategy (for example when they realised the power of the “fear of the SNP” card), they concentrated on the story of “the letter”. This was the [in-] famous letter left behind by the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne, after the Labour party lost the 2010 election and the Coalition were about to take the reins. The note was discovered by the incoming Lib Dem minister, Andy Laws.

It read: “Dear chief secretary, I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left.”

This was considered by many (not least its author) to be nothing more than a joke, a typical piece of traditional political amusement. At the time it received some coverage, but during the election build-up the letter became front page news. The letter itself (the actual physical letter) was brought out on many an occasion by the Prime Minister as “proof” of the past economic profligacy of the Labour party [and by implication the likelihood that they would repeat the trick].

Now, as I mentioned, this is not a politically motivated analysis, but merely a dissection of how it was “story wot won it”.

Because, I argue, the letter became the focal point for a story that obeyed all the good rules of storytelling: it had (some) factual basis to it; it contained within it a message; at its heart was the essence of a polarity – good vs. bad/hero vs. villain/right vs. wrong; and it was flexible (it allowed other messages to be spun off it – notably, the implication that the Labour government had been complicit in the global economic meltdown).

And it was also simple, coherent and very tactile to boot.

On the other hand, the Labour party created a stone plinth with 6 policy pledges, dubbed the “Ed Stone”. This was an attempt to [literally] make concrete the party’s pledges should they be elected: the Labour leader declared that it would be erected in the garden of Number 10 Downing Street if his party won the election.

Pundits and commentators had much fun with the “Ed Stone”, and it was widely spoofed and derided. But within my storytelling framework I think there is another lesson to be learned here.

For me the problem was not the stone, the pledges or the unveiling: the issue was that there was no story behind it. There were six pledges of varying relevance, all written in policy-wonk-ese. But the communication of the pledges and the stone itself had no story behind it, nothing that was meaningful, emotional or inspiring.

Then again, perhaps its greatest lapse was the fact that it omitted the most important element of storytelling: what I call The Golden Thread.

There was no consistent, coherent structure that the brain can latch on to, which helps the brain make sense of the material (data, information, claims, pledges) thrown in its general direction. Without a Golden Thread, without structure, narrative falls apart and all that remains is a collection of disparate inputs we struggle to make sense of, relate to and remember.

And for me that was the greatest storytelling lesson of the UK election.

Anthony Tasgal Course Director CIM
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