The power of narrative




If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and frankly, if not, why not? It’s quality stuff!) one theme that you might recognize across several posts – such as this one or this one –  is that a lot of manipulation involve letting people manipulate themselves, to some extent. We like stories, as a species: we evolved to recognize patterns, after all, and stories are the ultimate patterns. Since time immemorial, at the end of the day, around the communal fire, we have sat around and shared stories – to cheer ourselves up, to keep the darkness at bay, to pass on wisdom. Stories are how we often communicate, and for those that recognize this, stories can be powerful tools to influence us as well…

saw 298x300 The power of narrative

For example, take Hollywood. It’s long been axiomatic that Hollywood has a pretty narrow opinion of what makes for a successful movie, but most didn’t realize just how narrow that opinion really is. In 2005, Blake Snyder published a book, Save the Cat, which details the perfect blockbuster structure. It is far more than a simple high-level view of what a story is: it is a step of 15 ‘beats’, with detailed timings on each, that shape a narrative for maximum impact. It is a minute-by-minute outline of what to show and how to progress the story, and it is hugely successful – most blockbusters today follow that outline to the minute. Even Pixar’s new movie – Monster University – follows the outline that Snyder formulated, down to the minute, for example.

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And some… did not.


We like stories, and we seem to like stories told to us in a certain way. There are thousands of stories, but many of them are broadly similar, and that’s where the term archetype came from – a basic story so common that it is the base for thousands of variations. The Hero’s Journey, for example, is one of the most used archetypes – it was used by George Lucas in Star Wars, in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and in the Harry Potter books.

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Stories can be far more powerful than facts for us. A team of researchers from Wharton and Carnegie Mellon decided to actually measure this, and sent out two fundraising letters to two similar groups: one letter stressed the facts about famine in Africa – how many children are dying, what the money would buy and how much of it, etc… The other told the story of Rokia, a small girl in Mali, and how the famine was affecting her. The group that got the narrative letter donated 50% more than the group that got the facts only. In fact, the more facts a group got, the less likely they were to act on those facts. In a very real way, stories trump fact in our minds. We look for stories, for archetypes, in the world around us, and this has influenced more people than Hollywood writers alone…

For example, author Evan Cornog argues in his book The Power and the Story that most American Presidential elections are determined by narrative – the winner is the one that finds a compelling narrative first – “the good old boy”, “the war hero” – and then successfully defends that narrative. In other words, he argues that elections are won by those that can shape their campaign around an archetype. Jimmy Carter won in 1976 because his narrative – casual, always pictured in fields and pastoral settings, honest to a fault – contrasted so successfully with the corruption of Nixon which had demoralized the nation. Four years later, he was mired in hostage crisis, inflation, and oil shortages. His opponent, Ronald Regan, pitched the perfect narrative against that backdrop: a great Nation that had been humbled but which was ready to regain its greatness, if it could stand behind a strong leader (him). That narrative pervaded everything they said and did, including their campaign posters:

jimmy carters ubiquitous green campaign poster e1347149989125 195x300 The power of narrative

 The power of narrative

Even George W. Bush, probably the worst president in recent times, hit upon a very solid narrative to succeed the roaring but divided Clinton years: he was the outsider with no ax to grind, the middle ground, the “compassionate conservative” that would bring harmony back to a Washington divided by an impeachment scandal. Of course, that narrative looks ridiculous with hindsight, but at the time it was enough to win him – by a hair – the White House against an opponent (Gore) who was, on almost all fronts, stronger, but who never found a compelling narrative (and let’s never talk about Kerry’s narrative in 2004!).

And narratives impact more than presidential elections. They can shape history. Consider the story of Christopher Columbus, for example. Historically speaking, almost everything that schools teach about Columbus is wrong. He didn’t discover America (the Vikings and many others had already done so), he wasn’t the first to think the world was round (most navigators knew that at the time, but they were smarter and had figured out that Asia was twice as far Westwards as Colombus had calculated), and he died still believing that he had reached Asia (instead of Hispaniola).

Columbus The power of narrative

Not pictured: Asia

So why do we have a holiday named after this guy?

Well, during the Revolutionary War, the rebels that would in time become the US government had a problem. Most citizens at that time dimly knew that America, the continent, had been discovered by John Cabot in 1497, who claimed it fort… England. The same country that the revolutionaries were currently fighting. It’s annoying to have to fight a nation on the one hand, and on the other to give it credit for ‘discovering’ you. But Columbus was Spanish, and thus a much better choice for the would-be new nation to honor. So the revolutionaries began to intentionally emphasize Columbus in the histories, and demote poor Cabot, and gradually a narrative took form around Columbus: the intrepid explorer who would prove them all wrong, the discoverer of America, the pioneer. Cabot was relegated to a tower in Newfoundland. The story eventually triumphed over the facts.

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Narrative is very important in war. We fought the Iraq war mostly thanks to the WMD narrative (we discussed this before). Most of our war efforts have been driven by a compelling narrative, at least initially: Afghanistan was driven by a desire to catch the perpetrators of 9/11. The rationale for the Gulf War I was helpfully set up by Iraq deciding to invade Kuwait (and Kuwaiti money paying for the narrative of the US defending against such an unjust invasion). Going back further, there were good narratives set up for Vietnam (Stop the spread of communism!) and even Korea.

And the world today is demonstrating the importance of narrative in a different way. Syriais a small state in the Middle East, ruled by a despot who has tried hard to tick all the usual despot to-do lists: killed innocents, tortured dissidents, cracked down on most type of freedoms, blamed the US and the West for most everything, etc, etc… Since March 2011, the country has been torn apart as rebels rise against the despot, in fairly typical Arab Spring fashion. Normally, this is where the West would support the plucky rebels, and help install democracy in another fragile part of the world.

And yet, nothing happened. The US has made some suggestions about helping the rebels, and some EU nations did the same, but so far, nothing, despite some pleas from the rebels:

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So what’s missing?

Unlike Kuwait, where well-heeled expats hired the best PR firms to create a compelling narrative for action, nothing like that has happened for Syria. The rebels themselves are a smorgasbord of groups, including some that the West doesn’t particularly like, like the Muslim Brotherhood. It doesn’t help when the rebels do some nasty things themselves,either, but the key missing item, to prompt widespread support for the rebels, has been a lack of narrative support. A narrative archetype needs a villain (the despot), but it also needs a hero. And when the hero is a Muslim fanatic, who wishes to impose Sharia law in Syria, and who bans croissants, it makes crafting a story much more challenging, especially when no one has the dollars needed to hire some good story-tellers (PR firms) to help the exercise along.

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The enemy. The delicious, decadent enemy.

Stories are important, and if you can weave the right story, people will listen. The core of any manipulation is to create a compelling story, a narrative. A good manipulator is, at heart, a good storyteller.


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