Change the story, change the world

That is why I write

We think in story, we learn in story, we perceive in story. While facts and logic are useful and important, they don’t persuade unless conveyed through story. They don’t help us make meaning of the world around us.

Public relations firms know this. Marketers know this. Notice how advertisements tell a story. They don’t just post facts about their products and statistics to show how they are better than their competitor. They show the family out having so much fun with their product. Or how the lonely person notices others with their product and they magically connect with the world, all smiles. Or they have an animated, disgusting-looking germ say he’s stalking you, and he’ll do horrid things to you. The product saves the day.

Political strategists do the same. Think of slogans that work because they come with backstory to grab you. They change the frame to insert the values they want. Do you like the good old days? Do you think all the others, the outsiders (and similar codewords) have it all and you are left out? That you are being treated unfairly and being overlooked? Well then, make America great again. <whew, I could barely bring myself to type that slogan>

I refer you to George Lakoff’s research and writing on cognitive science and linguistics for so much more than I can tell you about why and how our brains are persuaded by story and not by facts. Here is Lakoff talking about how Republicans are more persuasive than Democrats because they are more skilled at selling and marketing.

The marketing profession uses knowledge about the mind, the brain, language, imagery, emotions, the framing of experiences and products, personal and social identity, and normal modes of thought that lead to action and that change brains over time. . . . In short, marketers take results from my field — cognitive science — the field that does scientific research on real reason, on how people really think. Marketers know very well that most thought is unconscious — the usual estimate is about 98 percent. They use their knowledge of how unconscious thought works. And they know that consumers are not aware of how knowledge of the science of mind is being used to sell them products that often they don’t need or may actually harm them.

Certainly science should underpin policy as it underpins life on this planet. But just presenting scientific facts or rational arguments won’t cut it — won’t persuade. People respond on the emotional and unconscious level to how information is framed (again, see Lakoff). We seek frames, stories to make meaning of our world. That is how our brains are wired. Stories are vehicles to let facts/science into our conscious minds through our unconscious minds.

Join me in telling stories that are based in science and truth.

Years ago I wrote this column for a local paper to invite people to act for wild and natural lands, particularly for trees. Instead of just asking them to do so, and giving them facts to support my ask, I wrote this:

Let me tell you a story. The story takes place in Coryell. Or maybe, it was Locks Ferry. Or maybe right in your town.
Once upon a time there was a big, old spreading tree in a meadow. That tree had been there forever . . . well, at least as long as anyone could remember, and even as long as anyone’s great-grandparents could remember.
Many people have memories of spreading a blanket and food beneath her branches. . . sometimes when her leaves were deep green and practically hid the sun. . . sometimes when her leaves were bright orange and the air cool on their skin. Always, her branches spread wide and symmetrical.
One day they turned the meadow into a bank. They cut the tree. Leveled the ground. Poured a parking lot.
Oh well. The inevitability of change.
There’s more to the story, though. Maybe you’ve seen that bank where once stood meadow. But there’s a part you don’t know. Come closer, I’ll tell you . . .
The bank opened for business. The bank manager, who has lived in the community all her life, looked out the window each morning, remembering the tree that used to stand right about where she parked her car, and sighed.
One day, when the builder came by to check a few things, the bank manager approached him and asked, You know that big tree that was here before you built the bank?
Yes, said the builder.
Did it have to be cut to build the bank?
No, said the builder.
Then why was it? asked the shocked bank manager.
Well, no one asked us to save it, replied the builder. We could have planned the lot around it. Didn’t know the bank would want that.
Oh, said the bank manager.
The end. Or was it?
Well, the bank manager started to go to the local town meetings. She wanted to make sure that in the future, builders were asked to leave the trees standing.

Starhawk used a powerful, effective story about the effects of globalization on one tiny woman in El Salvador rather than listing facts about how globalization harms people and land. Read Hermana Cristina’s Well.

Here is a cute animated advertisement for a wind energy company. This company shows Wind as a human — one who annoys people. He blows off hats, makes a mess of hair, pulls papers from our hands. But he wants to be loved and accepted. (Don’t you?) When he finds that he can make turbines turn to harness energy, he has a purpose. A useful purpose. Now everyone loves him. See how they used story to grab you and get you to support Wind (wind farms) and his newfound purpose?

I invite you to craft stories. They need not be written as a once-upon-a-time as I wrote for the trees. A simple formula for a story is WHO wants WHAT but OBSTACLE forces him to TAKE ACTION for an OUTCOME. While this is simplistic, you can use it as a beginning, as a way to start reframing arguments.

What do you want for the world and who/what opposes you? Turn this into a story, preferably by adding universal desires that people can relate to. Think of something you wish to save in this world. Something you stand for. Now create your story:

  1. Create a protagonist to represent what you wish to save. She/he/they might be a cartoon character, or a person, or an animal. Open your creative soul and think outside the box. Perhaps you wish to save natural areas. Let’s say your protagonist is a local wildflower meadow — named Meadow of course!
  2. What does your protagonist deeply desire? Meadow wants to feel the wind tinkle her grasses, and have the sun sweeten her flower nectar. Meadow wants bees to lick his nectar and free his pollen. Meadow wishes to be admired by all who pass by. In short, Meadow longs to live their life fully and freely, and be admired for being his/her/theirself. Isn’t that a universal desire?
  3. Challenge/Opposition? But development is coming and some people want to turn Meadow into a paved parking lot. Killing all her grasses, his flowers, turning away their bees and pollinators. <you see, Meadow is of all genders!>
  4. What will Meadow do? Perhaps she will call to all the small children in the area to play among her grasses. To crown themselves with his flowers. And entice their parents to watch the children revel in the beauty of Meadow. Who would want to break children’s hearts?

How might you produce your story? A letter to an editor of your regional paper? A Medium blog or facebook post? An animated short? Read it aloud on youtube? Play with the idea, talk it up!

Find ways to write stories to change the world.