- Stories bridge objective reality and meaning
- We see our world through the lens of stories.
- Stories have the ability to alter reality.
- Stories are more powerful than truth.
- Storytellers (Leaders, The Media, & Marketers) have an obligation to use their craft for good.
Stories Bridge Objective Reality and Meaning
This is not a political post, though it uses politics as a backdrop for exploration. The question at hand is whether Truth or Story is more important for communication. True-stories clearly benefit from the power of both, but what is the relationship between Truth and Story, and why should you care?
We are bombarded with stories all the time. Even when we get raw facts and data — what we may call objective reality, tied to the physicality of our world — we still give that reality meaning through the stories we tell. For simplicity, stories are a sense-making device that bridges objective reality and what we make it mean.
In the U.S. media today, with Trump as President in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, one would be inclined to believe that facts are essential for our survival and navigation through the world. Indeed they are. However, we don’t actually deal with facts except through the lens of our stories about what they mean.
The implication here is that if you have a good enough story, then you have control over what anything means, regardless of what is actually true. The only exception here is somebody else with a competing story.
In his book, Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sacks goes into great detail about the power of stories. The war of competing stories is is playing out before our eyes in the news media. The unanswered question in this battle is “Which story will win?”
The world of Politics, more than anywhere else, is about who can tell the most compelling stories about what is happening and where we are going. In that way, constituents see their congressional representatives and political party as standing up for what they believe. Political parties, on the other hand, see their stories as the tool for creating and maintaining the beliefs that best support their agenda, whatever that may be. That is true for both parties, though each may employ different tactics.
Bob Dunham, from the Institute of Generative Leadership, said that “Politics is a conversation about who gets to have what conversations.” It’s about power and control, using language as the principal medium through which we make sense of our world. One result of political power is the ability to control the stories that are told, condoned, or censured.
From that perspective, the media is not out to get Trump, nor is it “fake news.” Rather, the news media confronts Trump because of its ability to tell stories that differ from his own. Truth is not even at play here, despite both sides claiming the high-ground of being true. What is happening is a battle for dominance regarding the stories we tell. Those stories then control what becomes true in our minds.
We See Our World Through the Lens of Stories
It’s at this point that I want to take a specific event and look at it closely through the relationship between Truth and Story. On May 6, 2020, Trump Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was asked a question about something she said in the past.
Please see the article from the Washington Post, Kayleigh McEnany’s slippery defense of saying coronavirus will not ‘come here’. The leading video and article are text-book examples of different stories trying to make meaning of what happened. It does not matter whether you believe her version of reality or the version from the Washington Post. I’m inviting you to look at the differences between them, and then ask yourself some questions about Truth and Story.
McEnary used less than 60 seconds to deliver about 160 words both eloquently and professionally. She was prepared and rehearsed. Her words delivered a powerful story that one should not trust the press. She had facts on her side and quoted multiple media sources. The conclusion that she wanted the listener to make is that the comments she was being criticized for were no different from what multiple news outlets had been saying as well. And by leaving the stage immediately following her words, the message was that she is in control of the story, and by extension, the truth.
The article from the Washington Post, on the other hand, is almost five times as long and requires far more brain-power (calories) to understand. In a nutshell, the Post says that McEnary “left out plenty of vital context and — crucially — dates.”
- Both McEnary and the Post are telling stories.
- Both are using factual, verifiable information.
- Both have a clear point of view that they are trying to pass onto the minds of listeners, readers, and voters.
- And the meaning that each story takes us to is near polar opposite in direction.
It’s for those reasons that the story matters more than the facts – because absent the story, the facts have almost no meaning.
Stories Have the Ability to Alter Reality.
A successful marketer that I know (I’ll call him Dad), once told me that “Reality is based on perception. Perception can be manipulated through stories. So a good story has the ability to change one’s reality.”
I was a teenager when my Dad told me that, and I did not want to believe him. It struck me as preposterous that there could be multiple realities. The idea of using words and stories to manipulate other people’s thoughts, feelings, and desires in order to sell more widgets (or secure votes) sounded morally wrong. Today, I look back in astonishment at my former naivete. I’ve done my share of mental gymnastics to go from my earlier position to my role today as a professional marketer and Certified StoryBrand Guide. “Welcome to the dark side,” he told me.
Don Miller, CEO of StoryBrand, says that “Stories are to language what music is to noise.” Without stories, it would be almost impossible to function because our brains would burn far too many calories trying to make sense of our world. Not only do we understand our world through stories, but they are also the mechanism through which our language conveys meaning to others. She who controls the story controls the world that we experience.
The critical thing to understand here is that not all stories are created equal. There’s more to a good story than volume and eloquence. Effective stories have a structure that we ignore at our peril in the battle for dominance of ideas. If we can relate the story we tell about new information into an existing worldview, then the story has the potential to spread through a population like a contagion – what Seth Godin calls an IdeaVirus.
It is the ability of stories to spread that makes them more powerful than facts and data. The latter remains true whether people believe them or not, while stories grow stronger and more resilient to challenge as they are shared and believed.
Stories Are More Powerful Than Truth
As I was writing this post, I wanted to reject the premise that stories are more powerful than truth. Surely, I thought, Truth must win out in the end! Perhaps. But for Truth to win, the stories about what is objectively true must become more dominant in a community than the stories that support demonstrable falsehoods. Until that happens, stories that are demonstrably false will still represent what is true for the culture.
The notion that Might Makes Right – that those in power do what they want – applies as much to physical dominance as it does to the dominance of political communication. Those with power have a disproportionate ability to control the dominant narrative of what is true.
Those who seek to spread objective truths over the power of false stories must, therefore, become masterful in the art of using stories as their principal means of communication. One need only turn to the New Testament to see that Jesus presented his truth through stories. His parables live on across the globe more than 2,000 years later. Even among those who are not Christian, many are familiar with his stories and share his lessons.
To further this point, let’s look at a 2×2 grid. On one axis, let’s look at stories that range from incoherent Ideas on one end, to powerful, structured stories on the other. For the second axis, we have personal truths and opinions on one side, and objective truth on the other.
Ungrounded fantasies live in the lower left, at the intersection of Incoherent Ideas and Demonstrable Falsehoods. These are things we laugh at or find completely irrelevant. We might put a child’s fear of monsters under her bed in this category. The monsters are very real for her, but there are no functional adults who would subscribe to that notion.
Also, note that it’s possible for stories in other quadrants to eventually move into ungrounded fantasies. This happens through new data and the advancement of science. For example, we no longer hold that the earth is the center of the universe, though it was “common knowledge” at one point in history.
Unexplained phenomena live in the upper left, at the intersection of Incoherent Ideas and Objective Truth. Ideally, we want to move things out of this quadrant by obtaining more data or dismissing it as nonsense. These are truths that we reject, or simply cannot yet understand. Fundamentally, it takes way too many calories for our brains to understand things in this quadrant. Things like quantum physics belong here for all but a select few individuals.
Professional physicists like Steven Hawkings, Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Derek Muller (Veritasium), and Dianna Crowern (Physics Girl) are in this quadrant. It’s not only their superior intellect that made them famous. It’s also their ability to take incoherent ideas and share them through stories so clearly and powerfully that the masses can begin to understand complex ideas. Their stories don’t make nonsense true, but they give more people access to something otherwise confusing, and in so doing, move the nonsense into a coherent and shared reality.
People with the ability to tell effective stories from here, therefore, have the ability to change the way we look at our world. They are examples of using the power of story for the good of all.
Conspiracy theories live in the lower right, at the intersection of Coherent Stories and Demonstrable Falsehoods. Even if you do not share beliefs from this quadrant, you can still recognize many of the items that belong here:
- Climate change is a hoax
- The holocaust never happened
- Vaccines cause autism
- We never landed on the moon
- Covid-19 was invented in a lab (or is a hoax)
The obvious question about conspiracy theories is “what keeps them from collapsing under their own weight?” How can they possibly be sustained in the face of seemingly insurmountable evidence to the contrary? The answer lies in the power of the stories that people tell themselves about their particular beliefs.
The field of Psychology studies this quadrant as “cognitive biases.” Every human being on the planet has been guilty of at least some bias throughout their lives. Brad Wray has a decent 3-minute video on the breadth of our biases here that is both entertaining and worth your time.
The thing to note about this quadrant is that it’s incredibly sticky. Adding more verifiable information is insufficient to change people’s minds. Far more effective is a powerful story that allows one to simultaneously save face, while also looking at the world from a different perspective.
Another challenge of this quadrant is that nobody here thinks that what they believe is a conspiracy theory. Instead, they think that they are in a shared reality and that those who oppose them are living in a false narrative. One thing that keeps this going is a perpetual battle for who has the more compelling story that explains reality as seen by the believers of those stories.
Our shared reality sits at the intersection of Objective Truth and Coherent Stories. Both are required, but neither is sufficient on its own. In this quadrant, we can navigate our world and predict our future. Most of us believe we live here, even when we are actually in the conspiracy quadrant.
To be fair, the right side of the grid is more of a continuum than discrete quadrants. There are many things that different people would place in different boxes. There is a huge gray-zone between two sides (political parties) where neither side drops to the level of conspiracy theories, but shared reality becomes bimodal.
Despite our differences, however, there are two dominant factors that determine which quadrant any piece of information will land. Those factors are the strength of our story (coherence), and how widely that story gets shared.
The reason we have disagreements on what constitutes objective truth is not based on data, but rather, on the stories we tell about what the data means. Conversations often degrade into questioning the accuracy of the data (“the number of Covid-19 deaths is overblown”), because we are more attached to what our stories mean then whether the supporting data is true. The way out of this is not more data, but a different story about what the data means. But if that new story challenges one’s sense of identity (I’m a good leader), then we have a recipe for a difficult conversation about meaning and interpretation that will not end well.
Using Storycraft For Good
A few things are clear from looking at the model.
First is that a coherent story wins 100% of the time, even when it’s demonstrably false. Therefore, it is the responsibility of leaders, the media, and marketers to use storycraft wisely. When a powerful story can promote truth just as easily as it can falsehood, it becomes the responsibility of all who hope to change the world that they become masters of the art of good storytelling.
Second, Objective Truth wins 50% of the time but only becomes shared reality 25% of the time. We need more people capable of turning truth into good stories — stories that can be understood and shared. Unfortunately, if objective truth takes too many calories to understand, then our brains will either ignore it or run to whatever makes sense, even if it’s wrong.
Asking the masses to put forth the effort required for deeper understanding through critical analysis is a recipe for failure. That’s simply not the way our brains are wired. Anything that lets us survive and thrive while conserving calories simply has too much sway in our collective decision making. That’s one of the many reasons why “Make America Great Again” was so effective on a mass audience, even if you didn’t believe it personally.
The level of complexity required to govern a nation as large as ours is simply overwhelming. The skills required to be an effective leader are immense. But none of that matters unless those running for office can craft a clear, concise, and compelling story that the people are willing to rally behind.
Ultimately, I’m left to conclude that my Dad was right – a good story has the ability to change our perception, and thus our reality. Between Truth and Story, a good Story wins almost every time. We can either resist that reality at our peril or we can become (or hire) masterful storytellers to create the shared reality we desire.