The Problematic Storytelling Ape
“There is no difference between a terrorist, a citizen, an employee and a consumer — all represent the problem of asymmetry in which an organisation has to understand multiple interactions and decisions from large populations which cannot be predicted or controlled by that organisation.” (D.Snowden)
In the fight against terrorism, for political office, corporate transformation or customers ‘controlling the narrative’ has become a popular meme. But what does it mean and is it possible?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a narrative as: ‘A representation of a particular situation or process [that] reflects or conforms to an overarching set of aims or values’. In other words, narratives (micro-stories without a beginning, middle or end) define who ‘we are’ and who ‘they are’.
Yet, human identities are not fixed so we’re constantly refining them by communicating with our peers. And if reality contradicts our identity (e.g. we elect a misogynistic, racist, egotistical bully to our highest elected office) we generate new narratives (however fanciful) to create coherent meaning (e.g. it wasn’t us — ’the Russians did it!’)
Narrative is “one of the primary mechanisms of complex knowledge transfer, creation and interpretation in human society”
Narratives differentiate homo sapiens from every other creature that’s ever existed on this planet; including other hominid species. Human language didn’t evolve to name things but for gossip — our equivalent of primates grooming — which developed to maintain the bonds of trust in the ever growing social groups our ancestors formed to protect themselves against predators as they moved ‘out of Africa’ to survive (R.Dunbar).
“The ability to pass knowledge between humans through story was a distinguishing feature of human evolution. No longer dependent on genetic change and imitation of parents, abstract knowledge and practical wisdom could be distributed, mutated and blended to speed learning and adaption. Narrative remains the principle mechanism of learning and knowledge transfer within an organisation.”
We continue to gossip today — approximately 65% of modern talking time is taken up by it, irrespective of age, gender or culture (R.Dunbar). The topics tend to be extreme events (both good and bad) that we struggle to make sense of alone. By engaging our peers we are better able to understand and act in the world around us.
Any attempts to depose a group’s narratives with ‘outside’ ones — ‘here’s what we think you should be thinking about’ — is a form of identity colonialism: alien narratives are inauthentic, don’t work, and often merely amplify the resistance of disgruntled communities, employees or customers. Consider whether the ‘war on terror’ has contributed to the decline or spread of international terrorism and whether attacks on the character of a passenger brutally ejected from a flight in the US made the wider population more forgiving of United Airlines or not.
“Identity forms from the multiple stories retold within a community around a common theme, creating a trope, which if strong enough may gain existence independently of its creators. We can get caught up in a trope and become capable of great acts of charity or cruelty as this type of collective identity becomes an ideology.” (D.Snowden)
Tropes are dominant or recurring patterns in narratives that shape the action of groups sharing them. For example, the treatment of Palestinians shapes how many muslims see western claims about the universality of human rights; while how leaders are seen to ‘walk the talk’ fuels the narratives shared by employees around the water cooler and shapes how likely they are to resist the latest transformation project.
‘Owning the narrative’ is a simplistic alternative enabled by PR firms and departments and deployed by governments and organisations too lazy, unwilling or unable to get to grips with the hard job of addressing the issues the tropes focus on. Merely trying to shout louder ignores the fact that advances in communication technologies make peer-to-peer interactions more powerful than any communication from ‘the Centre’.
Leaders tasked with the asymmetric challenges of overcoming terrorists, mobilising citizens or employees, or convincing customers of anything need to tend the soil from which damaging tropes emerge. Working with authentic narratives — rather than trying to drown them out with your own — can provide the rich data needed to make smart interventions that transform relationships with employees, customers and even terrorists.
2 Bramble Bushes in a Thicket. Kurtz & Snowden (2005)
3 Narrative Research. Snowden (2010)