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An Argument for New Ideas in Storytelling, Not Just Better Stories

The 2008 Obama election campaign is an excellent example of how social technologies helped enable a grassroots movement to operate at scale. | Image credit: Obama/Biden 2008

“The world is not made of atoms, it’s made of stories.” — Muriel Rukeyser

The idea of storytelling has become an increasingly important theme in marketing and communications  the power of a good story is, of course, an alluring thing. A good story can align every employee in a company and every citizen in a country. Stories can inspire us, unite or divide us, and can therefore ultimately change the world. Ed Gillespie’s recent piece on the Guardian Sustainable Business hub highlights some instructive examples of this observation playing out in the worlds of politics and business.

But for me, this view only tells half the story. Because I believe that looking more closely at what stories really are can reveal specific insights about where we most need change in the world and the best opportunities for making a positive impact. Great stories are important. But it’s how you tell ‘em that really matters.

It goes something like this. Imagine your brain is a computer and your conscious mind its operating system. Storytelling would be the World Wide Web and all of the data and content being shared. It’s basically the way that all of this information gets created, packaged and transferred, through everything  from the spoken word, works of art, cereal packets, product design, road signs, pop music, proverbs, nursery rhymes, local customs  all of which are mediators to enable this process to happen. And through access to all of this data at once, new stories are born in our imagination and exported into formats that can be shared with others through blog posts, dance, fashion choices, religious rituals  the list goes on. In other words, storytelling is the ‘source code’ for all human culture. Stephen Johnson makes a related point in this video clip about how the exchange of human ideas works.

When you think of it like this, the idea that “the world is not made of atoms, it’s made of stories” begins to make some sense. Stories are the very things that allow change and innovation in human culture, in the same way that in chemistry, the development of new molecules and molecular structures allow innovation and change in the material world. In fact, Stephen Johnson argues elsewhere in his book Where Good Ideas Come From that these two processes are themselves connected in one big story of progress and evolution.

But so what if the human world is made up of stories? For me, this understanding helps explain what’s required today to create the kind of positive change we need to see tomorrow. Yes, we need great stories, but it’s the actual vehicles of those stories that are most subject to innovation  and therefore have the greatest potential for scalable change. So far in this post, I’ve listed out just a handful of the multitudinous ways stories get created, exported and shared between our minds and the minds of others. The mechanics for making this happen are changing all the time.

It’s a pretty well-established truth that scientists working on climate change have rarely, if ever, managed to turn their story into one that popular media can embed or adopt. Likewise, world development and poverty issues are often in the news but struggle to get real cut-through with Western audiences. Neither of these problems is based on a lack of stories; it’s based on an inability to bring them to life in a way that fixes them in people’s minds.

Of course, the old adage, ‘it’s the way you tell 'em’ springs to mind. Or for a more thoughtful account, Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ line describes the idea that a ‘medium itself, not the content it carries, should be the focus of study.’

So the biggest challenge for those working to engage people in the sustainability agenda shouldn’t just be about writing new and better stories. It’s about storytelling innovation. New and breakthrough uses of media, communications and engagement are what is most needed in order to change the narrative. The most obvious example is the way that the Internet has fundamentally changed the means to control, create and disseminate stories. 

As an example, I would point to the ability of the gaming industry to create immersive and complex worlds. There is already a growing movement to harness these qualities for good  think The Sims with a social purpose. Games for Change produces social games for social good, and Game the News aims to attract new audiences to current affairs by turning the global news into simple, interactive games. It’s very early days for these ideas and there is a lot of room for development. Here I would look to breakthrough ideas such as NikeFuel, which creates the opportunity to turn personal fitness into a global social interactive experience. Apply this kind of thinking to the objectives of the GoodGym and I think you have something really interesting.

Another burgeoning trend is the use of social technologies to reinvent the way we engage with politics. My view is that the growing disquiet about the way politicians engage with the public isn’t due to a disaffection with the stories they’re telling but the way they go about this is out of sync with the transformations that are happening in other areas of life  the changes that give people the ability to create and control the story for themselves. The loose movement termed Gov 2.0 is beginning to address this imbalance. I feel the Obama election campaign is still the best big example of how social technologies helped enable a grassroots movement to operate at scale. New innovation is also happening on a smaller scale: Here in the UK, Mysociety.org has created a number of new ways for people to connect with and even improve their community and society at large, and Theyworkforyou.com helps people track what their local MP is spending their time on, while writetothem.com helps you contact them. 

I believe that storytelling innovation is the cutting-edge vehicle of sustainable change. At least that's where I will be putting my own brain software to use in the coming years, before it becomes obsolete.


Before co-founding sustainability and communications agency Given London, David spent his career working in the brand communications and media industry, where he has worked with almost every customer group and category for some of the worlds best brands. David… [Read more about David Hawksworth]


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