The power in positive stories?
Finding the stories we need cut through the noise
Our media is filled with catastrophic stories. It can feel like society is slipping into crisis every time you read the news, stream a drama, or watch a nature show.
But around the world growing numbers of people are coming together to challenge this seeming descent into oblivion, with innovative and potentially transformative ideas and projects - from collective energy to agroecology to shared ownership and new economic models.
It seems that we’re brilliant at dramatising the terrible stories of unhinged individuals wreaking havoc, but not so good at making exciting the more vital, often humble and multiple hero’s who could inspire hope and action in the direction we need. The stories are out there but they get little airtime beyond the dry functional headlines and the geekier end of the business pages.
Why? And how can we do our best to tell propositional stories that cut through? What are the narrative traits of positive, and collective action storytelling that connects to audiences?
Our first steps:
To explore this question I teamed with Cassie Robinson and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to bring together 10 practitioners who are already pioneering this space to spend a little time pattern spotting and identifying what really works to create strong propositional stories rooted in a soil of interconnection, kindness and shared values. The amazing participants in this workshop were Jon Alexander, Anab Jain, Alice Sachradja, Paddy Loughman, Graham Leicester, Susan Krumdieck, Sepi Noohi, and Michelle Ong (from JRF)- and please do check out their work as they are all doing amazing things pushing forward in this space. We explored the following:
WHY: Understand the reasons our media works to prioritise amygdala bating headlines, but also the need people have for hopeful stories at this moment, and how and where they want to consume them?
WHAT: Pattern spot from the propositional stories that are cutting through, from movies, to community stories, to books, and from other cultures of storytelling who have taken a different path (from myths, to storytelling structures and techniques that exist elsewhere or in the past).
HOW: Identify elements of a narrative map for propositional storytelling so we can try and replicate, repeat and amplify the traits that seem to work.
Together we identified a series of traits that felt like they helped to create strong propositional stories and wrote them up in a “this not that” table to make them practically useable.
(Note - A shout out to this equally relevant guide Frameworks lists on page 26 of their narrative guide here).
The list so far:
(for input / feedback / challenge)
Negative stories are on the rise. If we don’t sharpen our positive-stories-tools, positive stories are gonna keep ending up in the attention graveyard.
I've spent 15 years creating viral films that reached large audiences through organic sharing. Whilst there were lots of techniques we used to come up with ideas, one of them was spotting the patterns of how other stories cut through and then adapting, playing with, and repeating the emotional or structural shapes that worked (but with our own, often wildly different stories).
We developed a lexicon and intuition for what cut-through and what didn’t, some of which remain helpful in this new context (eg surprising people with how kind normal people are)...
... but many of which draw from our dominant storytelling culture of exceptional individuals conforming to competitive social norms. If you’ve ever tried to pitch a headline or story to a newspaper or online platform, or to create any kind of content that cuts through you may have found, like I have, that the most important stories we need to share right now (of kind, collective, clever community action) are quite hard to get traction for.
And yet the human stories at the heart of these actions are amazing.
Can we identify elements of narrative structures that help these kind of stories to cut through?
Fundamentally, the things we need to do in the world right now (act together rather than separately, act with nature rather than separate from it, act in harmony rather than in competition) all go against some of the key tenets of our underlying cultural story. All storytellers are taught techniques that tend to drive us towards more exceptional, more individual, more competitive stories, and if we don’t find and get more skilled at alternative narratives, the things we ask of society may change but the aspirations of the stories we create will not.
Change, in a society continually feeding itself stories with values contrary to that change*, is less likely to happen.
If we can identify some traits that work for engaging visionary stories (propositional stories, not oppositional stories) and weave them into each of our work, can we strengthen not only the propositional stories we each tell, but also the resonance between them?
We’d love to connect with others on a similar exploration and are also very open to feedback, advice and builds. With greater alignment around “what works”, we hope we can accelerate uptake of stories that are vital to our future.
And as Paddy Loughman reminded me, it’s worth clarifying that what we’re exploring here, the story, is only half the story. Media ownership and control that has a vested interest in certain stories dominating is obviously also key. But hopefully having better ways to communicate the positive things that are already happening will make cut through in social media and on existing platforms more likely, or even make generating support for a less divisive news platform possible.
Is this of interest to you reading this, and does it feel like it could open doors in a beneficial way? Let us know. But we’re already exploring further.
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