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What do we mean by effective storytelling? Letting go of magic bullets

Brett Davidson | IRIS

How do we tell more effective stories? This is a central question for us at IRIS, a new collaborative hub that brings together funders, storytellers and activists. It’s something I have been interested in since the early days of my career, in radio current affairs in South Africa in the nineties. 

Fast forward to now. This is the first of a series of blog posts in which I hope to share information and insights related to storytelling, narrative change and social justice.

Telling more effective stories depends a lot on what we mean by “effective”: too often we fail to unpack that. Often, “effective” is taken to mean “persuasive”—we want the story to convert someone to a particular point of view, or to prompt them to act in some way. This is a pretty instrumental, linear view of storytelling: storytelling as strategic communication. At IRIS we want to know—how do you create persuasive stories that are still good stories?

There is plenty of research on what makes stories persuasive, and I hope to highlight some of it in the coming weeks and months. Take this 2019 paper on why characters matter. In stories about flood risk, it looked at what types of storytelling mechanisms encouraged more “narrative transportation”: that is, which stories did audiences get caught up in? The researchers tested three different types of character structures:

  • the Hero narrative, showing that audience members and their communities can prepare for floods; 

  • the Victim narrative, presenting the grave threats and negative outcomes for everyone involved; and

  • the Victim-to-hero narrative, demonstrating how audience members and their communities can reverse bad outcomes.

It turned out that the Hero and Victim-to-hero structures elicited a positive emotional response: they made audiences feel good. The authors assume that audiences feeling positive emotions would be more open to the message and more likely to prepare for the possibility of floods. 

However, there are other ways of defining “effective” storytelling. Sometimes, particularly when we are talking about controversial issues that involve moral judgments, or complex so-called “wicked problems,” effective stories are those that enable authentic and nuanced discussion. This is what Thaler Pekar argues in her response to a new book by Jonathan Gotshall, called The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears them Down. Pekar takes issue with Gotshall’s argument that storytelling is destructive because the need for stories to always identify heroes and victims helps perpetuate conflict. “Let’s jettison the expectation of conflict in storytelling and shift toward narratives centering nuance, contrast, and complexity,” Pekar urges.

This fits with the views of Sara Cobb, whose work brings a narrative approach to conflict resolution. Cobb argues that conflict stories—bi-polar stories, with good guys and bad guys—are bad stories. They are unhelpful as they keep people dug into their respective positions and contribute to polarization. Cobb wants us to move toward complex stories with nuance and complex characters. Part of valuing complexity is also valuing a range of narrative structures and traditions, as AJ Eversole argues in a piece on The Joy of Native Storytelling Structures.

Finally, sometimes effective stories are not those that revolve around an issue—something that is often counterintuitive for funders. This came across in a fantastic panel discussion this year at Sundance featuring BIPOC filmmakers and scientists and curated by Doc Society's new Climate Story Lab initiative. Watch it in full:

Calling All Artists: The Climate Crisis Is Recruiting

As the panelists pointed out, to advance a helpful narrative to combat climate change we don’t always need our films and TV shows to be about climate change. We need more regular soap operas, dramas and romcoms where climate change (or insert issue here) is woven throughout as part of the broader context in which the particular drama takes place (something that is starting to happen in the UK, it seems). 

And there are other ways to define effective storytelling. Perhaps a story teaches us something about ourselves, or enables us to feel seen, or brings a sense of beauty to the world. Often stories work in diffuse rather than direct ways. Sociologist Francesca Polletta and others argue, for example, that stories may not be effective if their message is too explicit, and that ambiguity is often a strength. Too often, we try to tame stories, to simplify them. We fail to think about effectiveness as multifaceted. 

Stories are not magic bullets and impact isn’t linear. Storytelling is important because it’s powerful—it’s fundamental to how we operate as human beings. But the very thing that makes stories powerful also makes them complicated and unpredictable. We need to learn to live with that.

Brett Davidson | IRIS

Brett is the Narrative Lead at International Resource for Impact and Storytelling (IRIS), a donor collaborative for philanthropy focused on strengthening civil society through narrative strategies and creative moving image storytelling for impact.

He is a narrative strategist with deep experience in health equity, with a particular interest in the role of storytelling, popular culture, and arts activism in bringing about social change.

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