Simply telling a good story

"Experts" are no longer listened to apparently – but if we tell a good story, and engage our audience, maybe they will want to hear what we say.

Blog by
10 August 2016

Liz Carlile is director of communications at IIED

What's the use of being an expert if no one listens to you? (Photo: Chris Pirillo, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

What do you do when you have something really important to say, but nobody seems willing to listen? When people are not interested in your "expertise"?

This was one of the topics that came up in discussions at the recent Green Economy Coalition meeting when we were trying to encapsulate the story of a better world. Members of the coalition have some fantastic stories to tell – but sometimes it feels as though we are trapped in a bubble.

It's a subject I thought about a lot in preparation for the meeting. If we want to build a collective movement for action, what do we need to do? What is it that makes a story go viral?

We are peddling a better world for heaven's sake – why is it so difficult to get people on board? Or is it? Maybe we don't or can't do what it takes to attract attention.

For a start how do people know it is a better world? One of the things we talked about was sharing the vision, describing that world. Sometimes we spend more time describing the journey there than inspiring people about the destination. And it is the destination that counts.

An inspirational narrative

Research quoted by Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker on what made stories go viral found that inspiration was certainly one factor – an inspirational narrative that is clearly part of a bigger picture.

So let's do a better job of telling the story that people can buy into – what will our sustainable world really look like rather than why it will be a better place.

The research also looked at how many of the stories people shared related to a sense of belonging. People like to belong, they like to be seen and acknowledged as being part of something. So our conversation needs to speak directly to them, to include them.  

Giving people things to share – such as a vision, or a list of practical actions, or a way to be involved – has to be central to our story.

Another factor is speaking to emotion. Aristotle is said to have identified this one in 350 BC (his three components of rhetoric were pathos, ethos and logos), and 2016 AD is clearly seeing Trump use this to the max. As Gaby Hinsliff highlighted in The Guardian, Trump connects emotionally with his audience "because bombarding them with facts doesn't work". Aristotle's ethos may have fallen by the wayside.

In our sector our honesty and consensus-nature demand that we tell it how it is, that we back our ideas up with evidence, that we provide caveats and disclaimers. But our end goal is too serious to waste time on this – we need to cut through all that and make sure we rose-tint our vision. There is enough truth in that.

Speaking a common language

But is using emotion over vision a mistake? I am reminded of watching migrating birds in the sky shifting and shaping around air currents and how this is like the rise and fall of the trash talk on Twitter. You seem to build a quick following of those enjoying the banter, but does that support and loyalty last?

Is it really the best strategy to build your movement using any old emotional triggers and then backfill with content and engagement? I hope not but the evidence isn't looking good just now.

Our terminology is unknown, boring and impenetrable, it means nothing to most people. If I said "ISIS" or "Daish" everyone – globally – would know what I was talking about. If I say "green economy" or "sustainable one-planet-living", everyone would not.

OK, it's not a fair comparison – an immediate fear factor that will clearly resonate across all cultures and creeds. But our story should speak to everyone too – the deterioration of our planet, or the future that a climate-changed over-consumptive world will bring.

But we are dealing with something more complicated and less familiar.

Telling a positive story

As the book 'Communicating Sustainability for the Green Economy' points out, environmental awareness and people's understanding about how they can make a difference impacts hugely in how involved they become.

They also talk about the "knowledge to action gap". Perhaps this is where the emotion and the stories belong. 

At the Green Economy Coalition meeting there was consensus that keeping the message simple, writing stories of change that show what is already happening and ensuring a positive narrative were where we should go. People will take their own action when there are examples to follow.

Going back to the research on which articles were most read in the New Yorker – I was surprised that the favourites were the positive stories and the ones that were most likely to be shared. We see so much emotional bullying and trolling on Twitter, so much pointlessly sensationalist stuff online that I assumed it would be different, that it was just the negative and shocking that appealed.  

Their findings support the theory that crisis narratives don't work either – people don't want to be scared into action, rather they go into denial.

Buying into a more sustainable world

We want to join/help build a movement that really gets behind a fairer more sustainable world, one that can work for everyone. There are people out there who have already bought into this vision and are leading through their own forces for change – we want to bring them together to reach that collective tipping point.

So let's roll up our sleeves articulate the vision, share our emotions, firm up our social currency or handshake and hand out things people can share together around a common goal.

Liz Carlile (liz.carlile@iied.org) is director of communications at IIED.

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