The power of stories – a different kind of knowing

16 August 2016, Patrick Towell

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Two of the purposes of GMV, our company, are:

  • "To help people understand more about themselves, other people and the world”
  • “To engage people through authentic and compelling narratives”.

Storytelling is perhaps as old as society, helping people to make sense of the world: particularly to understand their place in it in terms of the community or communities to which they belong and recognising those who are ‘other’.

As science and reason have in many cases replaced ‘priest led’ knowledge, our explanations of society and the natural world have become ever more fact-laden and structural. The natural sciences – and the mathematics that underpins them – tend to break down complex situations into individual components and then explain the relationships between those different components – that is their modus operandi. Think Newton, billiard balls, atoms, planetary systems etc…

(If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, the fight between these two world views is one of the most entertaining elements of His Dark Materials with scientific enquiry having to be labelled ‘experimental theology’ to be acceptable to the powers that be.)

In the development of policy and strategy, of all the social sciences it is the paradigm of economics elevated to a pseudo-science which has dominated how we try to model the behaviour of people en masse – using similar methods. Modern (project) management methods – informed by both engineering and IT – also take a similar approach. So this may come out as seeing people within a role – ‘visitor’, ‘customer’, ‘audience’, ‘user’ etc – rather than seeing people as, well, err… people. Time is divided up into steps within processes.

To see what I mean, open up any book on project management you might have on your shelves – or searchable on the web – and I guarantee that every page will contain the words ‘structure’ and ‘divide’! Or as one of the founding fathers of information design, Edward Tufte, comments on the defects of PowerPoint: “a deeply hierarchical single-path structure as the model for organizing every type of content, breaking up narrative and data into slides and minimal fragments”. Or my paraphrasing of his diagnosis: too simple a structure without enough overlaps between things or fuzziness; and the problem domain being considered broken down into too small pieces (‘the over-particularisation problem’).

Design – and in particular digital design – follows a different problem-solving and sense-making pattern. It attempts to model the real world but more in terms of verbs than nouns – more flows than atoms. Individual components may be identified but they are interconnected within a holistic whole – more synthesis than analysis.

This often leads to scarier and messier diagrams, but ones that perhaps better reflect the messiness of reality, however uncomfortable. Several times in my career, I’ve created a diagram which shows how a project or new service really works – including all the different people and organisations involved – and each time I’ve been told “don’t whatever you do show that to the client, it will scare them”!

User-centred design is also much more comfortable with taking the experience of an individual as an organising principle – rather than the user groups of project management or market segments of economics. The argument runs that an individual’s behaviour is a better model of the behaviour of a number of different individuals than their average – even if it better only that we as creators of products, services or experiences care more about an individual than a group.

And so, finally, back to stories – films, plays, films of plays, books and some emerging forms within games and VR. Stories have individual characters – with all of their peculiarities. Stories synthesise different people, places and other objects into a coherent whole – in evolving relationship rather than a static snapshot. They represent a different kind of knowledge to science and reason – which we can know with a different conviction, partly because empathy engages our emotions and partly because as Steven Pinker argues in The Language Instinct an understanding of narrative alongside grammar is innate.

The power of stories about science, academic research, economics – policy, even – is that they enable us to know what we intellectually cannot grasp the detail of. One challenge for those who tell stories about this stuff is to undertake what is seems like a messy and illogical process in a context which is dominated by rational and structural ways of thinking – and which although the outcome is a kind of communications ‘product’, cannot be ‘designed’. In a world where some key discussions are seen as ‘post-factual’, the other challenge is to make the narratives authentic so they do correspond to the current state of underlying rational knowledge.

One of GMV’s clients is Theatre of Debate which works with leading scientists and researchers, policy makers and experts, writers and actors to produce creative work including theatre and debate, live and filmed, that engages young people and adults in ways that both entertain and provoke serious thought.

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