On story telling

Storytelling is one of the oldest human traditions. A good story engages the audience, communicates information and leaves a lasting impact. Stories spread either through small communities retelling it, with it evolving through each retelling or through mass media, which increases reach and minimises variation. Stories are everywhere, and with millennia of practice, we’re pretty good at telling them.

Stories are used as a lens to help people make sense of the world, and through relating to a character how they fit within it. When people vote for a political party, they listen to the stories about that party: Which story do they relate to? Which story is the one they want to be told? Which story is the most believable?

When a story is told, it is not said in isolation. A broader grand narrative will change how a story is perceived. As Liberal Democrats, we know what our story is. Our constitution’s preamble tells a story of progressiveness, liberty and community, so the challenge is telling this story in a way that feels relatable in the context of our current culture.

In 2019, the national culture going into the election was anxiety over Brexit. The Tories told an incredibly strong story, with a clear villain (“remainer MPs”), the hero (Boris Johnson for scrapping the backstop), and narrative (the “oven-ready deal”). That the facts didn’t support, this was lost in the sheer simplicity of the story, repeated and retold at every possible opportunity. Labour’s story was a sprawling epic that lacked coherency and, with its silence on Brexit, a lack of relevance to the national consciousness. Our story had the chance to be an antithesis of the Tory story, but our villain was vague (“Brexit” being an abstract concept), our hero less popular, and our narrative seen as arrogant.

In a post-Brexit world, political parties cannot tell their stories using the same manifesto and messaging they did in a pre-Brexit one. It’s hard to predict what will come next, as we don’t know what kind of deal Johnson will negotiate with the EU. If we keep focusing on Brexit, then-No Deal at the end of the year will give a clearer villain for a story, but otherwise, it is vague. National consciousness is on our side more than ever when it comes to the climate, so refocusing there could be a good bet. We should not make the same mistake as Labour; we should make sure we tell our story in a way that actually fits the national conversation.

On a local level, contexts are different. Where I live, in Manchester, the villain in our story is a complacent Labour majority (93 Lab vs 3 LD) acting with impunity. Do you know what story you’re telling, and how you’re telling it?

Make sure that you know your story, and your campaigners and members know it. Make it a strong story, with Liberal Democrats as the heroes, the party you’re facing as the villains, and a narrative of victory for the electorate that is plausible and not open to any obvious corruption. Please make sure that the story is told through your Focuses, your local media, your campaigners, and it spreads through your community. Liberal Democrats have a great story, and if we tell it in the right way, we can win.

* Chris Northwood (she/her) is a councillor in Manchester, deputy group leader of the Manchester Liberal Democrats and member of Federal Council.

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  • Colin Bradbury 12th Feb '20 - 9:50am

    Very timely article. We often forget that ideas, policies, opinions etc. are infinitely more powerful when framed in the context of a story. We might be living in the age of the internet, but we still make sense of the world through stories, just as our caveman ancestors did, sitting around the fire thousands of years ago. Heroes, villains, jeopardy, redemption and a strong story arc remain the key elements. Cummings and Johnson recognised this and acted on it far more effectively than any of the other parties. As Lib Dems, we now need to start putting together our own ‘story’, framing individual policies within a broad and easy to understand narrative if we are to break through the Con/Lab domination of the agenda.

  • I very much like this contribution by Chris Norwood. Thank you. Especially the part about making sure that everyone knows the story. This should be a function of the emails that we receive from headquarters. We need urgently to build our story of Europe. Why we support a democratic international organisation. And the real story that we all share of the real progress that has been made in Europe thanks to this democratic organisation.

  • Innocent Bystander 12th Feb '20 - 10:36am

    Chris’s theme is deceptively simple but exactly correct.
    Leave had a narrative (aka story) of money, control, sovereignty, a fresh start.
    Remain had fear and ( in Nick’s words ) “no change”.
    Having been thwarted over Brexit, the party has nothing to say other than ” we are at an undefinable place somewhere between the other two, we are nice people and have values”.
    The party should think through what this author is saying in one of the most perceptive opeds I have seen here.

  • Brian Edmonds 12th Feb '20 - 12:12pm

    “Make sure that you know your story, and your campaigners and members know it.” Perceptive? Many seasoned campaigners will have good reason to be offended by patronising, quasi lit-crit lectures like this. It’s actually little more than another attempt to pussyfoot around the truth – that a handful of gullible voters in key seats were fooled by a clever campaign and a three-word slogan. The real story is that we will continue to struggle until the electorate are prepared to open their minds to reasoned, adult discourse – I’m not holding my breath.

  • Innocent Bystander 12th Feb '20 - 12:50pm

    I think it’s very noble of you to offer yourself as leader of the stupid, gullible, closed minds British.
    Just keep telling them what you think and you can be confident that they will respond in an appropriate manner.

  • @Brian: I empathise with the frustration, but ultimately you have to work within the system and electorate you have, rather than the one you want. FPP and the media are also frustrating, but they are what they are.

    Policies like the skills wallet, ‘penny on the pound’ ring-fenced NHS tax, council tax hikes on empty homes and free 35 hours of childcare were distinct and interesting in isolation, but weren’t tied together into a resonant and relevant narrative. Most people had awareness of the ‘Stop Brexit’ policy, but didn’t know what would happen after that was achieved (as corroborated by John Curtice).

    Effective, resonant and relatable storytelling may also help to reach some demographics that currently aren’t drawn to the party – can the party have broader appeal than to educated middle classes (does it want it)? There’s some potential to mine among people who feel that the traditional parties – and perhaps politics in general – have drifted away from them.

  • I like the proverb
    Give a man a fish and feed him for a day
    Teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for life.
    I think you can sum up Labour v Tory v LibDem by their interpretation of this proverb.

  • @Brian “The real story is that we will continue to struggle until the electorate are prepared to open their minds to reasoned, adult discourse – I’m not holding my breath.” So on that logic we might as well shut up shop and let the Tories get on with it. Is that your recommendation?

  • David Garlick 14th Feb '20 - 8:28pm

    Great article. The narrative on the environment that connects with all ages is that told by young people standing up for their futures. So clearly epitomised by Greta Thunberg and the school strikers.
    We are not sufficiently engaged with the young and suffer accordingly however good, if cautious, or environmental policies are. It is a good story but one that needs lifting off the written page and telling as often and as well as we can.

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