What Story Do You Need to Subvert to Make Your Bold Idea Heard?
When we’re pitching a novel idea, most of us behave as Lockeans, whether or not we recognize our connection with the seventeenth-century philosopher. Faced with an audience of nonexperts, we tend to ascribe to Locke’s belief that the people we’re pitching to are tabulae rasae, blank slates.
Consequently, we do all we can to engrave our novel story onto those empty surfaces. We go to great pains to educate our audience, filling them up with technical details. We emanate enthusiasm and confidence, hoping our positive emotions will overflow into the people we’re trying to persuade. And we rally both logical evidence and social proof so as to leave no room for doubt.
But, in our zeal to impress the audience with our story, we overlook a critical fact: the people we’re pitching to aren’t blank slates. They’re slates filled with layers and layers of stories, some of which contradict the story we’re telling.
You can have the most riveting, spell-binding story to tell, but if you don’t first dismantle the counter-story (or stories) your audience holds dear, it will fall flat.
Consider the case of creationism
If you come from an academic background, then you’ve been reared on the milk of logic. You’ve spent years sharpening your analytical thinking skills, learning how to craft watertight arguments and mount an impermeable defense.
And because you’re used to operating in a domain dominated by rational thinking, you may expect that the rules of engagement that apply inside academia also apply beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower.
However, in discussions outside the academy, emotion often counts for more than “facts” or “reasoned opinion,” and strong emotions tend to take root through story.
Story weaves individual beliefs into a cohesive platform. Through drama, it makes the conceptual concrete and memorable. It gives faceless ideas faces, turns ideological conflicts into straightforward battles between good and evil, and enables the audience to live the life of a hero.
Consider one of the most intransigent stories in Western culture, creationism.
It’s been nearly two centuries since Charles Lyell published Principles of Geology, a work that shattered the bedrock of literalistic faith for many Victorians. Since then, geologists have learned to read the “rock record” showing the changes in the Earth over millennia, and geneticists have mapped the human genome. How, a rational-minded person might wonder, can anyone persist in the belief that the world was created in seven, 24-hour days and that humankind appeared ex nihilo, as a species without a pedigree?
When a belief defies logic, you can be sure it’s rooted in a compelling story. And what a story the Christian account of humanity’s origins provides.
The Bible actually gives two accounts of creation, but the version that has stuck includes all the elements of a mesmerizing tale. The hero is Adam, God’s crowning creation, brought to life after five days of intense cosmos-building. The villain is the serpent, who deceives Adam’s wife, Eve, into transgressing against God’s rules and betraying Adam. The drama pits man against woman, humanity against beast, and free will against divine decree. The crashing finale describes how Adam and Eve are driven from paradise, with flashing angelic swords posted at the entrance so they can never return.
This story of humanity’s origins speaks powerfully to existential themes (such as the origin of evil, gender roles, and the limits of human agency) while completely side-stepping logical explanation. It creates—and memorializes—meaning without referring to data or “hard” evidence.
If you’ve ever tried to “prove” to a creationist the legitimacy of evolution, then you know it’s futile to try to fight this kind of emotional power with logic. Data points and footnotes prove no match for the ferocity of story-driven feeling.
Fight story with story
As a set of “facts,” a collection of fossils, evolution will never make sense to a creationist. But over the past couple of centuries, evolutionists have learned to weave their own narrative, a story that has displaced creationism for many mainstream Christians.
The evolutionist narrative started off on rocky footing because, as the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson put it in his long poem In Memoriam, it seemed to show a world “red in tooth in claw.” Instead of an orderly universe governed by a loving creator, it presented a universe ruled by random events and ongoing conflict. Whereas the creationist story positioned Adam at the peak of creation, the evolutionary narrative threw him down into the muck, where he became just another creature struggling to emerge from the primordial slime.
Story grips us so forcefully because it provides meaning. Its familiar, easy-to-repeat contours give shape to the values and beliefs that define us.
The creationist story gives meaning to the human condition by rooting the struggle for survival in the first struggle in the Garden of Eden. But at first, it seemed that the evolution story robbed humanity of both its status and its dignity.
Over time, a revised story evolved to describe evolution. This narrative centered on a new Adam, a hero who emerged not at the tip of God’s fingertips but through thousands of years of natural selection. In this version, the hero, now dubbed homo sapiens, fights his way from ape-like origins to modern enlightenment. In contrast with the early evolution narratives that so shocked Tennyson and his contemporaries, this gentler story restores to humanity their dignity. It gives shape to a new way of thinking about what it means to be a meaning-making animal in a world where meaning is not spelled out by theologians but defined by the individual.
As the evolutionists learned, the way to establish a new idea is not by throwing data at the crowd but rather by wooing them through narrative. Tell a tale more gripping than the other guy’s. Fight story with story.
Pay attention to grand narratives
The story of evolution has become what I’d call one of the grand narratives of our time, a story writ so large across culture that it underpins many other stories. When you’re introducing a novel idea, it’s important to understand how your new story fits in with or challenges existing grand narratives.
The evolution narrative represented as “the survival of the fittest,” exerts an especially strong influence over much of Western culture because it shapes the overarching narrative of capitalism: through competition, the strong thrive and the weak die off. This grand narrative then seeps into the narratives that get told across various aspects of business. Strategy is the art of competition, how we make sure that our organization stays fit for survival. Marketing is the arena where we embrace competition head-on and try to take charge of the evolutionary battle. Human resources is the domain where we sort strong from weak employees to give the organization the best competitive advantage.
The evolutionary story also shapes economics and our obsession with growth. As a recent example, in a CBC interview with Matt Galloway last week, former Finance Minister Bill Moreau spoke about his new book, Where To From Here: A Path to Canadian Prosperity. When asked what the federal government should be doing in response to help Canadians cope with rising prices and economic uncertainty, he said he’d make “growth” his number one concern because growth breeds confidence. He went on to explain:
“People are only going to be optimistic if they can see that that promise that’s come around for Canada for generations—that the next generation will be better off than the one before—that it’s real.”
The ”promise” to which Morneau refers is really just the evolution story retold. As he points out, this grand narrative intertwines with our national story. The grander the narrative, the more likely it is to be embedded in religious, social, and political institutions, and the harder it is to dislodge.
When you’re pitching a new or controversial idea, it’s important to recognize the breadth and depth of the narratives you’re up against. Only once you’ve detected the existing stories that shape your audience’s reality and traced them back to their source in grand narratives, can you challenge them.
Practice narrative subversion
In The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down, Jonathan Gottschall examines several conspiracy stories, which engineer alternative realities for millions of Americans. Such poisonous narratives fuel anti-Semitism, fear of aliens, and the belief that the Earth is flat.
Conspiracy stories wield such influence because they intentionally subvert a prevailing narrative. Such false narratives may be misleading and even harmful, but they can give innovators insight into how to displace and replace the stories that stand between a new idea and the target audience.
For example, in America (as in Canada), an existing narrative describes the government as transparent. Its secular story of creation shows how it was formed on rationalist principles to protect the rights of the people and was shepherded by honest leaders such as George Washington (who could not tell a lie about chopping down a cherry tree) and “Honest Abe” Lincoln. However, according to Gottschall, most Americans believe in or feel neutral about the story that the government has hidden alien spaceships in Area 51 of the Nevada desert. In other words, more than 50% of Americans believe in a counter-story that subverts the existing story of a transparent government.
Conspiracy stories catch on, says Gottschall, because they tend to portray a simple battle. Hero vs. villain. Right vs. wrong. Justice vs. Injustice. In the case of the Area 51 conspiracy theories, the villain is the American government, who has betrayed the trust of the American people by hiding its interactions with aliens.
As an innovator, you can practice narrative subversion—without sacrificing your integrity or frightening your audience. Just follow these four steps:
- Identify the narratives that dominate discussion of your topic.
- Dig beneath those stories to find the grand narrative, the root or master story.
- Call out your issues with the grand narrative.
- Offer an alternative narrative that shows the triumph of Good over Evil.
An inspiring example of narrative subversion
Late last year, I noticed a great example of these four steps to narrative subversion. Five countries—Finland, Iceland, Scotland, Wales, and New Zealand—stood up to the grand narrative of economic growth as the sole way for humanity to evolve. Together, they formed a partnership called the Wellbeing Economy Governments. (Read the CBNC story here.)
For years, individuals and organizations within the five governments have been challenging various narratives related to poverty and wealth, to environmental protection, and other social ills. Now, they’ve gone a step further by calling out the grand narrative beneath the many different narratives that validate and create injustice: the obsession with economic growth.
Members of the Wellbeing Economy Governments would probably label Bill Morneau’s confidence in ongoing economic expansion as either naïve or reckless. As we look around at a planet pillaged of resources, it’s clear that what got us here won’t get us to a sustainable future. We need a new story to drive our economics and our politics. And that’s what the Wellbeing Economy Governments are framing up.
According to this group, the old story relies on an outdated method for measuring economic prosperity. Instead of tracking a country’s GDP (gross domestic product), we should be tracking wellbeing indicators. Going forward, in a world where resources are scarce, it’s not how much growth we generate that will ensure our survival but rather how well we learn to share.
I’m rooting for the Wellbeing Economy Governments—not just because the initiative is mainly women-led, and not just because it chimes with my personal values. I’m also a fan of this movement because it illustrates so well how to lead social change through narrative subversion.
What stories are keeping your audience trapped right now?
How does your research discovery or innovative solution show the way out?
How can you subvert the narrative to connect with your audience, empower them, and turn them into collaborators?
These are the kinds of questions I love to ponder, so if you’d like to do some brainstorming about how you could practice narrative subversion, email me: email@example.com.
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