Religion & Liberty Online

How Conservatives Can Become Storytellers

Brand-Storyteller“The plural of anecdote is not data”, claimed toxicologist Frank Kotsonis, in an attempt to correct sloppy thinking. While Kotsonis has provided a useful aphorism, it can obscure the equally interesting fact that the singular of data is anecdote.

Consider, for example, the following two stories. The first is the shortest work of fiction ever written by Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This powerful story is a marvel of economy. In a mere six words and three punctuation marks, Hemingway is able to convey a sense of tragic loss without ever introducing a single character.

Compare to a story with a similar theme from an anonymous author:

Infant mortality rate: 6.9 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Although it lacks the emotional impact, this too is a model of brevity. Seven words, two numbers, a comma, colon, and two periods are used to express — albeit rather dryly — an important fact about the human condition. Indeed, if Hemingway’s story was not fictional, it could be considered a singular instance of the second story; a particular example of a more general phenomenon.

At this point, you may object to the use of the term “story” in reference to a statistic. You may be tempted to repeat back to me Kotsonis’ mantra: “The plural of anecdote is not data.” But if the singular of data is anecdote and anecdotes are a form of story, then why can’t data be a collection of tales, sifted down and pressed together, into a narrative?Transforming data back into narrative form can provide the oft-lamented missing link between the data and analysis produced by conservative think tanks and the storytelling that appeals to the general public.

Lack of storytelling ability is one of the reoccurring themes of modern conservatism. At National Review Online, Lee Habeeb is the most recent writer to point out that conservatives need to become better at getting our point across by the use of stories:

Do we believe we can reason our way to victory, using our superior arguments to win back our country?

If so, the factually inclined among us forget two important facts: (1) Most human beings get their information through stories, and (2) most Americans don’t like the smart guy in the room who is telling us what to think, even if that guy believes a lot of what we believe.

Regrettably, we have too few people communicating our story effectively, which is the story of free enterprise and the American character. We’ve developed a deep bench of Ph.D.’s and invested billions in our great think tanks, but we’ve invested almost nothing when it comes to telling stories and making venues where we can share those stories.

The primary reason for this lack of storytellers is because we believe they are doing something completely than the Ph.D’s in the think tanks. But in his essay “Social Science as Moral Theology” the late media critic Neil Postman explains “there is a measure of cultural self-delusion in the prevalent belief that psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and other moral theologians and doing something different from storytelling.”

Postman rejects the very idea that what social scientists do should even be considered empirical science. He uses the distinctions made by philosopher Michael Oakeshott between processes (events that are bound by the laws of nature) and practices (events that result from human practices and decisions):

. . . I believe with Oakeshott that there is an irrevocable difference between a blink and a wink. A blink can be classified as a process, meaning it has physiological causes which can be understood and explained within the context of established postulates and theories; but a wink must be classified as a practice, filled with personal and to some extent unknowable meaning and in any case, quite impossible to explain or predict in terms of causal relations.

Processes (“blinks”) and practices (“winks”) are easily confused when they use the language of numbers and quantification. As Postman explains, the scientist uses mathematics to assist in uncovering and describing the structure of nature while the social scientist uses quantification merely to give precision to his ideas. Our attempt to explains “winks” (using data and charts) as if they were “blinks” (which are better expressed in stories) is the reason we fail to get our message across.

Fortunately, the formats that are most available to us (talk radio, blogs, social media) are highly useful for this storytelling. Many Facebook posts, for example, are a model of economy in telling the story — or pieces of a story — of our family and friends. At their best, these media formats can be used to fill the role that Postman ascribes to social science: contributing to human understanding and decency. Conservative communicators who want to become deliberate storytellers, therefore, should learn how to incorporate the tools of social science into these formats by using them to create metaphors, illuminate archetypes, and “tell tales.”

What is also needed is what Steven Johnson, an author who combines cultural criticism and science journalism, calls the “long zoom”, a perspective that shifts back and forth from the macro- to the microcosm. Edward Tufte also advocates such a method which he calls PGP, Particular-General-Particular. As Bill Harris explains,

When communicating complex information, start with a particular example to capture the imagination. Follow up with more general information (this is where you can explore alternatives and do more detailed simulations or analysis). Finish with another particular case to drive the point home and help people remember.

The best policy communicators are often the ones who are able to emphasize both the micro/particular (their own or another’s personal experience) and the macro/general (statistical trends, polls) in ways that help us better understand ourselves and our society. They are able, pace Postman, “to rediscover the truths of social life; to comment on and criticize the moral behavior of people; and finally, to put forward metaphors, images, and ideas that can help people live with some measure of understanding and dignity.”

Habeeb is right when he says, “Let’s stop complaining about our storytelling deficit, about the media bias and our media-pipeline problem. It’s time to construct our own.” But more important than the media-pipeline is the need to create the stories and storytellers who can communicate the ideals and values of conservatism. We have the tools already. We just need to learn how to use them.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).