A Placemaking Journal

Plotting a Persuasive Story? Better have a happily ever after

On my PlaceMakers business card, my job title is “Storyteller.” I figured a graduate degree in English and a two-decade career in journalism gave me a certain amount of credibility in that department. What I didn’t count on, however, was what the title seemed to imply to most folks. To them, I was the spin doctor.

“We’ve got some great ideas, a really cool project,” potential clients might say. “But people just don’t get it. Time to educate them. Win ‘em over. Go work your magic so we can get back on track.”

Was I wrong to be reminded of the lopsided negotiation in Cool Hand Luke?

When there’s a disconnect between what somebody (a developer, a municipality, a non-profit) wants to do and what citizens or customers expect, there’s a tendency to blame the message. A communication breakdown.

Mostly, I find, the message is coming through loud and clear. To citizens, it sounds like: “Another meeting for another process that will deliver another round of nothing.”

How do we fix that perception?

Start with the reality.

And it helps to understand how stories work.

Storytelling Basics

All stories are purposeful. They’re meant to entertain or inform or inspire to action. Great ones might weave all three intentions. But most emphasize techniques designed to evoke one audience response over others.

Stories require the consent, if not the active participation, of an audience. People have to see themselves in the setting or identify with key characters or imagine themselves caught up in the action.

For that to happen, even in the most fantastic of story settings, there have to be handles for audiences to grab onto. The weirdest creatures need familiar human-like quirks. The wildest action needs just enough plausibility to permit suspension of disbelief. Our pattern-seeking brains will do a lot of the heavy lifting. But for the software to kick in, a threshold of coherence has to be crossed.

In stories meant to entertain or inform, it’s not crucial that all readers or audience members have the same experience. The bargain they make with storytellers doesn’t require them to do anything differently than they would otherwise do once they close a book or leave a theater. Once they’ve paid the price of admission, given their full consent, they’re likely to play along even if the story doesn’t always make sense. Unexpected plot twists are okay, even fun. And it’s not crucial if there’s disagreement on what the story ultimately means. In fact, discussing different takeaways with friends might even enhance appreciation of the whole experience.

Not so with the stories we tell to inspire and reward collaboration or to encourage next steps in a community development process. Even if they come to the story from different perspectives, audiences need to find their places quickly, to see themselves as characters benefitting from the direction the story takes towards a future we encourage them to expect.

Their heads have to nod: Yep, we see where this is going. Makes sense. Let’s go.

Getting to that kind of buy-in is especially tough these days. It’s not unusual for citizens to come to the story we’re hoping to tell with counter-stories of cynicism and suspicion. Which delays and perhaps even undermines the process the story is meant to support. Which, in turn, validates and escalates the cynicism.

How to avoid that spin cycle? Get it to move in the opposite direction.

The biggest little thing

The first rule of storytelling is: Know thy audience. Which is really an admonition to pay attention to the full context in which a story is to be told.

A community that has struggled to identify and assert shared values and hopes for the future isn’t likely to provide a great context for storytelling, especially when it comes to big, ambitious ideas. Chances are, people with their own stories of disappointment and frustration, buttressed by the experience of past efforts, will have a hard time imagining their roles in a new story or see the ambitions it describes as realistic.

Maybe, then, it’s time to unblock imaginations with smaller, less ambitious stories that change the context. That provide a better, more believable foundation for narratives of success.

We talked before about the essential task of building trust by, first, paying attention to what your citizens and customers value, then aligning strategies and performance to demonstrate you were listening. Here, for instance, from a 2015 post:

In public engagement contexts increasingly complicated by conflicting tribal perspectives, the story you want to tell is the story listeners are prepared to believe. And that requires listening for unifying touchstones that may force you to alter not only the way you tell your story but also the way you do business.

The way you do business requires defanging memories of projects and processes that didn’t align with reality. Start making a different reality. Replace the old stories with ones anchored in experiences of successes that are replicable and scaleable.

Forget the big, hairy ideas for the time being. Pick the biggest little thing you know you can do. Do it. Celebrate that success. Then, move to the next biggest, doable challenge. Repeat until your story of competence and performance is so duh-level believable that a happily ever after ending seems plausible for the big, hairy idea you want to propose.

The strategy, we argued before, is “to begin at the end, to start with delivering a better place, both literally and figuratively. And to do it now.”

If we skip right to the part where we create real examples of places and programs that perform as promised, (that demonstrate) even a small victory from even the most tentative collaboration, we can reverse engineer the tools and strategies that allow that to happen. And we can keep doing it till we reclaim trust in processes that connect what we want to do with what we actually do.

Ben Brown

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