By PHILIP SEARGEANT
In February this year, LinkedIn announced a “stories” feature, following in the footsteps of Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook in adopting a format that has soared in popularity over the last few years. One reason for that is that culture at large has become obsessed with the idea of storytelling: heads of PR hand out business cards inscribed with the title Chief Storyteller, while brand consultants will unironically advise you on how to turn yourself into a Storytelling Ninja.
In many cases, this is a branding exercise, a bid to add a mythic allure to mundane, modern-day practices. But while this trend may be mostly superficial, storytelling in its traditional form is still very much alive and well on the internet. Ever-evolving technologies are working with age-old forms of communication to create the society we’re living in today. And those who understand this best are making the most impact online.
Take politics. Innovations in communications technology have revolutionised how election campaigns are run. From the optimism over digital democracy back in 2008 when, as a headline in the US edition of WIRED put it, “Propelled by internet, Barack Obama wins presidency”, to more recent concerns over “fake news”, campaigns of disinformation, data scraping and microtargeting, there’s been intense interest in how social media is altering what we understand as political communication.
The primary effect of these forms of communication is to extend the reach of a politician’s message, offering new ways of attracting the attention of an audience (and, of course, the media), while allowing a campaign to target particular segments of the population with narrowly tailored messages.
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But simply dominating attention, even among select sections of the electorate, isn’t enough for sustainable success. As shown by Mike Bloomberg’s doomed campaign in the Democratic primaries, that might help you buy your way into contention, but it can only take you so far. Bloomberg spent an estimated $500 million and rolled out a huge social media campaign, yet only managed to secure a few dozen delegates. In political communication you also need to engage with the audience you’ve attracted; to convey a message that appeals and excites them.
It’s become something of a mantra that tapping into emotions is a far more effective way of persuading people than rational argument. People tend to vote on values and identity rather than on facts. And one of the most powerful tools for engaging people’s emotions is storytelling.
The easiest way to explain how this works is with an example. In a tweet justifying some of his business dealings a few years ago, Donald Trump offered a very succinct summary of what, he claimed, was his motivation for getting involved in politics. “I am a very good [property] developer”, he wrote, “happily living my life, when I see our Country going in the wrong direction (to put it mildly). Against all odds, I decide to run for President”.
This is a classic set-up for a drama: a comfortable existence is sacrificed to the sense of duty that the individual feels towards his country, and to the simple goal of making America great again. It’s the same basic structure you find in countless Hollywood movies, where unfancied outsiders feel compelled to undertake difficult and dangerous quests for the good of the community. Anyone familiar with the tenets of screenwriting will recognise the key elements of dramatic narrative here: a call to action, a flawed but captivating protagonist, a goal which involves personal change and struggle, and a well-defined antagonist in the shape of the self-serving political establishment.
Trump is by no means the only one framing his political actions around this sort of story. The Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum consistently portrayed the UK as a gutsy loner fighting off the threat from an overbearing and authoritarian EU. Even Boris Johnson, who’s been a career politician for much of his life, framed himself as an agent of change in the 2019 General Election. His pitch was that the self-serving elite of the Westminster establishment were out of touch with the concerns of the electorate, and that it needed a maverick such as him to stand up to the might of parliament. Despite the fact that his Brexit deal was much the same as Theresa May’s, and that he’d worked alongside May in her government, he fashioned a far more persuasive story than her troubled “Strong and stable” claim. And this led to far greater electoral success.
If you look at most successful political candidates, now and throughout history, you can see their campaigns are built around a few basic storytelling principles such as these. They have an understanding of the way narratives are structured around the character of the protagonist; of the need for a sense of conflict which provokes moral outrage by appealing to the audience’s system of values; and the way these values are symbolised by a clearly-defined goal which the politician commits to deliver (“Build the wall!”). The way candidates relay this story to the electorate may have changed over the years, based on the communications technology available to them, but the core principles remain the same.
Social media has forever altered the shape of politics. But this is mostly in the way that new and ever-evolving types of communication are used to circulate and amplify a politician’s message, to help force it – by both legitimate and illegitimate means – into the heart of the attention economy.
They offer new ways of narrating a story; of embedding it in clickable content; of refining its details for specific audiences; of provoking people into spreading within their peer groups. The Trump campaign in the US, and the Conservatives under Boris Johnson in the UK, have exploited these technological advances to great effect. Yet underpinning all this is still the need to connect emotionally with the voters, and persuade them that your message relates to the vision they have of their lives. This is too often lost in the noise generated by our fascination with the impact of the new.
Original Article: Wired