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Narrative, Story, Science & Death

Recommended: the essays “Story vs. Narrative? And Why It Matters?”and “How to Break From the Past and Innovate” by Guillaume Wiatr, principal and founder of the consultancy MetaHelm. (H/T: List member Frank McClung.)

Money quote from the first: “People will pay for a story, but people will die for a narrative.”

I’ve written before about my distaste for the storytelling industry and my preference for scientists sticking to narrative — as structures for their individual acts of communications as well as for their strategic initiatives. Waitr goes further. His argument isn’t unique, but he makes it powerfully. For him, stories are interesting and create emotional connections between teller and listener. But that’s small potatoes, he says, compared to the power of narratives — which he defines as meta-stories that express our mental frameworks, our values, our ways of making meaning. At their best, Waitr argues, stories reinforce narrative. But only a change in narrative allows us to change things.

“I don’t trust the government” is a narrative. “If I get the vaccine, Bill Gates will be able to track my movements” is a story.

“Trust the science” is a narrative. “Politicians should just listen to everything Tony Fauci says” is a story.

Frank asked me what I thought of Wiatr’s distinction between story and narrative, especially since my business has “Story” in its name.

Sadly, my response was a bit tortured and focused on Waitr’s belief in the transformative power of narrative for business. I also didn’t grapple fully with an accompanying story Frank shared from his time in the pandemic.

That story was personal, so I won’t share the details. Let’s just say it’s a familiar tragedy of our moment, and if we could charge a narrative with murder, this one would be locked away. But as Waitr might point out, that’s just my narrative talking.

In the pandemic, information and its dark alter egos function as stories. They reinforce our narratives, either positively or as we find holes in them to shoot. But the stories don’t shift our narratives. Neither, it seems, do the most heinous stories of neglect (or, for that matter, of miraculous recovery). That’s the essence of the COVID-19 communication tragedy right now, and increasingly for science communications as polarization swallows more and more issues.

In Wiatr’s business, CEOs need to define and assert their company’s strategic narratives —​ to not settle for mere storytelling. In science and research and health communications, we find entrenched narrative impervious to story, and yet we continue to resort to story to uproot narrative. Sometimes power has its uses.