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Are stories good or bad?

March 2, 2012

Ian Thorpe makes the case for taking a middle of the road approach:

Reality is complex, messy and full of uncertainties – even in your own areas of expertise and experience. Explaining this to someone else who doesn’t share your technical background or frame of reference is extremely hard. Stories can serve as a powerful way to bridge these gaps to make it easier to convey an idea from one person to another. One of the reasons they work so well is that they distil messy reality into a few individual concepts or ideas stripping out detail and nuance, and they use a familiar narrative form to explain these in a way in which the listener can easily understand, relate to their own experience and emotionally engage with.

On the one hand we don’t use stories enough to help introduce people to new ideas and to spark interest and engagement. They could be used more as a tool for experts and researchers to start a dialogue about the applications of their expertise in policy and in politics, and for politicians or advocates to engage an uninformed or weary public on public policy issues.

On the other hand, responsible advocates also need to recognize that story telling is a beginning of a dialogue around an issue which needs to evolve into a more nuanced, evidence informed discussion, rather than being a substitute for it.

I have written about the dangers of stories here and here. I agree completely with this. It is not the story in and of itself that is the problem so much as what the storyteller and listener do with the story. If the listener connects with a situation via a story and then acts on only the information provided in the story, there will be problems. They must use their connection with the story to spur them to do the research necessary to understand the complexities of the situation. At the same time, advocates much realize that after getting people connected via a story, they must do their part to then present research and facts to help the listener understand the whole picture.

If we do not do this, we run the risk of causing more harm than good, as has happened in the Congo since the passing of Dodd-Frank 1502.


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