Stories for ChangePosted by ed in blog November 22, 2013
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” Philip Pullman
A week or two ago I was privileged enough to Chair the outstanding ‘Communicate’ conference in Bristol. For over a decade the event, organised by the Bristol Natural History Consortium, has been the go-to gathering for environmental communicators, and this years’ theme of ‘Stories for Change’ was absolutely spot-on for the 100+ organisations attending. The aim was to reflect, listen and learn, and build ideas around telling more powerful, evocative, resonant and compelling stories that better engage, empower and motivate our audiences for change. Or ‘sharing like bonobos’ as I put it.
So what did we learn? Author, broadcaster and birdwatcher Tim Dee kicked things off with a reading from his new book ‘Four Fields’ which memorably traces his visits to the eponymous areas in very different contexts and parts of the world; a Cambridgeshire fen, a ‘re-wilding’ abandoned tobacco plantation in Zambia, a Montana prairie – site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and a meadow in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. He gripped the audience with a story about his encounter with a Zambian Honeyguide bird, a bird with a unique mutual relationship with people. The bird literally guides local people through song – ‘warmer, warmer…colder, colder’ – to bee’s nests for a share of the honeycomb spoils. A seemingly beautiful symbiosis, it was tempered only by his revelation of the Honeyguide’s darker cuckoo-like habits. It lays its eggs in Bee-eater bird burrows (they lay their eggs underground) where they hatch and the Honeyguide chick disposes of its nestmates with a specially evolved hook-like ‘egg tooth’. Pecking them brutally and mercilessly to death in the dark. Such darkness and light is what an unmediated relationship with the natural world should be about, suggested Tim. He warned us against the ‘debasement’ of the language of connection by campaigners’ press offices, encouraged a constant search for ‘truth’ (and a deep suspicion of those who claim to have found it), and on reconnecting children to nature a return to ‘sticking a finger in it’!
Anna and Peter from Harvest Heritage Arts & Media then helped us build ‘the anatomy of a story’ (see illustration above), noting that a series of facts, or a sequence of events does not make a (good) story. Citing legendary heritage communicator Freeman Tilden the secret is to ‘Provoke. Relate. Reveal’ or ‘Hook ‘em. Hold ‘em. Give ‘em a pay-off’ – starting with an explosion and ending with fireworks. Crucially the provocation or the hook must be through something of interest to your audience. A point which the influential author of ‘The Story Wars’ Jonah Sachs reinforces: ‘Be interesting. Tell the truth. Live the truth’. Because if you’re not interesting (to them) they’re not even going to be listening to your truth!
Angela MacFarlane then asked ‘when does story become spin?’ wondering aloud how ‘eco-taxes’ have become the villain in the narrative of rising energy prices and how the term ‘asylum-seeker’, surely a situation synonymous with desperation, humanity and empathy, has become a term of vilification and abuse? Demonstrating the power of influence that can hijack language and change it’s perception, interpretation and meaning.
‘Big stories tell us someone is in charge’ said (former Futerran!) Nathan Oxley of the excellent STEPS Centre. ‘Only industrial agriculture can feed the world’, ‘There’s no alternative to economic austerity’, ‘The lights will go out without nuclear power’ are all ‘big stories’ he argued (read his blog about this here). ‘Little stories’ of how small-scale farmers feed the majority of the planet, how creative endeavours like ‘The Edible Bus Stop’ beat austerity, or how community energy in places like Brixton makes the ‘Big 6’ energy companies look like potentially stranded assets. Big stories are not the only game in town, their foundations can be ‘nibbled away’ by the ‘Trojan Mice’ of little stories. As Nathan put it ‘Telling a little story is a profoundly political act’.
The danger really lies in when ‘big stories’ present themselves as the only reality echoed Ian Christie. People have a very limited sense of their own ‘agency’ for change, relying a lot on stories they are told (or fed). We need to create space for different stories – suggesting ‘transition zones’ (moving house, having a baby, retirement) are great opportunities for behaviour change as people are not only changing lifestyles but changing their identity.
All these theories were dramatically brought to life on Day Two of the event, where a smorgasbord of sizzling ‘story-mongers’ shared their experiences. I was particularly taken by Mike Wilson and Project Aspect’s work on people’s personal stories about climate change, including wonderful films like this one. Human, heartfelt and real, they were like a breath of fresh air, but powerful and provocative nonetheless – perhaps more so. A bit like this daft sketch on the difference between climate and weather courtesy of Armstrong & Miller.
Equally powerful was Susan Ballard’s ‘Flood Force’, an experimental film that shows the real, practical solutions to climate change adaptation in the context of flooding – porous cities, green roves, storm drainage - in a story full of characters and emotion, not just reports, data and evidence. Showing that stories can change mindsets, and mindset shifts make things happen.
Overall, the 150 or so attendees of the sell-out event left I think, with an enormous sense of the ‘possible’, an array of clever tactics and techniques, a slew of tasty case studies, insights and principles, thoughts and ideas. It really was an inspiring couple of days of collective generosity of time and spirit, content and camaraderie. We left with hot fire in our bellies and cool, steely determination in our heads. If we can change the stories, we can change the world.
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November 25, 2013
Nice roundup Ed! I looked up the ‘Trojan Mice’ image after you mentioned it, and found Peter Fryer’s website http://www.trojanmice.com/ which seems to be more about introducing small, innocuous changes into businesses, perceived as complex systems. Slightly different to the ‘little stories’ idea but still a lovely image.
I thoroughly enjoyed the event anyway – a good mix of inspiration and critical questioning which fed off each other well.
November 26, 2013
Thank you for this summary Ed! I would love to read the Conference Proceedings, hopefully will be published!
November 28, 2013
Hi Joanna, glad you enjoyed Ed’s summary. We’ll have videos and other materials from the event up on our website soon.
Ben (Communicate producer)