Tag Archives: story

A very slippery story

Standard

June 25, 2010

The usual key to staying on top in the murky world of politics is to control the narrative. And, by all linguistic accounts, Barack Obama’s control of the oil spill narrative has slipped away.

Lonely warrior. Barack Obama counting tar balls on a Louisiana beach in May 2010. (Larry Downing/Reuters) 

In his best Churchill impression, he spoke about “the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens,” going on to vow that “we will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes.”

The president then talked about creating a battle plan as well as the need to develop energy independence and to “fight for the America we want for our children.”

In fact, Obama’s rhetoric around America’s biggest environmental disaster has intensified in recent weeks.

Accused of not being angry enough at the company that has still not managed to fully plug a gushing oil well, “No Drama” Obama, as he was once known, is using tougher language and framing the oil spill as an environmental 9/11.

He also uttered the now oft-quoted explanation of why he’s spending so much time talking to experts: so he can “know whose ass to kick.”

Oil-spill enabler

But in this unfolding drama, with a wavering protagonist, a motley crew of characters and a slick, unrelenting enemy, one is compelled to shout in frustration: “words, words, words!”

Therein lies the problem, says language analyst Paul Payack. Words alone mean nothing if they are not backed up by action and, as a result, Obama has lost control of what he wants to say.

“He who wins control of the narrative controls the story in terms of political capital,” says Payack. And at the moment, Obama isn’t doing so well, which could hurt his party in the November mid-term elections.

According to Payack, the most important storyline currently defining the president is “Obama as oil spill enabler.”

To arrive at that, Payack’s Global Language Monitor tracked the frequency of words and phrases on the internet — in the news media, blogosphere and social media outlets — to figure out the predominant, unfiltered story.

It tracked word combinations such as “Obama/slow response/delayed response,” “BP/slow response/delayed response,” “Obama in command/not in command,” and “BP in command/not in command.”

According to Payack’s measurement, the popular opinion is that Obama was slow to respond and is not in command, therefore “enabling” the perpetrators, BP.

What’s more, this view appears to have completely overshadowed “Obama as health-care reformer.”

Remember health-care reform? That is supposed to have been the president’s great achievement.

The passive voice

So how did Obama lose control of the story?

The prime-time speech solidified the “enabler” narrative, in part, Payack says, because the president spoke at an unexpectedly high 10th-grade reading level, with the highest level of what are called passive constructions measured in any major presidential address in this century.

The passive voice in politics, says Payack, tends to either deflect responsibility or obscure who is taking action.

But while the government has lost control of the oil spill narrative, it’s not like BP has gained it.

The company is so desperate to have some control, any control, of the storyline that it’s actually buying up language.

Well, not in so many words. But for a while there it was buying up sponsored links at the top of Google and Yahoo. So if you typed in oil spill, BP oil spill, or oil spill response into their search engines, up popped BP’s official page to tell you about “BP’s progress on the Gulf of Mexico’s response effort.”

The company said it wanted to show what it was doing to contain the oil spill. That’s clearly not working too well for them.

So if neither the government nor the company is controlling the narrative, who is?

“If you neglect to write your own narrative, somebody else will write it for you”, says Payack. And those others appear to be pundits, bloggers and journalists.

Obama’s prime-time address was billed as an “inflection point” (another oddly esoteric term for a very real disaster).

It was supposed to create a shift from the anxiety-provoking narrative of a slow response, to an uplifting narrative of hope and change and energy independence.

The American public, however, doesn’t seem to be buying it. A recent poll shows only 53 per cent of Americans believe Obama is a solid and effective leader, a seven-point drop since January.

Still, the president might yet wrestle back control in the next few months, in time for the mid-term elections. Because, sadly, this story is far from over.

==============================================

Just imagine if we were better storytellers

Standard

Sept. 1, 2009

When I was young, my family went downhill skiing almost every weekend. It was fun and great exercise, but truth be told, some days were long. And cold. So to entertain myself, I made up a soap opera called On the Slopes.

I created several plot lines with different characters, even different accents, and told the stories aloud to my imaginary audience as I barrelled down the ski run. I recall many dramatic scenes in the emergency room involving doctors with gratuitous British accents.

The soap opera format was perfect, because I could just pick up the plot when next on the slopes.

Perhaps this imaginative storytelling propelled me toward a career in broadcasting, in which oral stories are so central. As a journalist, I’ve listened to many people speak — at all levels of government, at conferences, in churches, at rallies, at funerals. I’ve laughed. I’ve cried. But often, I’ve sighed. I wish more people knew how to tell good stories.

It turns out that good storytellers may be made in childhood. The key? Imaginary friends. Research shows that anywhere from a quarter to half of young children have played with them.

Now, a study has found that imaginary friends — whether they’re named Emily or Giant Strongman, whether young or old, male or female — help children become better storytellers. And that in turn, helps boost their reading comprehension and overall language skills.

Storytelling starts young

In the July/August issue of the journal Child Development, researchers investigated the language skills of 48 boys and girls aged 5½, about half of whom had imaginary friends.

Associate professor Elaine Reese of the University of Otago in New Zealand and her former student Gabriel Trionfi first assessed the children’s language skills by measuring their vocabulary.

Then they asked the children to tell two types of stories: fictional and realistic. In the fictional storytelling activity, the children were read a story rich with dialogue and then asked to retell the story to a puppet. In the realistic storytelling activity, they were asked to tell a story about a real-life event such as a trip to the beach.

While the children didn’t differ in their vocabulary skills, the children with imaginary friends used more dialogue and characters in retelling the fictional story, and gave more information about time and place in the realistic story.

One child described going to an A&P show — an agricultural exhibition — with heaps of horses jumping and winning ribbons, and cows going around in a big circle in a paddock. Not bad for a five-year-old.

The researchers say the children with imaginary friends told higher-quality stories than the others; they simply get more practice telling stories both to their friend and to other interested folks.

Trionfi says it’s a gift: “Understanding how to tell a story to someone who wasn’t there, or doesn’t know what you know, all takes abstract thinking skills.”

We don’t develop our storytelling skills

So if that many children are telling stories — and telling them well — why are so many of us so bad at it later in life? As I see it, we don’t carry storytelling with us into our professional lives, unless we actually work in a story-reliant industry such as journalism.

Ottawa-based communications expert Barry McLoughlin says many of us don’t exercise the storytelling muscle enough, so it atrophies. And somewhere along the line, it becomes more difficult to talk about emotions in public. To be a good storyteller, you need to put yourself on the line.

“With the oral storytelling tradition, you’re telling an anecdote, you’re revealing something of yourself,” says McLoughlin. “Revealing yourself is highly uncomfortable. It’s off script. It means taking a risk.”

The other reason for diminished story telling, according to McLoughlin, is technology: “Oral storytelling is a lost art that has been superseded by the screen. Now it’s the visual tradition. Now it’s show me.”

More important than ever

But show me doesn’t guarantee we’re getting information that helps us actually understand the world.

“We need someone to tell us a story to make sense of it all. There’s so many competing claims out there. The recession for example; the economy is up, it’s down,” says McLoughlin. “We have information overload. What we want is knowledge.”

The finest stories combine information with colourful images. That’s the best way to ensure that people remember our message.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton: A natural storyteller. (Mike Wintroath/Associated Press)

It’s rare to see in person a former U.S. president known for his compelling speaking style. Several years ago, I had the fortune of seeing Bill Clinton when he was in Winnipeg.

One of his points was that giving poorer countries more economic help encourages peace and prosperity. He wove a tale about a Ghanaian woman who ran after him on the airport tarmac to give him a shirt made possible through the Africa trade bill. It was one of many stories filled with both vivid images and relevant statistics.

About 1,600 people sat in the theatre that night, but you could have heard a pin drop. And last week in Toronto, he wooed audiences once again.

A good, focused story can relay information so much more effectively and memorably than dry statistics and gobbledygook.

We need to drop the paradigms and consultative processes, the passive constructions, the subjunctive clauses.

When we tell a story, we’re more conversational. Our message is clearer. More interesting. More emotional. More powerful.

I say tell stories and tell them often, even if it means getting yourself an imaginary friend. In the meantime, I’m going to work on a summer version of On the Slopes.