True Stories – And How To Tell Them

The Progressive Narrative event organised by Compass West Midlands in Birmingham on Saturday was an ambitious event, in a low key way. A group of people came together in a theatre rehearsal room to try to do what one wealthy political party employs a shed load of expensive advisors to do – create a convincing narrative for our own, progressive political truths.

I’ve been around politics, big and small ‘p’, for a long time, but I’ve never seen anyone attempt something quite this audacious. When political commentators and politicians use the term “narrative” these days, they are talking about something more than “spin” or “sound bites”. What they want to do is to shape a story, whether of continuity or change, hope or hate, which ‘has legs’ – it will endure and become embedded in public consciousness through repetition.

It helps, of course, if you have lots of money, know people of influence, can shape the news agenda, and have reliable outlets to amplify the message. But all we had was a kettle and some tea bags. And lots of paper, marker pens, and blu-tack.

So did we solve the problem of creating a powerful narrative for radical change?  Of course we did!

After lunch, a stranger arrived. She was tall, charismatic, and looked oddly like Angelina Jolie. We held our breath as she walked around our groups of tables, inspected our fledgling tales. We gasped as she swept them to the floor with a sweep of her perfectly manicured hand. “People!” she said, “these are not the words you need. They are too timid, or too angry, or too complicated, or too intellectual.”

We might have been hurt, or offended, but her compelling self-confidence gave us reason to pause, and listen, spell-bound, as she revealed the secret. And do you know, it was obvious, with hindsight? The clues had all been there, if only we’d spotted them earlier.

The trouble is, those two paragraphs above are from a Hollywood pitch, not real life. What we really ended up with was the beginning of insight into how to shape, hone and amplify the stories we want to tell.

There were some suggestions put forward, among many, which offered some specific things we might do.

One concerned the need to keep it short and uncomplicated. So that’s a “no” to Gordon Brown’s famous “neo-classical endogenous growth theory”, then.

Another was the insight that narratives that work are often inclusive – “We’re all in this together!” is a good example. Even when we yell “No, we aren’t!” we’ve already conceded their ground by affirming that word, “we”. (Maybe we should shout, “We’re in this together. But you’re not!”)

That first example is in some ways an example of political “flash fiction”. For those who don’t know the term, it refers to ultra-short stories, ways of expressing much in very few words. A popular example of this is the six word story: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

This piece of flash fiction encapsulates the literary view that whilst in a novel, all the action takes place within its pages, with a short story, most of what the words suggest happen in the unspoken stuff behind the words. We wonder, “who’s selling those baby shoes? Why are they unworn? What tragedy lies behind these few words?”   To be compelling, our political narratives have to make people think, too.

The second example is interesting because in writing fiction, mostly narrators are first person singular, or third person – “I”, or “he, she, they”. But with a political narrative, inclusiveness, the sense of social solidarity, may perhaps best be evoked by the use of “we”.

Interesting, maybe, but where’s the practical stuff?

Well, it set me thinking, anyway. I was watching The Sunday Politics this morning, a Labour leadership ‘debate’ chaired by Andrew Neil. At one point, Neil said to one of the candidates, “so it’s back to spend, spend, spend?”  I was surprised to find myself shouting at the screen, “So you want cut, cut, cut? When did self-harm become a clever thing to do?”

Perhaps those inversions might work? Counter every “maxed out the credit card,” with “sold the family silver”? And “spend, spend, spend” with “cut, cut, cut?” They sound more rapid and confident a response than patiently trying to explain the finer points of the economy, or the difference between the deficit and the debt, which is what we usually do, earnest fools that we are.

At the end of the session on Saturday we got around to discussing practical ways of spreading our stories, and of amplifiying them, so that they might become a new “common sense”.

I’d say we need to create an army of citizen narrators, creating our stories, and taking them to family, friends, workmates and beyond, in all the ways available to us today. We started organising that task this weekend!

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