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Storytelling for Systems Change

Consulting as Storywise, Steve Seager helps leaders design stronger strategic

narratives and become better storytellers. A writer and digital communication

strategist for more than 20 years, he has worked on challenges for clients as diverse

as Greenpeace, Solidaridad, McKinsey & Company and the British Council.

After reading his article on how we should look Beyond the Hero’s Journey on

narrative models for the 21st century, and in the context of my ongoing discussion on

reality, I interviewed Steve on the science of storytelling for effective systems

change, and the structure of narrative. Here is our Q&A:

1. Steve, can structure in story ever be conducive to creativity? What would such a structure look like?

I’m interpreting ‘structure’ at the highest level of abstraction here, Ryan, and thinking

of how many perceive structure as something restrictive. Perhaps they believe their story ideas will be corrupted, or lost in the attempt to fit them into a pre-existing structure. Maybe they conflate structure with content. But ultimately, it’s a strange thought that structure is not conducive to creativity. The act of storytelling itself is a consciously structured form of thought and expression.

The ninety-minute film, the three-act play, Todorov's trajectory from enigma to

resolution. The Indian raga, the Hero’s Journey, the twelve-bar blues, the inverted

pyramid, Minto’s too, the 3:4 aspect ratio, literary tropes—all these are structures that

help us capture and shape story, so it can be better communicated, understood and

shared. Structure helps set story free.

2. Do you believe that reality is derivative of our emotional understandings? And

if so, what role does storytelling play in capturing that truth?

I believe reality is a derivative of both our emotional understandings—and our logical


Storytelling has several roles throughout. The stories we are told help us absorb and

understand a communicated reality. Next, stories from our own internalised reality help us parse these new stories and reject, adopt/adapt them. Finally, the new stories we go on to tell feed new emotional and logical understandings for others. This ability to understand and tell stories is fundamental to human survival. It is continuous and cyclical and, I believe, constitutes a large part of what it is to be human.

In capturing a "truth," story is not restricted to binaries of logic and emotion, fact or

fiction, reality or non-reality. In fact, I strongly believe that binary thinking is the

single biggest killer of creativity, corrupter of critical thinking, and enemy of

empathy to effective systems change.

Recognition, perception, and understanding of, multiple points of view is everything.

3. How are models helpful to us? What is the drawback of using them to

characterize a complex world?

By their nature, models are reductive representations of how the world is seen,

experienced or believed to function. They are not a direct reflection of it. And there

are "faulty" and valueless models too. The obvious drawback of using models to

characterize a complex world is that they reduce it to the merely complicated, which

gives a false impression of reality.

But to believe models do not have value for the same reason, would be a

misunderstanding of the purpose of a model. The majority of models are useful

precisely because they are reductive. They break a problem down into more

digestible chunks. This is especially useful in systems thinking or wicked problem

solving, when interdependencies are many and hard to conceptualize, let alone


A model can also help "install" critical thinking capability, so that an individual can

extrapolate for themselves what a future, similar, situation may imply in reality.

For example, by understanding the separate financial and psychological elements of

the ‘feedback loop’ inherent in the poverty cycle, one can better fathom its

complexity and identify its varying manifestations in reality, in the future.

4. Can a focus on looking to uncover clearly defined structures provide a false

reality? What is missing and why?

It’s not good to look for structure for structure’s sake. Cognitive biases are strong.

When looking at systems problems (or any problem, for that matter) we tend to see

patterns that fit the structures we know. To combat this, we should develop

knowledge of as many story/narrative structures as possible. This will help us perceive as many potential ‘truths’ as possible. By not doing so, we miss out on reality itself.

5. How would you describe the roles of storytelling and science in describing our

world? How would you compare and contrast these two approaches to acquiring

knowledge in terms of the plot (“what and why” things happen) and the story

(“how” things are told)?

Our world—our reality—is manifold, multiplicitous and duplicitous!

Science relies on storytelling to spread. And much of storytelling is based on science,

which is why good stories get stuck in our heads.

Science and story are not binaries. They both help us acquire knowledge. But where

science investigates, story communicates—and thats a difference to celebrate.

Not everything needs to be a story to be accepted: our sun is 93 million miles away

and takes 8 minutes to reach us. That is surely that. And yet, a good story can

convince some that the Earth is indeed, flat.

The truth of the matter is that the ability to see things from another’s point of view is

the most difficult—but powerful—thing you can do.

That’s what story is for.

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