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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