Let me tell you a story. Now there’s something you never hear when policy wonks set out to sketch their thoughts on whatever policy they want to use to govern our lives. I wish they would say it, and I bet you do, too. Stories are how we’ve always explained our world to others. Just ask the cavemen who slapped onto the cave wall the first cave paintings, or the millions of us who populate Facebook, the biggest repository of stories in human history.
If the idea of stories sounds slightly retro, it’s because it is. We now live our lives 140 characters at a time. But our brains are programmed for pattern recognition, and stories are patterns. Think boy meets girl. Or David and Goliath. And given that we’re now all buried in an avalanche of digital information, we need story signals to cut through the data noise.
Why don’t people who write about policy use stories? I suspect it’s because they don’t see storytime as serious. Besides, stories are usually centred on a hero, and not the broader population that policy-makers wish to serve. Superman, they’ll say, is a statistical outlier — and extreme cases make bad law. But one shouldn’t confuse anecdote as a tool of analysis with anecdote as a tool for communication. Provided the storytelling hero is statistically representative of the problem, he or she can make an issue much more compelling to the audience.
Lack of story is but one shortfall, however. Where else does policy writing go wrong?
As with any communication, losing sight of your audience is the first step to losing their eyes and ears. Policy wonks too often write to dazzle their policy confreres and not to inform the brothers and sisters of suburbia. They also use jargon and acronyms — that is, inside language for insiders — a surefire way to lose the layperson. Nobody cares about your program name, or which funding envelope you’re tucked into, or which department you work in.
It’s also easy for policy drafters to mistake complexity for knowledge. The best storytellers aren’t afraid to use simple language. Nor are they blind to the fact that humans are emotional creatures. We aren’t all Spocks, scouring the earth for more facts and figures. We’re human, and we want someone to play to our emotion and link those facts together into a story we’ll remember. This is what the best public policy and political communication attempts to achieve.
The current government gets a lot of stick for the short titles of its bills. But tell me what the following tells you: “An Act to amend the Copyright Act and the Trade-marks Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts.” Don’t worry, I don’t have a clue either. That’s why the bill was given a punchier title: “The Combating Counterfeit Products Act.” Better? I thought so too.
Of course, I’m aware that political communication is also used to muddy the water instead of shining a light on government action, but let’s set that aside for the moment.
Where we can all agree is that government policy impacts your life. Failing to properly or lucidly explain the ramifications of government action can put citizens at a deficit. Or, to put it in language that policy wonks would never use: people need to know what their government is doing so they know what’s going on and can vote the bums out if they don’t like it.
We’re human, and we want someone to play to our emotion and link those facts together into a story we’ll remember
So how do we go about telling better stories about government action?
First, describe the problem you’re tackling. The wonks assume a level of knowledge about their problem when most people are too busy to even know there’s an issue. Paint them a picture of the problem. Talk about why it’s a problem. Build the case for action. But don’t just barf out a treasure trove of statistics. And personalize the problem if you can. A hundred thousand people without clean water can be ignored more easily than Thomas, the vulnerable five-year-old who just wants a drink of water without first boiling it. Describing the problem also introduces tension, a key element to any story.
Next, take the time to write about your motive for solving the problem in question. A significant portion of the audience you’re writing for is mistrustful of government at the best of times. If you don’t spell out your reasons for taking action, a reason will be ascribed to you. Spell out the “why” in as much detail as the “what” and the “how.” Describing your motive makes you the hero of your story.
Only when you’ve described the problem and your motive for solving it can you begin to describe the benefits of your proposed solution. And by benefits, I don’t mean dollar figures spent. Sure, the amount of your budget might make you the king of your departmental castle, but it doesn’t describe the outcome that cash is meant to bring to the plebs across the land. Describe the key two or three outcomes (i.e., not all) your policy will achieve. Ditch the urge to throw every factoid at the voting wall in the hopes that something will stick. Pick the most important ones and focus on them. Describing the benefit properly will help to build support for your action.
Last, but certainly not least, ask your readers to do something. Involve them in your story. It can be as simple as directing them to more information, or asking them for their opinion, but get them involved. This is where the new storytelling channels of digital and social media are invaluable. These channels allow you to identify supporters and champions i.e., future tools in your storytelling arsenal.
Beginning (problem + tension), middle (motive + hero), and end (action + resolution). Sounds like a good story to me. Let’s hope policy-makers embrace their inner caveman and begin to paint some more compelling pictures.