Introducing A New Series.
My work for corporations frequently leads to requests from executives for “message development” – helping them explain in simple terms what they do, or sometimes even, what their company makes and sells.
Pretty soon, most start asking about “thought leadership.” This is not about selling stuff, but explaining how their company interacts with society’s present or future needs, invests in innovation, and is a good corporate citizen.
The smartest executives quickly move on to ask about “opinion formation.” This could mean creating more widespread recognition of, or trust in, their brand or products. It could mean influencing the minds of government officials, so they will draft tender proposals in ways that suit my clients. At its most extreme, it could mean the dizzying, Princess Diana-like outpouring of emotions visible at Apple Stores worldwide, after the death of Steve Jobs.
This set me thinking about the wider meaning of opinion formation and whether I could find some guidelines for effective practice. Surprisingly perhaps, there seem to be none available.
Mass opinion-formation is a titanic persuasion industry that now constitutes about a quarter of global GDP (add together the budgets for advertising, communications, marketing, media-buying, PR, promotion, public affairs, lobbying, thought leadership, conferences, curating, publishing, events, incentives and all democratic electoral campaign budgets). But society prefers not to think about why and how our behavior gets changed by these industries.
However, for more than a decade ago I began working with stories as the most effective vehicle for transferring knowledge, motivation and emotional engagement to audiences. I had found that the effectiveness of such stories as carriers of meaning in the business world was hugely increased when they followed – consciously or unconsciously – certain archetypal plots. Conversely, I found that when a speaker had “lost the plot” and failed to complete a story according to the conditioned expectations of listeners, his audience would get irritated.
From this realization came my research into the identification of archetypal stories and their application in the modern business world. You can find my previous series of articles based on analysis of the Seven Basic Plots identified by Christopher Booker.
I took each of these archetypal plots and transferred them away from literature and into the modern business world. So, for instance, Tragedy was all about Facebook’s Marc Zuckerberg, Lehman Brothers and Enron. Comedy was about Cirque du Soleil’s Guy la Liberté, Hewlett-Packard and Home Depot. I even looked at how dying rockstars, master-criminals and sportsman deliver celebrity archetypes we seem to need in stories.
Let’s say that Storytelling, which can delve down through myth to the unconscious to mankind’s social and spiritual origins, forms the vertical axis of our quest. But understanding the origins and psychological power of the stories we tell people and how they work, is only part of the story.
There’s another horizontal axis which is all about conscious intention – how we wish to influence people; what we want them to do. This is the axis of Narrativity. This means the way a story is deliberately presented by the teller, and the way it’s understood subjectively by the audience. Narrativity is, if you like, the “public affairs” branch of Storytelling.
I believe that by mastering the twin axes of Storytelling and Narrativity, we can get closer to a real understanding of how opinion-formation really works and what best practice should be. Of course, I want to show my clients how to become highly effective, but ethical opinion-formers.
There’s another, wider objective to this journey. Because opinion-formation is all about power, persuasion and the mass influencing of behavior in societies, it’s a crucial tool in our political economy. Understanding how we’re persuaded to do things, and why we change our behaviours, will give us a “meta-view” of how current affairs unfolds into history – and why our leaders make certain choices.
We are living through a period of astonishing change. We are at one of those rare turning points where the machinery of power is clearly visible through the fabric of daily life. But to glimpse this, we’ll need a little “deprogramming.”
We’re continually hearing that the part of the world we know as the Developed West, is in a bad state – perhaps enduring the worst crisis experienced for 50 years.
This tale of woe covers our whole political economy: weakened and divided national leaders; economic turmoil and debt; lack of political direction; widening social divisions; and a sense of individual powerlessness. Europeans and Americans are being conditioned to see the world in the coming decade as a place of scarcity, not of generosity.
For almost the first time since the years after the Black Death, sons will inherit a harder world than their fathers enjoyed. In America 17.1% of under 25s are now jobless; in Europe 20.9% are without work. The middle-aged and middle classes will also experience squeezed pensions and falling real wages. The elderly see their savings savaged by low rates of interest and high inflation.
We are being told that Europe’s vaunted social democracy and laissez-faire Anglo-Saxon capitalism are both in the doldrums, with social benefits we can’t afford being withdrawn, and bursting asset bubbles undermining our security. But we are never exactly told how this state of affairs arose and why a long post-war era of astonishing plenty and optimism might to be coming to an end.
The whole point of highlighting this new collective mood of austerity is that for a rare moment as the “meta-narrative” changes from growth to austerity, we can see the beast of mass opinion-formation at work, influencing tens of millions — perhaps billions — of lives. This is a unique opportunity to glimpse normally unseen forces driving our learned views of “how the world works,” and in turn influencing mega-trends in human behavior.
In coming weeks I will profile the opinion-formation process, explain the ‘horizontal axis’ of Narrativity, present a theoretical basis for understating the persuasive power of Storytelling, and show how four of the great public issues of our time are being presented by our leaders.
To analyse Storytelling, I interpreted the findings of one scholarly text (The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker) and brought these into the business world. For Narrativity, I will do just the same thing with another study (Metahistory by Hayden White).
I hope you’ll join me on this quest to lay bare the roots of opinion formation and how it’s used to consolidate or gain power. With today’s world in turmoil, there’s never been a greater need for clarity and sanity in public debate. And for a restoration of values too.