From Storytelling to Narrativity.


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.

Richard House

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All about Bandits, Flying Down to Rio, and the Real Father of Flight.


Twice in a single week I have been amazed by contrasts from the air.

But it wasn’t the flaming gold of the autumnal Scandinavian birch forests over which my aircraft skimmed on the approach to Stockholm on Monday. Nor was it the circular, livid green irrigation pivots surrounded by the brown, still-parched and summery flatlands of central Spain over which our plane circled on Thursday, as we waited for a slot at Madrid’s Barajas airport.

It was the plane itself. On both trips I was travelling out from London’s short-haul City commuter airport on an EMB 190 regional airliner made in Brazil. This plane can take off from a pocket-handkerchief, slices through turbulence, and is amazingly quiet inside. 99% of the passengers think it’s just another small Airbus. Nobody knows this plane is BRIC-made.

The contrast in my mind was between the sleek commuter jet of today, and the aircraft of yesterday that for me sets the standard in Brazilian aviation: The Bandit.

Nobody remembers the Bandit nowadays: it’s a museum piece. But time was, this 14-seater twin-engine pig of a plane made by the (then) state-owned Embraer aircraft factory was the pride of Brazilian industry. Even though it looked (and sounded) like a mini-Dakota, it was even exported to the US, and carried sulky commuters into Dallas and San Francisco.

Properly known as the Bandeirante (a Brazilian term for rapacious 16th and 17th century Portuguese colonizers and slave-hunters opened up the backlands), this regional commuter plane carried me across Brazil on puddle-hopping journeys dozens of times in the 1980s, enveloping me in a cloud of brown dust and kerosene I still find romantic. Once, flying to Fernando de Noronha island some 200 miles offshore, the co-pilot (there was no hostess) told us they’d taken out the life-raft to save weight, as anyway no one would survive the shark attacks if were forced to ditch in the ocean.

What amazes me is that the Bandit – slow, smelly, unpressurized, dangerous, cantankerous – could in just 30 years have spawned an industry that has put Brazil on the global map as a major aviation power. It was truly the grandfather of today’s sleek EMB 190 that whisks me around Europe – and gave me food for thought about Brazil’s stunning process of modernization and the role that aviation has played.

The Allied Powers grew fat on the technological spoils of vanquished Germany’s aircraft industry after World War Two – the USA got rocket scientist Werner von Braun who with NASA put a man on the moon. Brazil, as a junior partner in the handout, only got the scraps no one else wanted, including a seemingly useless helicopter and gyrocopter programme half-forgotten by the Nazis themselves.

Nevertheless, by the mid 1950s Brazilian Air Force engineers attached to the aeronautics institute in São José dos Campos had built a working version of a propeller powered Harrier jump jet. But they didn’t have an engine – and both the US and the UK made very sure they wouldn’t get one. Instead, Brazil was offered a Piper aircraft franchise and told to get on with it. A decade later Embraer was producing the Tucano advanced military trainer that Britain’s RAF ended up buying. In the 90s, foreign capital came into Embraer and the rest is history.

The Bandit spawned something else – a nearly-global Brazilian business that’s on target to soon become the world’s third largest publicly-quoted commercial airline and which is going head-to-head with British Airways in daily aircraft movements. The airline business is TAM, which at 35 years of age is now the Brazilian flag-carrier and is about to merge with Chile’s LAN to produce a South American giant that will rattle the Iberia-BA combo.

Thirty years ago, I remember TAM when it was little more than a regional air-taxi operation run by a beaming chief pilot, Commander Rolim. As I trudged out across the baking, dusty runways of Brazil’s regional airports through the 1980s, Rolim would always be standing, uniformed and ramrod-straight at the aircraft door, in front of an absurd scrap of red carpet, ready to welcome us aboard one of his rattletrap Bandits.

Just once, I’ve been lucky enough to get a First Class upgrade to one of the four flat beds on the big TAM Airbus that sometimes does the London – São Paulo leg, and I’ve flipped Rolim my personal salute (his helicopter ploughed into a mountain some time ago). And yes, they still have the red carpet. Mostly, though, I’m hunched in the cheaper seats, musing on how things have changed in the 30 years and hundreds of times I have now flown this route.

Which all makes me wonder whether continent-sized Brazil isn’t a country made for aviation. There’s none of that winter de-icing and fog that makes flying such a nightmare in northern climes. Today, São Paulo’s impossibly snarled traffic has spawned the world’s second-largest helicopter fleet.

Although “Flying Down to Rio” has lost some of its old magic since the wonderful old Electra propeller planes were withdrawn from the Rio- São Paulo shuttle in the late 80s (they had a magnificent rounded sofa in the tail of the plane where generous Scotch was served); there’s still something impossibly glamorous about touching down at Rio’s waterside municipal airport. Everything looks from the air like an animated Le Corbusier architectural drawing.

But this goes further because it’s not just that Brazil is made for aviation … there’s a strong argument that aviation was in fact made by Brazil. If you’re Brazilian, or French, you’ll know all about Alberto Santos Dumont.

He is acknowledged by these nations as the true father of flight – definitely not America’s Wright Brothers. Now, we all know that history is written by …. those who write the history books. And Brazilians have been conspicuously absent in penning these. But the facts are that Santos Dumont was indeed well and truly aloft in Paris before the Wrights catapulted their Kittyhawk into the air.

The story is a complicated one, which has spawned a crop of books already. In essence, the argument is a credibility game that pitches Latino against Anglo-Saxon; rich playboy against a pair of bicycle mechanics; a pacifist humanist against mercenary defence contractors; generous-to-a-fault ingeniousness against paranoid secrecy; lighter than air dirigibles against fixed wing aircraft. In the end, America won the PR battle, Brazil lost and Santos Dumont is now forgotten.

As the wealthy son of Brazilian coffee planters, Santos Dumont was sent to Paris in the 1890s to pursue his engineering studies, and his dream of powered flight. He enjoyed rockstar celebrity status for his series of mini-Zeppelins with which he – quite literally – dropped in for tea with the Parisian elite. He won a prize for navigating around the Eiffel Tower. And his heavier-than-air plane – 14 Bis – took off under its own power in front of a crowd of thousands. Because he was independently wealthy, Santos Dumont scorned the idea of patenting his discoveries, and gave away all his prize money. He was convinced aviation should be used to promote peace, not war.

At the same time, the Wright brothers were staging their own test in compulsive secrecy in a desperate attempt to sell their invention to the US Army to make their own fortunes.  They certainly flew first with no witnesses – but just as certainly, their plane was catapulted into the air – while weeks or months later Santos Dumont took off under his own power before a huge crowd. And there’s little doubt that US operatives in Paris were actively engaged in military or commercial espionage to discover the Brazilian’s secrets. On one occasion, his equipment was sabotaged by US agents while in shipment.

Despite the adulation in which he was held in France, Santos Dumont was his own worst enemy. A depressive, vain and cantankerous homosexual, his own carping about imagined slights cut away his own support base. The use of aviation in wartime wracked him with guilt, and he eventually committed suicide.

I know these obscure things because my Brazilian wife is a direct descendant of Santos Dumont and we have a shelf of books about him. Three sisters who were the aviator’s aunts married three brothers, one of whom was my wife’s great grandfather.

Anyway, whether or not a Brazilian was the true father of aviation, his countrymen have certainly made up for it since. The Bandit and even Santos Dumont may be forgotten, but in terms of civil aviation, Brazil is currently riding high.

So why grudge the Wright Brothers their public place in the history books? And in our own family, we know who really got there first. And next time I’m in Brazil, I’ll see if I can’t get aloft in a Bandit. Just for the nostalgic smell of it …. and that thrilling 1980s vision of the speeding runway at my feet, glimpsed through alarmingly big holes in the floor.

Richard House

Brazil’s Birds, Good Business, and Sustainable Coffee


There’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil – and an awful lot of birds too, forced to share this continent–sized land with an agribusiness sector committed to scale, efficiency, and monocultures that some fear are already changing the regional climate.

This interaction between birds and business forms the subtext of a powerful story of sustainability I stumbled upon during a recent visit to a highly innovative coffee plantation in the agribusiness heartland of São Paulo state. Birds have become the potent carriers of an exciting new organic brand built on social entrepreneurship.

The bird in question is the Bob-o-Link, an American blackbird that makes an astonishing yearly migration of 12,000 miles from the Illinois countryside around Chicago, to Brazil’s southern states and back. Once common, the Bob-o-Link is under threat; surveys in Vermont found a 75% decline in the last decade.

Nobody can prove exactly why the birds are declining, but Marcos Croce – who with his partner Silvia Barretto owns the Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza near Mococa in the north of São Paulo state – points his finger at the sugar cane monoculture around his farm. Massive deforestation has made way for the ethanol biofuel industry driving Brazil’s cars – and driving away the birds too. Some of the last tiny scraps of the once-mighty Atlantic seaboard cloud-forest that sheltered the birds can still be found here.

Marcos has chosen a uniquely personal way of doing something about this  problem – and his social entrepreneurship approach is starting to inspire business leaders to seek deeper and more meaningful definitions of sustainability than the now-familiar “astroturfing” and “greenwashing” besetting the corporate world.

The Brazilian couple used to live in Chicago. Just like the Bob-o-Links, they made the migratory journey several times a year. When an inheritance led them to a run-down Brazilian farm dating from 1850, Silvia says they realised that “the Bob-o-Links became a metaphor for our own lives.” Amazingly, too, the street they lived on in the Chicago suburbs was called Bob-o-Link Road. As Brazil’s new economic summer progressively outshone the economic gloom of America, they moved back south for good.

They set to work transforming the 700 hectare plantation into an organic farm, taking a truly innovative approach not just to coffee planting, but the building of an agrarian community and a new business model.

While Brazil is by far the world’s largest coffee producer, it is hardly known for the quality of its product. Meanwhile, state organisations like the Instituto Brasileiro de Café and Embrapa, the agroscience corporation, have steered traditional growers down the road of high-yield coffee varieties needing fertilizers and pesticides.

The few organic coffee farms in Brazil have struggled to replicate the status quo of intensive planting – but without chemicals. Marcos changed all that. Inspired by João Neto, a neighbour and veteran coffee planter,  he has pioneered the concept of “passive” organic coffee planting in conjunction with reforestation. At Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza there are still rows of old coffee bushes striding over the soft hillsides. But the real business goes on hidden inside the secondary forest. There, coffee bushes scattered between the trees benefit from shade and natural protection against predators.

There’s no fertiliser used – even organic manure – and the healthy trees take care of themselves. And the forest takes care of the birds. A survey of the region by researchers from the Smithsonian Institution found a startling variety of species – and the Bob-o-Links are making a comeback. Together with a local NGO (SOS Mata Atlantica), Marcos has been replanting rainforest whose under-storey he hopes will eventually shade new coffee plantations as well as shelter birds.

Meanwhile, the Bob-o-Links have lent their names to a blended coffee brand. Using his marketing skills, Marcos is carving a niche in the high-end world of speciality coffee exports, with a natural focus on the market in his old hometown of Chicago. Every coffee sack he exports bears the label “Bird Friendly” and people are getting the message that these birds link consumers with farmers who grow quality coffee in harmony with nature.

The farm also exports tiny quantities of premium single estate organic coffees that command rates of three of four times the world price. Buyers in Scandinavia, the UK, Australia and Japan are prepared to pay more because Marcos has been uncompromising about quality. To boost the volume of exportable coffee and the habitat for more birds, he’s persuaded a group of local farmers to “go organic” and pool resources in a marketing cooperative.

In Brazil and elsewhere, the multinational-led status quo means that growers play almost no role in marketing their own product, and have little or no objective information about its quality.  Marcos challenged this by sending his own son to train as a coffee “cupper” and internationally accredited judge who has been winning prizes in the US. Now he can set prices online and deal direct with Europe’s micro-roasters. A second son has cashed out of a high-flying management consultancy to join the family team.

Inevitably, perhaps, multinational buyers are already trying to crush this revolt by tempting local farmers away from the cooperative. They may be too late: coffee mavens from Germany, Norway, Sweden and the US are lining up to visit the farm.

It’s not just about coffee. Although the farm is home to just a fraction of the 50 families who once lived there, there’s a range of micro-agricultural activity going on there that resembles nothing so much as a low-tech incubator or an IT cluster in reverse. Marcos provides the land and marketing skills, while locals run their own animal husbandry, organic market gardening and other commercial operations.

International volunteers known as “Wwoofers” (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) are on hand, and there’s a steady stream of corporate and leadership types visiting both from overseas and from Brazil’s industrial heartland. Social and cultural study programs from Chicago’s Art Institute and other faculties help out in the local urban community.

So it’s not just about agriculture—the true product of the farm is people. People are searching for meaningful and deep models of sustainability that aren’t driven by bien-pensant charity handouts to NGOs, or to PR-driven CO2 mitigation tactics by heavy industry. This is about planting trees because they support sound and sustainable high-value agriculture that in turn sustains communities – not the often-uncomfortable sense of doing some “green for good.”

Something really interesting is going on. Why else would Russell Reynolds – one of the world’s hard-core corporate headhunters – send a delegation of CEO clients from Europe and the US on a learning trip here? Likewise, the Open World Foundation led by the social entrepreneur Christer Soderberg has been running courses on “Transformational Leadership & Sustainability” at the farm.

The key to this is a new approach to sustainability that Marcos isn’t scared about repeating endlessly. Sustainability isn’t about separating out your tin cans, driving a Prius, or ticking a box to buy a tree whenever you get an airplane ticket – all just to make you feel better.

Just as business now talks about the “triple bottom line,” so sustainability’s own bottom-line must also be social, economic and ecological.  The chain of responsibility stretches from individual to family, to business and then to society as a whole. Sustainability starts with the individual asking: “what am I putting in my mouth?” It then embraces family and community relations, culture, and finally collective economic behaviour.

I have to declare an interest as Marcos and Silvia have been my good friends for 30 years. But what they are doing gives me hope that we are just at the beginning of a new and harmonious phase of coexistence with the earth’s life and resources, and that business models must and will adapt their MBA-driven ways to accommodate more holistic vision and values.

So, if it takes a long-haul migration by the courageous little Bob-o-Link to remind us all that birds help make good and sustainable business in Brazil, I’ll raise my coffee mug to that.

Richard House