Soaps and Storytelling

Think selling refrigerators to Eskimos … and then think of my assignment this week: presenting one of the world’s largest and slickest storytelling organisations with fresh ways to view their own blockbuster products.

I’d been invited to Rio de Janeiro to give a talk at Projac, the main production centre for TV Globo, Brazil’s leading media organisation – and the world’s largest producer of telenovelas or TV soap operas. Globo has been producing soaps since the early 70s and they have been successfully exported around the world.

Arguably, Brazil and its prevailing zeitgeist are defined by the current blockbuster soap. So Globo, after some years in the doldrums, has just hit a ratings peak with Fina Estampa, a piece about Pereirão, a tough working (and working-class) mother  — played by Lilia Cabral —  not afraid to show her masculine side, who fights her way up from the lower ranks with dignity and grace. In a nation now experiencing the dramatic and satisfying rise to economic prominence and social significance of the C/D socio-economic group, Globo’s TV storytelling was right on the money, regularly hitting 40 million-plus audiences.

So when I finally battled through the traffic to reach Jacarepaguá and Globo’s  sprawling ‘tropical Cinecitta’ style production lot where half a dozen novelas are in simultaneous production of different sound stages, what could I possibly have to tell the folks from the company’s innovation think-tank, known as I9?  Globo’s telenovela writers enjoy rockstar status and regularly teach university-level script classes to would-be authors. The audience had that look of “show me something I don’t already know.”

I made a bet that although Globo was a fantastic creator and producer of stories, there might not be quite so much method behind the process of story selection. After all, ensuring critical and ratings success is a random business. You have to throw stuff at the wall of public opinion to see what sticks. There’s a lot of trust in the author.

The only way to find out if a story will really work is to commission and produce a pilot, screen it for focus groups, invite critics, try and start a viral buzz on social media. By this stage a major financial commitment has been made in the story – but you still don’t know if the story will “pegar na veia do publico” – a telling reference to mainline drug injection that journalists use to describe the popular effect of successful dramas.

The arrival of internet, multiple cable channels, and new TV stations has broken some of the old “one party state” ubiquity that Globo enjoyed in the 70’s, 80s and early 90s, when its novelas were a defining national passion. In fact the success of Fina Estampa is being seen as a much-needed fightback after some years in the ratings doldrums.

So my presentation focused not on how to tell a story (Globo is already way, way ahead on that), but on how to classify stories, how to analyse the way story types affect our moods – and how to use stories to affect behaviour and shape likely outcomes. I wanted to intrigue them with the notion that you could have a well-informed idea — even before the author began his scriptwriting, what kind of story would likely succeed. All you need is an interpretative matrix and a system that allows you to overlay known or predicted public demand, with certain story types.

I presented the three-dimensional matrix storytelling that I’d previously shown in a TED talk, and had shared with the folks from EACD, the European Association of Communications Directors. With literally hundreds of telenovelas to choose from, I simply switched my case studies so that every “real world” event or story type, was matched by a “novela world” happening.

Readers of this blog over recent months will have seen the model taking shape through my posts on the Seven Archetypal Stories (The vertical Story Axis), the Four Story Moods (the horizontal Narrative Axis) and — this one still to come, folks – the five behavioural effects of story (the diagonal Happen Axis).

This meta-view worked a treat! The Globo folks loved the way their productions could be inserted into an interpretative matrix that blended journalistic fact with soap-opera,  European politics with local corruption-busting, and which compared NATO’s increasingly desperate attempts to impose peace in Afghanistan with their own drug wars in Rio’s favelas. It’s an uncanny coincidence that Globo was already in production with Brado Retumbante, a farce about Brasilia’s political corruption and graft, in the months  before and during unfolding political scandals that  toppled no fewer than six of president Dilma’s ministers last year.

After all, Brazil’s recent history veers crazily between “too bizarre to make up” facts on the political stage that often resembles a sound stage at Projac. Former president Lula’s own humble beginnings as a metalworker and labour convener were profiled in a feature film (Lula – o filho do Brasil). And the back-story of current president Dilma Rousseff is even better: she was a gun-toting leftist urban guerrilla in the days of military dictatorship. She beat cancer and other hardships to win the presidency, inheriting Lula’s mantle and becoming one of the world’s five most admired women.

The great vindication for me was that the three dimensional storytelling model that I have been developing over the past year is robust, adaptable – and comprehensive. It works in a corporate environment. And it works as a teaching tool. It works in Rio, in London, across Europe. You can’t easily satisfy the producers and professional storytellers at Globo. But I think I gave them something to think about.

©2012 Richard House


Infographic Storytelling: hands and words working together

Some time back I wrote a script that became the voice-over of an infographics-based 4 minute video podcast. This was the launch video for a TED  Conference held in Utrecht, the Netherlands at the end of 2011 (at which I was also a speaker).

The subject was moral persuasion and mass behaviour change —  how our lives and choices are  influenced by external forces including  storytelling  through the media. And how, while many of these influences are commercially-biased, there is  such a thing as morally-justifiable  “persuasion for good” that can deliver broad social benefits. One example of this is the ‘Nudge Theory’ now popular with policymakers in Washington and London.

The design and artwork was done by the brilliant folks at Grey Matters and TruScribe. Their thing is applied social- and-media psychology. They research, publish and consult about the application of scientific persuasion insights in marketing, sales and cross-media campaigning.

Check it out!

I thought it might be fun to post  this video as the storytelling process works so beautifully when you can see the artist’s hand actually creating the story for you in real time. Other  institutions, including the RSA in London (a society of which I’m also a member), have used the technique with incredible effect in terms of  “share of mind” on youTube etc. Andrew Park, the RSA artist, has become a bit of a rockstar.

Richard House

“The Monkey on your Back” – Management, Leadership … and Storytellers of Complexity.

How do you distinguish the attributes of Management, Leadership … or whatever lies beyond? How does the responsible advisor or storyteller help corporate  executives to deal with the monkey on their backs?

Otto Scharmer’s ‘Theory U’ gives an excellent perspective of how the evolutionary process is working on the world of the  industrial/post-industrial corporation. Just as political organisation evolved through feudal kingdoms, autocracies, city-states, republics and democracies, so the dominant form of social organisation in our time – the workplace – is also driven by change.

I’m just getting into “Theory U” and still have a lot to learn. But it makes profound sense.

Because “Management” as a form of social organisation is barely a century old, it is experiencing its burst of Darwinian “speciation” around about now. We are already able to detect certain evolutionary “losers” or dinosaurs being swept away in cataclysmic alterations of the earth’s business atmosphere. We know some companies – Tyco, Enron, Lehman Brothers, Merrill, the old GM – are losers. However there is no linear proof that certain companies fail purely because they followed specific organisational models. Evolution is too complex a process to pinpoint a single source.

Likewise it is not yet clear which characteristics will define the dominant evolutionary types that will take possession of an earth deprived of its dinosaurs. As the evolutionary dust clears we see that the form of social organisation  (management) is a critical factor: but the huge speciation of the management publishing and consulting industry is proof that little or no consensus exists as to the future.

Nevertheless decisions taken today determine the evolutionary rules of tomorrow – and they define three approaches to viewing the world.

For the first type (which he calls Dynamic complexity), Scharmer uses the metaphor of global warming. Here, yesterday’s emissions are only now starting to show their effects, while the consequences of today’s emissions are the subject of informed guesswork. So it is with management choices taken for the future. Systems built of interacting forces with feedback loops are familiar to every manager who every wrestled with product or process.

The second type (Social complexity) takes account of multiple perspectives and the need to reconcile diversity. Organisations are about people – and aligning the different needs of stakeholders is a type of work familiar to every leader who ever fine-tuned systems or competencies.

Scharmer’s third type of complexity — Emerging complexity — is built around the kind of world we see today: disruption, ambiguity, absence of clear polarities or reliable guidance from the past. The established diagnostic tools no longer work – and classical management or leadership skills don’t resolve everything. This is evolution and  Scharmer describes the skills needed to work with this complexity with his trademark “presencing” or the “inward look” that precedes action. This sounds very much like what the rest of us call inspiration and is familiar to any creative who’s had a brainwave.

So: let’s use these three categories Manager: Leader: Inspiration, to help us define the evolutionary shift in organisations and see if this helps us to define how we  (the consulting and advice industry who work to help companies  create, tell and deliver their institutional stories) can serve the needs of today’s and  tomorrow’s CEO.

The table below posits that left-to-right  is evolutionary advance for the company (always with the caveat the  “full spectrum” advance means companies still remain perfectly able to deliver the attributes of “earlier” evolutionary stages, e.g. efficiency or process optimisation).

Three columns define the modes of viewing complexity, while the rows show company culture attributes in each evolutionary stage.

Role Management Leadership Inspiration
DELIVERABLE Product & Process Systems & Competencies Meaning
ORGANISING PRINCIPLE Efficiency Fitness & Purpose Spirit of Innovation
RESOLVING COMPLEXITY Impose discipline Seek simplicity Improvisation & ambiguity
EMPLOYEE PARTICIPATION Hierarchy “Voice but no vote” Co-creators
LEARNING EXPERIENCE MBA Coaching Experiential ‘theatre of change’
COLLECTIVE MODEL Centralise Decentralise Collaborate
NARRATIVE Message Story Dialogue: inspiration and creativity

If we now read the Inspiration column vertically, this should provide some of the attributes that a storyteller with something serious to offer, would need to include in any leadership development program dedicated to helping executives “get the monkey off their backs.”

Are these transferable skills/categories? Can we help here?  Can we add anything new?

  • If the question is applied to the first column named Management, my guess the answer is “no.” There’s a whole industry doing this.
  • If the question is applied to Leadership, my guess the answer is “perhaps.” There’s another industry applied to this, proceeding more (or less) effectively.
  • If the question is applied to Inspiration and they that  corporate storytelling can  help, the answer is a definite “yes.”

If there is interest  from other storytellers in this analysis of ‘Inspiration,’ the role-players around it and its attributes within the modern corporation, I will write more about this and share my Scharmer-related discoveries as I try them out with our own corporate clients seeking change and growth.

Richard House

Eurozone Financial Satire: “Madmen in Authority and Academic Scribblers.”

Unblogged is unplugged. If I were a Catholic and this weblog a confessional, I’d have to start this with: “forgive me reader for I have sinned. It’s been six weeks since my last confession. Nobody cares about deeds … but plenty of thoughts and words have gone unrecorded and unblogged.” This means I start 2012 several weeks behind schedule with my promise to continue, segment by segment, my three-axis interpretative model of storytelling which has now reached the four modes of Narrativity.

So my January good resolution must be to make up for lost time in describing the remaining pieces of the matrix I devised. Last time I promised to examine the storytelling mode of Satire, as seen through the lens of our responses to the Eurozone Crisis. And I promised to trace this ugly story that affects everyone on planet Earth, right back to its roots in the obscure intellectual struggle between two long-dead economists.

So it’s time to pick up the thread. Here goes, with apologies for the delay.

The Disengaging Power of Satire

Each New Year’s Eve, a significant slice of the population of Germany sits down in front of the TV to watch the annual re-run of a black-and-white short film called “Dinner for One.”  It’s an obscure British satire from 1963, featuring the comic interaction between Sophie, a lonely dowager celebrating her 90th birthday, and her buffoonish butler James. The film has been completely forgotten by the Anglo-Saxon world.

On December 31st 2011, Germany’s AKD network decided to spice up the plot with a new version called “The 90 Rescue Summit – Euros For No One”. The two characters are digitally retouched as Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy.

As in the original, none of the invited dinner guests appear – and the butler has to “follow the same procedure as last year,” impersonating each guest in turn to please his mistress. Only this year, Sophie/Merkel’s guests are the most important statesmen of Europe. The only problem is that there is no statesman left in the Euro Zone to attend Merkel’s Euro Summit. “No-one is left here except the two of us,” says Sarkozy at one point.

Merkel and Sarkozy chink their glasses to the health of (ex) Greek PM Papandreou and Spaniard José Luis Zapatero, 2011’s principal victims. And so through the power of satire, the Eurozone crisis and its destructive influence have been diminished to a poignant comic interlude with which to close the year.

Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, raised many eyebrows when he said during the veteran British magazine’s 50th birthday celebrations that all those years of bitingly satirical articles aimed at deflating the rich, pompous or powerful had not changed a single thing in Britain’s status quo.

Satire after all, is supposed to change the world by shaming the great and exposing untruths. Satirical writers such as the late, great Czech dramatist (and president) Vaclav Havel, have been feared and locked up dictators of all kinds.

But look a little closer at the way we experience satirical stories and you’ll see Hislop had a point. Give us a Satire, and we’ll shrug our shoulders, laugh at the folly, greed and absurdity of human nature and our resulting inability to change anything. Satire sees only meaningless change in human life; human affairs display no pattern, no progression, and for the most part are governed by folly, cruelty, or mere chance.

Satire is Liberal (in the European sense used in this series – not the word Americans use to describe those who behave like Europe’s Social Democrats). It demobilises us and makes us see we are not responsible for others, only ourselves. Unlike a Romance, we don’t want to start building barricades in Paris or changing the world for the better.

In short, you can’t start a revolution with Satire, however much you can make people laugh and reinforce their ironic perceptions about how power corrupts. As satirical shows become familiar and institutionalised – like Saturday Night Live  – they help us to blow off a little steam, without moving to actually protest.

In a previous post (Narrativity, Metahistory, and the Persuasion Industry) I looked at Satire as it’s defined in the work of the critical theorist Hayden White (84). His proposition was that historians who claim their discipline works with empirical data and disciplined wissenschaft, are really narrators in the grip of the same deep storytelling drives as the rest of us.

All history, says White, is now written in the conventions established in the 19th century. And these conventions, he says, show historians cannot “not choose” to write from anything but a metahistory perspective. Without fully realizing, historians organise facts into convenient sequences that follow distinctive narrative types or tropes. In addition to being (consciously or unconsciously) slaves to convention, historians make particular links between the data they gather, that in turn set the mood for readers.

Now it’s time to apply this theory outside the worlds of literature or history, in the messier field of contemporary events and above all, in the domain where economists struggle to convince us that theirs is anything like an exact science — or that real events follow principles they have developed such as ‘efficient market theory.’

In other words, can we show that economists just make things up too? More than that – can we show that the mood of the dialogue between rival economists and their theories, has helped set the stage for this catastrophe we call the Eurozone Financial Crisis?

Worldwide, stock markets lost a stunning US$6.3 trillion in 2011. Europe’s woes dragged down growth everywhere – bringing recession to the EU, and catastrophe to Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal. It looked like Germany was ready to sacrifice the weaker half of the Eurozone, in order to save the Euro. In Swiss bank vaults, nervous millionaires hoarded stacks of Bundesbank-printed EUR 100 notes with the precious X serial number (proof that these were strong beer-belt “Neuros”, rather than potentially worthless olive-oil belt “Seuros”). Britain – ever an unwilling partner – headed for the exits, pleading enlightened self-interest.

The mess is horrific and Europe’s young are suffering an epidemic of joblessness. Fully 48.9% of young Spanish people aged 16-24 were unemployed at end-2011. The rate was 45.1% in Greece, 31% in Ireland and 28% in Portugal. Even in prosperous Germany and stable Holland, the youth unemployment rates were 8.5% and 8.2% respectively. Britain, which has chosen to go its own way outside the austerity pact agreed by 26 EU nations, has 22% youth unemployment. A massive distortion in intergenerational equity is laying the foundations for a coming ‘Young vs. Old’ conflict over resources for pensions, education, and health.

Yet how did we respond to all this? We laughed when cartoonists produced images of “Merkozy” – an amalgam of the French and German political leaders piloting this slow-motion car crash. We sniggered derisively at the number of emergency summit meetings needed to generate the conditions for yet another damp-squib summit meeting.

Yes, “Dinner for One” captures the mood perfectly.

We yawned after reading the level of recession that the EU core countries “disciplinary pact within a pact” would impose on weaker members. We whistled at ivory-towered bureaucrats ploughing blindly on with Commission make-work programmes to make Europe the most competitive and the most on-line of economic blocs, oblivious of the current plight of the Greeks. Seemingly, it matters nothing today that Athens brought us democracy, philosophy and higher values.

Why? Because this whole episode as projected for us as a blockbuster Satire. While this allowed us to laugh at what is possibly Europe’s worst post-war moment, it also demobilized us. With the exception of France’s public servants who have rightly linked the crisis to the undercutting of their pension rights, and as a consequence will punish Nicholas Sarkozy’s re-election hopes in 2012, we remain disengaged.

By any yardstick, Europe’s popular level of calm acceptance of its misfortunes is astonishing. What’s even more amazing is that few seem interested in exploring the roots of stunning bipolar mood swings by governments and central banks.

In December 2011, European policymakers held a summit to impose a “beggar my (southern) neighbour” austerity plan on misbehaving member states that that took the recessionary doctrine of “tough love” to new lows, effectively leaving Greece to its sorry fate. In just the same month, though, European central bankers open the spigot to spray their commercial cousins at “zombie banks” with EUR 480 billion worth of cheap money. Robbing Peter to pay Paul? As the Economist put it: “giving bucket-loads of cheap money to banks is seen as preferable to shoring up governments.”

In a way, the approach mirrors America’s 2008 actions in pouring over $800 billion of state funds into the auto, banking, home loan, and civil aviation industries, while perversely tossing Lehman Brothers and AIG into the shark-tank as symbolic sacrifices. Billions of words have been written on these mysterious acts, but we still haven’t got to the root of why all this happened.

We are perplexed – or I certainly am.

By far the best guide I have come across is the late Tony Judt, a British-born academic who worked in New York. His 2010 swansong, Ill Fares the Land (dictated in 2010 while he lay in paraplegia), is subtitled ‘A guide for the Perplexed.’ The book was developed from an article for the New York Review of Books.

His is a deep, passionate yet forensic analysis of why the world has begun to wobble, tracing the roots of current ills back to a period in the 1970s when profound changes began to take place in the nature of western societies. Until then, argues Judt, there was a rough equilibrium between the powers of untrammelled market capitalism, and state-backed social democracy.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the post-war era was characterised by trust, cooperation, progressive taxation and an interventionist state. These were the bulwarks against a resurgence of the political extremism born of economic desperation that had twice led to war.

America had the ‘Great Society,’ federally-funded highways, Medicare, and a federally-backed home loan system. Europe had universal welfare provision, job stability, and wealth distribution programmes. Political philosophy was about making the Good Society – not about imposing economic arguments. Leaders like De Gaulle, Adenauer, or Bevin might have been dull, yet there patently was such a thing as society.

But although Judt admits “the past was neither as good or as bad as we suppose,” we willfully turned our backs on it in search of something quite new. This began around 1976 and only today are we reaping the fruits of a collapsed global economic model.

What Judt tells, is a most extraordinary story, best summarized by one of the two protagonists, John Maynard Keynes, the influential British economist and father of Keynesianism. The economic system he designed was to prove the bulwark of world stability for almost half a century. Here is what Keynes wrote:

“Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”

So what was the ‘gradual encroachment of ideas’ and what ‘academic scribbler’ has been driving the “madmen in authority” behind today’s Eurozone crisis?

Judt profiles the extraordinary capitulation of the once-mighty Keynesian theory that secured the aftermath of two world wars, and lays it all at the door of one single thinker, Friedrich Hayek.

Hayek’s thinking rose to prominence following his 1972 Nobel Prize for economics. It was he who drove the huge rightward turn in economic thinking that consigned Keynes to the trash-can – and laid the conditions for today’s turmoil of which the Eurozone Crisis is ‘Exhibit A”.

Hayek influenced Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economists; he was lionized by British premier Margaret Thatcher, inspiring her to deliver the famous bon mot: ‘there is no such thing as society.”

In turn he was picked up by former US president Ronald Reagan and inspired his conservative “Shining City on the Hill” vision. And so his thinking defined the global trend toward small government, big privatisations, and the unwinding of the welfare state – all to give more space to laissez-faire free market practice. The rest, as they say, is our modern history.

Hayek’s rise to prominence is an extraordinary story, for he passed half his life in near-total obscurity. After fleeing the turmoil of his native Vienna in the early 1930’s he came to London to try and explain what he had seen.  Hayek and his fellow Austrian School of economists believed that the 1934 reactionary coup against a social city administration and economic collapse that led to the rise of fascism in Austria, was entirely the fault of the Left.

The state under left-wing management ultimately was to blame for the rise of Hitler. The only way to defend liberalism was to get the state right out of economic life.  In his 1944 masterwork The Road to Serfdom took a shot at Keynes himself, pointing out “the similarity of much of current English political literature to the works which destroyed the belief in western civilization in Germany, and created the state of mind in which Nazism could become successful.”

To find out exactly why Hayek chose to set himself up in opposition to Keynes, we need to turn to a authoritative book by Nicholas Wapshott: Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics” (Published 2011.)

Wapshott profiles Hayek’s flight from Vienna, his 1931 arrival in London to work at the London School of Economics, his period of obscurity – and his earlier, rather sycophantic attempts to attract the attention of the man who was the most famous economist in the world – John Maynard Keynes.

When Hayek wrote Keynes asking for a copy of ‘Mathematical Physics’ (an obscure 50 year old textbook) the Cambridge don brushed him off the young Austrian rudely with a one-line postcard: ‘I am sorry to say that my stock of ‘Mathematical Physics is exhausted.”

Bizarrely, Hayek treasured this postcard putdown – which today sits in the Hayek archive of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Although Keynes later told Hayek he considered The Road to Serfdom  ‘a grand book,” the damage was done – and what Wapshott describes as “the most telling duel in the history of economics” was on.

Even as Keynesian thought held sway through the 30’s and 40’s, Hayek began telling the “tough love” story that almost all influential policymakers believe today.  Giving credit to consumers as a cure for economic depression only makes matters worse. Only time – not “artificial stimulants” – can affect a cure when nations have got into the habit of consuming more than they produce.

For Hayek, the market has its own logic and contains its own natural remedy.  Hayek’s big argument was that freedom in economic affairs was the only guarantee of political freedom, and that any state attempts to manage the economy would cause fascism or communism to return.

With notable exceptions – too-big-to-fail banks that regularly get massive doses of Keynesian “artificial stimulants” – Hayek’s 50 year-old remedy is today being meted out to Greece, Portugal Ireland, Spain, Italy and the other EU bad boys.

Keynes died in 1946, worn out by his wartime labours and by the conceptual work he did on creating the Bretton Woods institutions. Hayek lived on till 1992, dying shortly after he collected the Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President George H. Bush.

When Keynes wrote of “Madmen in Authority …and Academic Scribblers,” he could not have known how Hayek’s thinking would eventually eclipse his own, or help to sow the seeds for our current period of global instability.

We are moving into an era potentially as unstable as 1931, when the young and traumatised Hayek fled from the political turmoil of Vienna, to seek a safe haven in London. There Hayek began his life’s work of undermining Keynesian thought through the “gradual encroachment of ideas.”  So 80 years later, his alternative holds sway.

The power of this story affects every single one of us. It shows convincingly how Hayden White’s model is just as applicable to dead 20th century economists as to dead 19th century historians. What works for Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche, works for Keynes and Hayek. And it works today, looking forward.

And it shows convincingly that stories presented in the Satirical trope diminish our power to react strongly or to get excited and engaged. There’s no better way to tell and sell bad news to populations and keep them docile or indifferent, than through Satire.

And so our natural defence against the economic hardships this obscure ideological tussle has brought us, has been demobilised and weakened by the power of Satire. We feel that because these are powers beyond our control, we can only shrug our shoulders at the Eurozone Financial Crisis, and laugh at the playing-out of “Dinner for One.”

But come New Year’s Eve 2012, it’s hard to tell whether the comedy that has entertained Germans since 1963, will still look quite so funny. It’s unlikely James the Butler/Nicholas Sarkozy will survive April/May’s coming elections to “follow the usual procedures” on December 31st.  Sophie/Angela Merkel will have to find somebody else to bang her dinner-gong and pour her champagne.

Richard House

Tower of Babel: rethinking the Bible story, and my story.

I seem to spend a lot of time  thinking and writing about other people’s stories. Time for a little disclosure abut my own story, and about finding my own voice in an age where everyone is saying something different, and in different languages.

That led me back to the ancient legend of the Tower of Babel, and to question the power behind the legend of this linguistic fall from grace, every bit as powerful as Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In the beginning, says the Book of Genesis “The whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.” But for some reason, an angry God destroyed all this when he said: “Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

So once upon a time, everyone could understand and freely share each other’s story. That was humankind’s natural state; you didn’t have to be a writer, a broadcaster or a journalist to do this. In some ways blogging, Twitter, social media, Facebook, the internet, machine-driven translation software, is all bringing us back to that earlier ambitious phase of the Tower of Babel, before God angrily pulled the plug.

I believe in the power of story because I’ve spent half my life travelling to collect tales of people around the world, reshaping these stories, and sending them out with my name on top.

I wrote stories of scientists over-wintering in Portakabins on the Antarctic ice cap; of Indian tribal peoples or peasant rubber tappers in the Amazon rainforest confronting armed loggers and hostile gold prospectors; of Pathan warlords in the Khyber Pass. Stories with bank robbers, gun-runners, hunger strikers, the trial of a mass murderer, the hunt for a feared war criminal; of corporate shenanigans involving small pieces of paper and large amounts of money.

Scenes of takeovers, political and corporate, involving torn-up constitutions and large amounts of money. Interviews with presidents in their palaces, ministers in their ministries, rockstars, racing drivers, and the occasional celebrity. Along the way there’s been some tear gas, a few gunshots, (briefly) detention by the military, lawyers’ threats, and one persistent demand; “Somebody has to get this story out.”

A far as international journalism goes, it wasn’t anything like a great career. But it was good enough and it had its excitements — for the time. Well, acting as intermediary between people’s stories and the world is hugely stimulating ….. until you start to chafe at the one unbreakable ground-rule that puts iron in the soul.

Never get involved in the story. Fashion it, filter it, but keep moving along like a hunter-gatherer. Don’t get sucked in or put down roots. Never ‘go native’. Sometimes, holding a microphone or a notepad under people’s noses seems like a theft of their own true voices.

So one fine day up pops the question: “Do you want to go through life collecting and telling other people’s stories … or do you want to get your own hands dirty with a much bigger story – one that’s beyond your own power to tell because you’ll be living inside it?”

So, over 10 years ago I decided to give up journalism and do something else. That’s the day you finally wake up and start trying to make sense of your own story. There freedom begins. I guess you could say I was looking for a personal resolution of the “Confusion of Tongues”  described in the Bible.

What I am learning — later than I would wish —  is that the story is always bigger than the teller. And that while the storyteller is busily collecting, ordinary people are living, loving, losing and winning with courageous intensity to humble any observer on the sidelines.

Above all, I learned two things.

It is far harder yet far richer to tell your own story than anyone else’s. For it is only by doing so that we begin to live freely and courageously.

And that people need to tell and retell their own stories to achieve real empowerment. They must take charge to ensure honest delivery — whatever the audience and whatever the channel.

This is because the true voices of people living their own experiences can move mountains in ways that packaged and retold accounts never can. Whether the issue be one of politics, of business, of civic or personal achievement, using our own authentic voices is the only real guarantee of reaching out.

So now I dedicate my own voice to helping others find theirs.

To helping the protagonists of individual or collective dramas understand that they too can be Hercules, Luke Skywalker, Snow White or Sita. Helping them grasp their own power through the use of  these archetypes, so they find themselves able to see further, just as Isaac Newton did,  standing upon the shoulders of giants.

The bigger task involves getting my own hands dirty. Getting down in the mud to help with the anonymous business of making bricks. Making the bricks that when summed together in their billions represent the huge collective task of raising up a high edifice we might still – even in this multicultural world — call the great society of universal values. Part of the task, too, is correcting those who say there’s no longer such a thing as meaning in our post-modern world. Meaning comes from experience – shared meaning, shared experience.

This edifice is constructed from building blocks made from the mud of universal shared experience. It is raised up, brick by brick, from our tested humanist ideals and our experience of a generous world. Acts of service, of compassion, duty, discovery and freedom and above all of love. Such a tower — made of individual bricks assembled and raised up by nameless citizens — can reach to the stars. That, after all, was exactly how the great cathedrals of medieval and Gothic Christendom were originally built.

This great endeavour of shared, universal meaning failed once before in ancient times and we all know the story of the Tower of Babel. In the Book of Genesis it is written that after the Great Flood, 600,000 people got involved in a vast  project. Jewish legend says this wasn’t just an engineering enterprise; it was a full-scale rebellion with a planned coup d’etat against God. the leader of the rebels was Nimrod, mighty hunter, man of power, a and great great great grandson of Noah of the Flood. As king of Babylon, he was the architect of the Tower of Babel.

The success of mankind in building a vast structure near Babylon  in the Plain of Shinar made God both jealous and angry at humanity’s visible success. “God came down to see what they did and said: “They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withholden from them which they purpose to do.”

God couldn’t stand this, so he worked out a divide-and-rule plan for mankind based on mutual incomprehension: “because God there confounded the language of all the Earth.”

As that lofty enterprise came apart, we learned to see its ambition as evil, and the punishment of humanity divided by language, fitted the crime of daring to reach up to heaven.

But perhaps we have been taught to interpret this story in a way quite different to that originally intended. We are told it proves the need for humility under heaven, and teaches us that all our divisions and strife are just punishment for too much daring. It teaches us to fear freedom.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the old Bible story was there to mislead us: if we were truly free, then humanity would surely have built its mighty tower right up to heaven and made that an open place, from which we could come and go as we please, incarnation by incarnation. We would have a Stairway to Heaven.

So perhaps the very opposite is true and the over-reachers – not the humble – hold the keys to human evolution? Perhaps the ancient story of the Tower of Babel really tells us that if we regain our harmony of voices and a shared story, we will then regain the bravery to continue, building up and up until we sit as equals at God’s table among the stars. We deserve a Stairway to Heaven, and though God may once have thwarted primitive man’s to make one, we’re now grown up enough to have a second shot.

So I’ll get back to stacking the bricks from which this new Tower is being built by every one of us who believes the best is yet to come, and that we owe it to ourselves to go higher. Not with pride, but with humility.

Richard House

Storytelling conceptual matrix – TEDX talk

You can find the youTube video of a TEDtalk I gave on how  the power of storytelling is harnessed for mass opinion formation and for moral persuasion at:

The talk was at the TEDX in the Hogeschool in  Utrecht, Netherlands. The talk is built around the simple  twin-axis  conceptual matrix I’m developing to integrate the pioneering work of others into a simple, practical tool-set.

Richard House