Social change: are we telling the wrong stories?

When we see how context and environment affect an individual’s choices and experiences, we see solutions lie in better policies, not in ‘fixing’ the individual.

We’ve known for a while that myth-busting ‘killer stats’ about social issues don’t generate the light-bulb moment we hope for in the public’s mind. In fact, research shows that these myth-busting stats only serve to reinforce the myth they are meant to discredit.

And we now live in a world where ‘alternative facts’ are used to counter official stats, leaving a confused and sceptical public. If evidence is not enough to shift public opinion or increase the political saliency of an issue, what else can campaigners do?

Enter storytelling. There seems to be a current obsession with storytelling in the third sector. It’s no surprise: the media craves the case study that can provide the human story behind the dry stats and figures of a research report. A killer stat married with someone’s real-life experience makes a good package.

But is this effective campaigning on an issue? Does it lead to a shift in public opinion, or even better, does it lead to public demand for an issue to be solved? The fact that poverty figures in this country have broadly stayed the same for the past 25 years suggests that anti-poverty campaigners may be missing the spot.

The value of empathy is often used in campaigns to try and trigger action on social issues. If our audience can emotionally connect with someone’s personal story, they will demand action – maybe they will donate to a charity or sign a petition? This may work when the audience is already ‘warm’, but if we are trying to convert sceptical audiences, this tactic may backfire and push people further away from the ideas and solutions we are trying to promote.

The problem with a story focused on an individual’s struggle is that it channels the audience’s attention towards solutions in which the individual can get themselves out of the situation. Worse still, these individually framed stories can lead people to blame the individual (or their family) for the situation they find themselves in. This is clearly not the intended effect.

What does work?

Personal stories need to be framed in ways that focus attention on how an individual’s choices and experiences are affected by the context and environment that surround them. Audiences are then better able to see that solutions lie in addressing and improving the context through better policies, not in ‘fixing’ the individual. As Moira O’Neil from the FrameWorks Institute argues: “We need to widen the lens of our storytelling.”

The best example I can think of is Jimmy McGovern’s recent BBC 1 drama ‘Broken’. The decisions of the characters in the series are presented in ways that make the contextual constraints on choices and behaviours clear, powerful and inarguable. The struggles they face are not because they are fundamentally bad or good, but like all of us they are doing their best to get by in the face of structural problems. This is a refreshing counter to the usual ‘deserving’ vs ‘undeserving’ storyline that focuses narrowly on an individual’s effort and choice.

In the first couple of episodes, a single mum is shown to steal from her employer and defraud the benefit system. The character has made bad choices, but the audience is afforded a view of her context that has led her to make these decisions: her low-paid job that didn’t provide sufficient income to feed her three children; and the benefit system she turns to after she loses her job does not provide the safety net she expects. Context is clearly a character in this story – in this case, it is the “bad guy” in the narrative.

Telling context stories is much harder than producing another account of a poor individual who has made it through by virtue of their morals, hard work and wise choices. We need to work with storytellers to try and craft more effective narratives for social change: narratives that provide context, unpack problems and crucially explain solutions in ways that get us out of the tug-on-your heartstrings ‘deserving’ way of thinking about poverty.

JRF and the Poverty Alliance in Scotland are currently working with communication strategists the FrameWorks Institute on their ‘Challenge Poverty Week’ campaign, 15–21 October 2017. This is to tell more effective stories about poverty in Scotland that will improve public understanding and lead to public support for solutions.