Battling in the ‘Story Wars’

Screengrab from 2016 website – result of the European Union Referendum 2016

Originally published on 24th June 2016 via LinkedIn.

As the Brexit saga continues I thought it would be interesting to revisit a post I wrote shortly after the vote in 2016. With dramas like Brexit: the Uncivil War and Netflix’s documentary The Great Hack, it’s interesting to reflect on the role stories played in persuading the public.

As we wake up today to the possibility of a UK outside of the European Union it’s interesting to consider how the stories each campaign told have impacted the results. The results were close and the vote for Leave is something many just didn’t see coming. So how did we get here?

This isn’t a post about whether it’s right to be in or out of the EU. I’m no political expert, but I can see when a strong story is being told and that’s clearly what Leave did. And here are some thoughts…

Leave told a unified set of stories that targeted emotions over apparent logic. The facts seemed, on the face of it, to be very much on the side of Remain, from business and political leaders. But Leave told a stronger and more consistent story that resonated with people whose worldview is one of a corrupt politics and a self-serving business community. They had clear characters that they framed as ‘good’ and ‘evil’, tangible conflicts that needed to be addressed, as well as an emotive simple plot for people to follow. No real solutions, but one single message to get out of Europe. They even managed to cast the many ‘experts’ for Remain in the role of the villains, saying we didn’t need any more of them. They even had the language that described the brand of the referendum on their side: Brexit (no real traction for Bremain). Remain tried hard to play the same game, but misjudged our appetite for stories with what felt like intangible fears.

So if faced with a strong story that is playing to an arguably fear-based and emotionally led narrative, what can you do to counter it? The answer is not to avoid the negative overall, but to be much clearer on the positive and on a vision for achieving the resolutions that can be reached in spite of it. Remain tried to counter fear stories with fear stories, what they needed was a story of hope, with characters we could relate to and find something of ourselves in. You know, empathy.

In his book The Story Wars, Jonah Sachs talks brilliantly about the ways these sort of stories pan out in US politics, using the 2008 election of Barack Obama and the battle for meaning between the likes of pundit Glenn Beck and activist Annie Leonard. He also talks of Five Deadly Sins for brands and maybe we could learn from them to when faced with powerful counter narratives. They are:

1. Vanity – thinking you’re the hero of the story instead of the audience
2. Authority – the facts do not speak for themselves
3. Puffery – issuing orders and edicts from on high without connecting
4. Insincerity – trying to be something you’re not to fit in
5. Gimmickry – resorting to heavily on humour and gimmicks

His solutions include a checklist of a strong brand story that we can use to help us test if our stories are strong enough. Are your stories tangible, relatable, immersive, memorable and emotional? So the next time you try to fight fire with fire, or fire with facts, it may be time to pause and see if you communication meets the checklist.

Is it indeed a strong story?