A GOOD STORY

Power is with the one who tells the best story

By Christian Salmon

[This text, an excerpt from a book on the new narrative order to be published in September 2007, is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.taz.de/pt/2006/11/10.1/mondeText.artikel,a0058.idx,22.]


A good story is what candidate John Kerry lacked in the 2004 presidential elections according to election strategists of the Democratic Party. (1) James Carville who contributed actively in Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory said: “I am convinced Americans would vote for any Hollywood actor. The only prerequisite is that he tell a story to people about America and how he sees America.”

He put more coal on the fire on the NBC show “Meet the Press” several days after the election of George W. Bush: “The Republicans say: `We preserve you from the terrorists in Teheran and the homos in Hollywood.’ We say: `We are for clean air, better schools and a better health care system.’ The Republicans tell a story and we rattle off a litany.”

According to Evan Cornog, professor of journalism at Columbia University, “capacity for storytelling is an essential prerequisite for a leadership position in America today.” The trend originated in the 1980s during the time in government of Ronald Reagan who increasingly used his “stories” instead of rational arguments and statistics in public announcements. In his State of the Union address in February 1986, he said before both chambers of Congress: “From 200 years of American history, we have learned nothing is impossible. Ten years ago a little girl left Vietnam with her parents. She was one of many who had to flee after the fall of Saigon. When the family arrived in the United States, she was penniless and did not speak a word of English. The young girl zealously learned English, was a diligent student and at the end had the best grades in her class. Next May 22 will be a great day for her. Ten years after she left Vietnam, she will graduate at the American military academy at West Point. I’d like to present an American heroine named Jean Nguyen.” The American heroine stood up and was greeted with ovations by the assembled congresspersons. Then the president presented a second, not less edifying story before he revealed the moral of the two stories. “Her life shows us the oldest of all American proverbs is true: Everything is possible in America as long as we have faith, will and courage. History demands our being a power of good in the world.” (2)

Occasionally this president replaced reality with his fictions. The old film actor was convinced of the “power of stories” over the thinking of his compatriots. Now and then he related an episode from an old war film as though it were a real event from the history of the United States. (3)

However storytelling systematically entered the White House with Bill Clinton. This president employed a whole cohort of advisors, Hollywood screenplay writers and advertising experts. “My uncle Buddy taught me each of us has a story,” he wrote at the beginning of his memoirs. (4) Although he asks at the end of nearly a thousand pages whether he wrote a great book, one thing is certain: “in any case, it was a good story.” With Clinton, storytelling developed from a spontaneous form of communication to a methodical process. “Politics gives people the possibility of improving their biographies.”

NARRATOLOGISTS AND POLITICAL ADVISORS

Several weeks after the 2004 presidential elections, the conservative columnist William Safire made fun of the attempted explanations of the democratic challenger. In an article titled “The New Story of Story” and “Make Sure It’s Coherent” (5), He maliciously called them “narratologists” and “political advisors” and described how the same clever advisors would have congratulated one another with a different election result on the “good story” of the Kerry election campaign. But since Kerry lost, Safire mocked, the “story” was limited to the observation that John Kerry lacked a “well-rounded story.”

When the popularity rating of George W. Bush fell steeply after hurricane “Katrina” in August 2005, the same William Safire shifted his explanation and decayed to narratology. “I believe we are in the grip of a history that will tell us this president and his term in office are ending. His poll numbers are in the basement. He screwed up “Katrina” and the war is still not over. Whatever Bush does now is in the shadows of this history.”

As an experienced journalist, Safire did not doubt that the page would soon be turned in favor of Bush. “What is beautiful in the attentiveness of Americans and the reporting of the media is that the story has to constantly change. It cannot remain the same because it then would have no curiosity value any more. Our next story will surely be: the comeback of Bush.”

In entering the White House, George W. Bush introduced his cabinet to the media with the following words: “Each of these persons has his own unique story. All the stories together tell what America can be and should be.” When he presented the new Secretary of State Colin Powell, he described him as “a great American story” and on the nominated Secretary of transportation “I love his story.” At the end, he proclaimed: “We all have our place in this long story. This story goes on and on.” In a speech that was only a few minutes, the president used the word “story” more than ten times.

In February 2006 in a lightning visit to Afghanistan, he faced questions of journalists standing next to president Hamid Karsai. Within a short time, he repeated the same phrase two times: “We live stories and we want stories of young girls who go to school in Afghanistan.” The frequent use of the term indicates that storytelling was firmly established in a few years as a method of political communication. This is evidence of the influence of new management theories on the business school graduate Bush.

Storytelling actually originated as a new school of business management in economics, not as a method in politics. Since 2001, it has gained acceptance in firms like Disney, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Adobe, IBM and Microsoft. “Nasa, Verizon, Nike and Land’s End have recognized the potential of storytelling,” writes Lori Silverman, director of a large business-consulting firm. (6)

Steve Denning was once director of the World Bank. Today he is one of the gurus of storytelling in business. He gives seminars and has published several books in which he refers to the narratology of Roland Barthes. The books are titled “A Fable of Leadership Through Storytelling” (2004) and “How Narrative and Storytelling are Transforming 21st Century Management.” Against the overly rational “Napoleonic” direction of businesses, he pleads for a “Tolstoyian” approach that does justice to the riches of life and represents things in the full complexity of their connection. “When it was clear to me how really good stories are catchy, I asked myself whether our brains are not constructed to process narratives.” (7)

The well-known screenplay writer Robert McKee rose to be one of the greats of storytelling in the last ten years: “The most important challenge of a business manager is motivating workers. To that end, one has to address their feelings. The key to the hearts of people is the good story.”

Many firms advertise for their products today by telling the public the story of the enterprise. Market research utilizes the instrument of storytelling to draw conclusions from statements of consumers about their consumer behavior and their interest in certain services. Don Valentine is the founder of the firm Sequoia Capital and an investor with shares of firms like Apple, Oracle, Cisco, Yahoo! And Google in his portfolio. He recently declared that most of the businesses that showed him their plans in their search for capital in the past 30 years failed in their inability to communicate. “Hardly one was able to tell a good story.”

“Do you want to know how to multiply your serious customers and double your sales figures”, asks the chairperson of Story Theater International Doug Stevenson. “It is much easier to sell a product or service by telling a success story than describing the product and its advantages. People like to hear stories.” (8)

GOOD WEAPON AGAINST TEXTUAL DISLOCATION

Storytelling is not only increasingly important in the economy and politics. During the last ten years, storytelling has penetrated so many other areas of society that one could speak of a paradigm of a cultural revolution of capitalism. Storytelling emerges in the most unexpected contexts. “Managers motivate their workers with stories. Doctors pay attention to the stories of their patients. Reporters pursue narrative journalism and psychologists work with narrative therapies. Every year ten thousand drive to the storytelling center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, join the National Storytelling Network or participate in more than 200 storyteller festivals that occur year after year in the United States. A glance at the nonfiction bestseller lists reveals the high sales figures of books that treat the art of storytelling as a spiritual way, a strategy for successful applications, a form of conflict resolution or prescription for relief.” (9)

Narrating always means: communicating information and experiences, establishing practices and knowledge and formalizing themes, relations and ways of talking. This storytelling is more than the sum of stories. It is a discourse format or “discipline,” to speak with Michel Foucault. The Starr-report about the Monica Lewinsky affair summarized the most important conclusions in a chapter titled “story.” (10) The report of the investigative commission on the attacks of September 11 was a bestseller, according to William Safire, because the editors removed all adjectives and reconstructed the events in the form of a story. (11)

It doesn’t matter whether a seller stages a successful conservation or a politician wants to move to opposing parties to sign a peace treaty, whether an entrepreneur throws a new product on the market or palms off incisive changes on his employees including their own dismissal, whether one invests a video game or supports democracy in a country of the former Soviet Union: the method, the dialogue partners, the financing and the timetable of the process are chosen according to the same Modus operandi. Storytelling is the schematic concretization of an ideology taught in politics and the economy.

Sociology also hearkens back to life stories in investigating social or vocational identity patterns. Richard Sennett, sociologist and professor at the London School of Economics, said recently: “I wish our discipline were more interested in storytelling and biographies.” According to Sennett, modern capitalism in its institutions undermines “intelligible and predictable long-term structures” and robs workers of meaning and continuity. “We need to understand how the individual can discover meaning.” A story of one’s working life can be a “means of emotional self-defense.”

The new capitalism, Sennett says, “is a value-neutral system that is less promising socially and psychologically than the capitalism of the 19th century.” In the context of deregulation and economic insecurity, “developing a narrative work biography from disconnected fragments of work experiences” is always vital for the interpretation of one’s life.” (12)

In the other social sciences, the narrative approach has gained a nearly hegemonial status since the “linguistic turn” of the nineties. (13) The economist Deirdre N. McClosky is convinced that economics is essentially a narrative discipline: “Not accidentally economics and the novel arose at the same time.” Business administration relies on stories of co-workers for understanding the symbolic dimensions of organizational structures. Life stories cannot be ignored in pedagogy and the exploration of education phenomena. Ethnology has long emphasized the importance of storytelling in passing on cultural traditions. (14)

Jurisprudence, particularly US jurisprudence, has long been marked by storytelling. Even in the natural sciences and basic research, good stories decide over the allocation of research millions, if one believes the physicist Steven Weinberg.

Francesca Polleta sees a suspicion awakened by this all-pervasive fascination over telling stories: the danger of political or ideological manipulation. If everyone has her story, how are political decisions made?

“At first the word `storytelling’ seems somewhat out of place,” we read on the homepage of the Mitre Corporation. This firm partly financed by the US Defense Department specializes in the research and development of visualization- and information technologies. Mitre searches for new possibilities in dealing with the increasing flood of information and “textual dislocation.” If the sum total of our knowledge doubles every seven years and the storage capacity of our processors every 18 months, our ability to select relevant information is challenged. According to Mitre-researcher Nahum Gershon, “the human brain has an enormous capability for synthesizing information by different sense organs when this information is presented in narrative form.”

“The world changed every time a new technique of storytelling was invented,” says Brian Ferren, chairman of the board of Firma Applied Minds Inc. “One only needs to think of printing, telegraphy or the telephone, the press, radio and television – and recently the Internet.”

GENOCIDE AND WAR AS DIGITAL STORY

Storytelling is the crucial dramaturgical element in the fast-growing digital entertainment industry. In the form of video games, storytelling has even penetrated in the realm of humanitarian and political engagement. The UN action program to eliminate hunger and malnutrition has put on the net an online game for feeding thousands of people on a fantasy island.

In the video game “Dafur is Dying,” a player has the choice of being “attacked and killed” by militia of Dschandschawid or dying of thirst. “Whatever happens you must get water for yourself and your community!” Would you rather be Poni, the little Sudanese in her red dress or Jaja, her twelve-year old brother? Rahman, the father? Or the mother Sittina? The children have to run more than a mile to the next well. When one presses the space bar (on the computer), they hide behind a rock or perishing animal. Too late. The armed men in the jeep have discovered the children. “They were taken prisoner by the militia. They will probably end as one of a hundred thousand casualties in this humanitarian catastrophe.”

Not surprisingly, the American armed forces are interested in potential military uses of storytelling. The “Institute for Creative Technologies” was founded in 1999. Here simulation techniques for training soldiers are researched and developed. The goal is connecting the techniques of the education industry, the dramaturgy of storytelling and the latest advances in artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

A system of “visualization” with which the army deliberately prepares its soldiers for actions in war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan in realistic simulations is already in operation. In illustrating battlefields, these virtual, interactive and multi-sensorial environments are unsurpassed. They are based on computer-generated dramaturgies. The artificial figures imitate almost perfectly the reactions of a person in a specific situation. Beside hearing and seeing, the sense of touch and smell of the test persons is also activated.

A research division of the US State Department uses elements of storytelling for passing on combat orders to army units. A news service research organization Advanced Research and Development Activity works out a new program on this basis for visualizing information and newsgathering in outer space.

In the studios of Reality-TV, at the consoles of video games, on the fields of mobile phones and computer screens, in our bedrooms and cars, daily life could soon be spun in a narrative cocoon that filters our perceptions, stimulates our emotions, structures our sensory reactions and only allows “narratively-derived experience.”

According to “CyberJournalist.net,” this is a tendency that rapidly increased in the US after September 11. Witness reports in the first person singular flooded the Internet with a stream of assertions, anecdotes and personal impressions that the writer Don DeLillo describes as a “counter-narrative”: a chaotic and multi-voiced narrative of rumors, fantasies and mystical echoes, “a phantom story of counterfeit remembrances and imagined losses.”

The rapid expansion of the blog proves the enthusiasm for storytelling. In its study “Internet and American Life,” the Pew Center for Media Research says a new blog now arises every second. 11 million Americans already have their own blog and 32 million read the blogs of others. Most blog “to tell their story,” not to participate in important pubic debates or make known their opinion.

One Pew Center report from July 2006 was titled: “The Blogger: A Portrait of the New Internet Storyteller.” With standard formats for Internet pages including photos and sound recordings, provider firms stimulate the longing for storytelling. Being oneself is not enough any more. One must become one’s own story. You are your story.

FOOTNOTES

(1) Francesca Polletta, "It Was Like a Fever. Storytelling in Protest and Politics", Chicago (The University of Chicago Press) 2006.
(2) www.infoplease.com/t/hist/state-of-the-union/198.html.
(3) Vgl. Michael Rogin, "Ronald Reagan, the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology", Berkeley (University of California Press), 1987.
(4) Bill Clinton, "Mein Leben", Berlin (Econ) 2004.
(5) William Safire, "The new story of ,story' ", The New York Times, 5. Dezember 2004.
(6) www.partnersforprogress.com.
(7) Stephen Denning, "The Springboard. How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations", Boston (Butterworth, Heinemann) 2000. www.stevedenning.com.
(8) Doug Stevenson, "Never Be Boring Again - Make Your Business Presentations Capture Attention, Inspire Action and Produce Result", Colorado Springs (Cornelia Press) 2003.
(9) Francesca Polletta, a. a. O. Über das organisierte Geschichtenerzählen auf Festivals und in Vereinen siehe Jill Jordan Sieder, "Time For Once Upon a Time", U.S. News & World Report, 27. Oktober 2003.
(10) Peter Brooks, "Stories abounding", Chronicle on Higher Education, Washington, 23. März 2001.
(11) William Safire, a. a. O.
(12) Richard Sennett, "Récits au temps de la précarité", Le Monde, 5. Mai 2006.
(13) Martin Kreiswirth, "Tell me a story, The narrative turn in the human sciences university", Toronto (University of Toronto Press) 1995.
(14) Eddie Soulier (Hg.), "Le storytelling concepts, outils et applications", Hermes-Lavoisier (Paris) 2006.
Aus dem Französischen von Herwig Engelmann

Christian Salmon ist Schriftsteller. Der vorliegende Text ist ein Auszug aus einem Buch über die neue narrative Ordnung, das im September 2007 erscheinen wird.
Le Monde diplomatique Nr. 8122 vom 10.11.2006, 616 Zeilen, Christian Salmon