"Effective storytelling can remind fans of opposing teams that they share a love for the same game."
This is An "Act of Leadership" logged by The Xylom's Founder and Editor Alex Ip as a Climate Reality Leader. He has been trained by former US Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore in Atlanta, GA, March 2019.
What team do you root for?
The Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees? Michigan or Ohio State? Lakers or Celtics? Whatever the team, your answer emerges not from RBI statistics or winning records. Most likely, your answer is influenced by your personal history filled with stories of loss and gain, triumph and pain, only further defined by uniforms, chants, BBQs, and a shared identity that believes in a future win, no matter the facts on the ground.
The teams that we root for expand much further past the goalposts of sports arenas:
Team climate change vs. team climate denier
Team vaccine vs. team vaccine choice
Team Trump vs. team anybody else
The way we engage with information says more about our identities and our social grouping than it does about the factual integrity of the content. Whether we belong to the team that chants “fake news” or not, facts alone do not possess a mystical power to change people’s minds, spur change, or inspire different behavior.
Science supports this claim. Neurologist Antonio Damasio studied brain injury victims who suffered damage to the emotional processing center in the brain. In his book Descartes’ Error, he found that not only did the patients lack emotion they were also unable to make decisions, highlighting the importance of connecting emotionally to influence behavior change.
“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only things that can do that is a good story.” –The Overstory, Richard Powers.
Not all stories are fables. Stories are a vehicle for sharing information in a way that is connective and memorable. Effective storytelling can remind fans of opposing teams that they share a love for the same game.
Consider an effort to further the protection of a 10,000-acre wetland. Depending on the team you root for, the action can be viewed as a government land grab or a conservation imperative. Conventional public outreach plans focus on regulatory frameworks, provide timelines, and discuss the public process. Imagine a communication plan where the wetland served as the hero of multiple stories. Stories told by many voices, from different teams.
The town manager who helped send fire trucks and rescue squads to a neighboring county when historic floodwaters devastated a town that wasn’t spared the nearly two million in damages his town avoided because the wetland absorbed the rising floodwaters. A father who takes his daughter fishing each spring on the wetland’s waters, as he did with his father when he was young. A local diner owner who is busy on weekends due to the seasonal recreationists--birders, paddlers, and hunters—enjoying the public access that they took for granted but now would be secured for generations.
Not all stories need to be supportive. A farmer may share how his narrow profit margin is impacted by each square acre of land ceded to a wetland boundary over tillable land. But it is important that he is heard and that his experience is part of the mosaic of a community striving to co-create a thriving future for its residents. They are all playing the same game.
Stories have a way of making the concerns and visions of neighbors visible in a way that increases listening, understanding, and empathy. Uri Hasson, a Princeton neuroscientist, has studied how storytelling stimulates the brain in a way that the listener of the story perceives the narrative as their own experience. As we increasingly align behind one issue, one perspective, one team, we must push ourselves harder to better understand how others interact in their world so that we can communicate more effectively. Stories have the power to accomplish this in a way that facts and figures stripped of their humanity cannot.
My father does not believe in climate change.
He also consumes a steady diet of one-sided curated news sources. It is easy for him to dismiss my “facts” as arbitrary as he lobs his own “statistics” in defense of any numbers I may share. There is little actual dialogue and we often end these exchanges with us retreating to our own corners where we stew about each other’s wrong-headed thinking.
But when I told him the story of how evening bedtime rituals were becoming punctuated by tick checks resulting in urgent care visits to the doctor to have engorged ticks removed, his authentically concerned response was, “How awful. I don’t remember the problem being so bad when you and your brother were kids.”
It opened the door for me to explain how the warmer winters and increasingly fragmented forests were creating a landscape ripe for mice and deer that were carrying the disease-ridden ticks that were now plaguing our outdoor experiences. I shared how some children we knew had to take doxycycline after a bite as a preventative measure because of the threat of Lyme and we felt it was inevitable before we would be faced with the same decision.
Stories have a way of making the concerns and visions of neighbors visible in a way that increases listening, understanding, and empathy.
Climate change was never mentioned. Facts were not lobbed back and forth but the door was cracked open and it didn’t close in frustration. It was the beginning of a longer and more patient conversation about how our actions today will impact the things we most care about--and in his case, it was the story about his grandson’s and granddaughter’s health that created the opportunity.
Those of us with outsized responsibilities to disseminate information should cast aside the bullet point-laden powerpoint, the wonky blog post pocked with acronyms, the ascetic presentation, and reach for the narrative that brings our universal human experiences into focus. No matter the different teams we root for when it comes to our politics or social allegiances, we should all root for team story.