Winning narratives that matter

I am a big one for research in all areas of life, including parenting, and one of the evidence-based recommendations I took to heart is to have dinner with your family as often as possible. Apparently, research showed that sitting down to a meal together has all sorts of positive benefits when it comes to mental health, physical health (childhood obesity), and strengthening family bonds.

Also, I really like to cook for people I love.

My son, from the time he was very small (he is 17 now) always asks everyone else in the family: how was your day? We often give our answers during dinner. My husband always seems to be competing in a contest to answer this question in as few words as possible. I take the long route, of course, being the wordy, over-sharing person I am: I add context, colorful details, quick character sketches. My son observed: “You make a story out of everything that happens to you.”

Storytelling is a part of everything I do and feel. Stories were one of my main forms of nourishment while growing up, either in the form of the books I read or in the hours I used to spend in solitary imaginative play. And then stories became a huge part of what I did for work, as a communications professional. Every activity—writing press releases and reports, building websites, doing major campaigns on big issues—was, at its heart, about finding the stories and the messages that would make whatever it was we were trying to communicate about into causes that were engaging, real, and understandable.

In my early days as a communications professional, we used to talk a lot about creating “winning” messages and narratives. We hoped that as we helped people find the messages and stories that best represented their work, those narratives would be the ones that would rise above all of the other storylines out there and move people to care, and do good. That’s what “winning” meant, those days.

These days, I am pretty sure that the definition of what it means for your narrative to “win” has changed. I say this for two reasons: one, our public discourse spaces have become so crowded, with so many elbows thrown and so much calling-out and shaming going on, sending a new narrative into these crowded spaces feels a little like sending your kid to play in heavy traffic. Two, our public discourse spaces are easily contaminated by people whose sole agenda is to contaminate them. If you think about our public discourse spaces as pools of drinkable water, what I am saying is that anyone can come along and take a piss in the pool. This is pretty much one of the cornerstones of Trump’s success at advancing his corrupt agenda: despite lots of evidence that his brain is addled and his general knowledge, limited, he is very good at pissing in our pools. He is a champion pisser.

But enough about him. Let’s break this down a little, and start with the first problem, the problem of “too much.” In my early days as a professional communicator, we just didn’t have that many channels available to us to get our message out. We sent out press releases. (By fax—I don’t even know if we do that anymore!) We occasionally put together reports about our work—for both for-profit and nonprofit organizations, annual reports were the communications currency of choice and those reports had to be beautiful—printed on thick, heavy paper with gorgeous photography and design.

These days, obviously, we have a plethora of channels and platforms to work with. I used to think that it was still possible to put out a “winning” narrative that held up consistently and dominated the discourse across all of these channels but in all honesty, I think that’s actually pretty difficult to achieve. I myself show somewhat different facets of my identity across multiple platforms and channels: you get a very fragmented picture of who I am if you know me through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and through the personal and public websites I have.

If it’s hard to disseminate a consistent me across multiple platforms, imagine the challenges facing organizations communicating about complex subject matter, like criminal justice, or education, or reproductive health. I used to take pride, a little bit, in my ability to distill clear, compelling, and yes, “winning” narratives out of complex subject matter, but then I lost my confidence, a bit, when it came to figuring out how to disseminate those narratives across multiple platforms and channels.

So that’s the problem of “too much.” And then there’s the problem of contamination. This has been worrying me ever since all of the evidence about Russia’s successful PR campaign against our democracy came to light, through the Mueller investigation. Russia was able to exploit a weakness in our democratic immune system, a weakness carefully cultivated and expanded by Fox News and Breitbart and maybe even reality television shows. Vox published a good overview summary of the problem, but basically it comes down to this: we are living in an age of manufactured nihilism. I don’t have to tell you that’s bad and why that’s bad, right? During the first year or so of the Trump Administration, I felt the impact of that nihilism, down to the tips of my toes. I had way too many days of feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and hopeless, and I saw my friends go through many dark days of their own.

Facing these two problems, you’d understand why for a time, I lost some of my appetite for doing my work. I wasn’t just a professional communicator: I communicated for causes that I fervently cared about, and believed in. It was hard enough, boiling down the complexities of those causes into clear, compelling messages and stories; what’s the point of doing that, if your stories are going to get lost or trampled or de-bunked by some plausible-sounding idiocy?

But despite feeling really bad about most things related to communications and storytelling, I kept on writing, here. And I’ve been taking big and small writing projects here and there, for the past two years, and each one has led me to stories of possible hope, and real change, for good. And I think I have survived the worst parts of this information era we’re in, with my belief intact that we in communications can still help people who want to tell good, true, stories about things that matter.

There was no secret sauce to my recovery. Part of it had to do with privilege, and being able to take time off from full-time work, so I could pick and choose the stories I most want to tell, or help people tell, as a writer and a consultant. Part of it has to do with taking long walks with my dog, and spending a lot of time outdoors. And part of it has to do with intentional counter-programming, against all of the hate and fear-mongering and blame present in our public discourse today, a steady diet of podcasts and movies and books that are about humanity and love and compassion and togetherness.

I don’t know how many other people, out there, are trying to survive this crowded, often poisonous information era. I have no idea of how many of you are feeling anger and despair although judging from my conversations and encounters of the last few years, it’s a LOT. And I have no idea if my own recovery plan would work for others. But I would say that for anyone feeling frequent bouts of despair and anxiety and depression over our current times, and how we communicate with each other,  there might be a few things you could try, such as:

  • NAMING THE PROBLEM. I have talked to a lot of people who are not fully aware of the problems of “too much” and “contamination.” These are people who are fairly active on social media, especially Twitter, and who follow a LOT of news outlets, but get bewildered and overwhelmed by the flood of narratives that come out after a big event. Like, all of the stories that emerged in the first 24 hours after Kobe Bryant’s tragic death. This was an event that was already guaranteed to trigger powerful emotions—and the social media echo chamber amplified our emotions exponentially. It’s helpful to understand that—to understand that you are being bombarded at all times by different versions of the story, and to turn that shit off when it gets to be too much. Which leads me to my next point, which is:
  • TURN THAT SHIT OFF SOMETIMES. It is not surprising to me that digital detox coaches and camps are starting to be a thing. I was warned by my kids’ pediatrician, when they were smaller, to be really strict about it, and one thing I learned very quickly: kids, and most adults for that matter, cannot be trusted to self-police. Like any addiction (food, alcohol, drugs) you need support. If not a parent, then a trusted advisor. And to take this lesson further, into communications practice: as a communications professional, I think that the goal has shifted from trying to reach people wherever they are, however you can, to reaching people when they are ready and able to hear you, and to engage in meaningful interaction with you.
  • SEEK OUT THE STORIES THAT MATTER TO YOU. This bit of advice is really about fundamentally re-defining what the idea of “winning” narratives and messages really means. A “winning” narrative may not be the one that goes viral, or dominates the headlines, or even gets the highest engagement metrics. I think we may have to come up with different metrics for “winning.” Maybe a winning narrative is one that finds its way to the people you both expected to reach, and didn’t expect to reach. Maybe your narrative helps people feel things they thought they had lost sight of, like hope, and compassion. Maybe your narrative helped people remember that positive change is possible, always, in the future.

The other night, my husband was flipping channels after dinner and landed on ESPN (he pretends that ESPN is not on as often as it is on our main television), and a documentary film about Dwayne Wade, the professional NBA player who recently retired, was just starting. We all sat down and watched—my husband, me, our son, none of us big basketball fans except for my husband. God, it was beautiful. Not just about his storied career, but also about his life, his family, his struggles and his triumphs. I want to tell that filmmaker: it is people like you who make me think we’re going to get through this. People who will persist in telling the stories that help us connect to what’s best about each other and the human species.

It was a winning narrative, for sure.