Persuasive and memorable climate communicators weave their facts into a compelling story, aka narrative. As Dr. Drew Westen, author of “The Political Brain,” said in an Aug 6 New York Times op-ed:
“The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred.
Our brains evolved to ‘expect’ stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.
Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values. Today we seek movies, novels and ‘news stories’ that put the events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling and memorable. Children crave bedtime stories; the holy books of the three great monotheistic religions are written in parables; and as research in cognitive science has shown, lawyers whose closing arguments tell a story win jury trials against their legal adversaries who just lay out ‘the facts of the case.'”
Westen wasn’t writing about climate; he was discussing Obama’s failure to explain the economy. But Westen’s main point — we all understand the world through stories — applies every time we speak or write about climate.
Needless to say, courses such as “Advanced Storytelling” are not prominently featured in geophysics graduate programs. But to be effective with a given audience, we need to make conscious choices about our ‘narrative,’ then tell it well.
We’ll be exploring climate storylines further in Tools/Narratives and storytelling skills in Tools/Tips.
(Drew Westen is a Professor of Psychology at Emory University.)