This definition pops up when you ask Google.
1. an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
“an adventure story” synonyms: tale, narrative, account, recital;
2. a report of an item of news in a newspaper, magazine, or broadcast.
“stories in the local papers” synonyms: news item, news report, article, feature, piece
Stories are accounts about the wonders of real or imaginary people told to entertain. We like them so much that every day we listen to them constantly as we gossip amongst ourselves or settle in for a night of Netflix.
We also call items of news stories and that is rather odd.
Evidence, on the other hand, is less popular. It is dry, factual and objective, unlikely to fire the imagination or to entertain, unless, of course, it is dramatised into a story.
Enter the public relations team for a government department. Any department really, but let’s say it’s the Department of the Environment.
The PR team face a conundrum. They have some scientific evidence to communicate only it is dry information that would struggle to cut through butter. Stories though are entertainment and, in the times of personal screens and feeds, are indispensable.
“Do you have a story?”, the PR lead says without any idea of what he is asking.
Well, as it turns out I do. I even wrote a book of them called Stories for a Change. There was also my first book, Awkward News for Greenies, that radically and without success had both stories and evidence in the same volume. It just confused the hell out of the handful of people who read it. They couldn’t tell when the fiction became fact.
Even though Netflix shows about sitting presidents get closer and closer to reality, we know them to be dramas made for television. This means that they are not true. Part of our brain can hold onto this even as we fall headlong into the illusion.
Similarly, modern period pieces are so well made that it feels like what actually happened is right there on the screen. The deception would be complete if they figured out how to relay the stench of Mr Darcy. He was most likely on the nose, given the frequency of bathing in the early 1800s. Into these dramas, we can fall without any controls because no matter how realistic they look they are obviously not real.
No doubt our affection for reality TV is that we can kid ourselves into turning off this safety completely. We can see that the people are real even as their stories are clumsily manipulated by eager producers.
In all of these entertainments, there is part of our brain that knows the truth. The story is not a reality. The thing is that we all must know how to separate the truth from fiction otherwise we go mad.
Our lady from the Ministry asks ‘what’s the story’ on a reflex. She knows that unless the evidence is made into entertainment it will not cut through to the desired audience. She also knows that evidence is more likely to be painful than dramatic, stranger than fiction but impenetrable and dull.
Who would know what to say about the average area of illegal land clearing being consistently greater than the modal area? It means that a few large clearing events skew the average upwards and tells you that the majority of instances are smaller than the average. It also tells you that if the total area of clearing is the worry, develop a policy to reduce the instance of large events, through heavy penalties for example.
So why do the people who should use evidence baulk at it in favour of the story, the fabrication that entertains? It is not just a matter of cutting through for people do want to know the truth and are engaged with it whenever it becomes accessible. A more likely reason is that stories are easier.
Telling the truth requires more than courage, it’s about making it easy for people to grasp when the truth can so often be painful.
Stories do this so much easier than facts.