Switches with exposed electrical wiring

Voltage: thinking about the power and peril of stories

Last week’s Point of View on Radio 4 was from the academic Tom Shakespeare talking about “the power and peril of stories”.

In a nutshell he’s saying that the persuasive power of stories has real social consequences and this can be used for good or ill.

I’ve been trying to understand this more recently as it is something that come up from time to time when I’m talking to people about stories and leadership.

Stories and Voltage

What Tom Shakespeare’s podcast made me think about was voltage. Stories are a bit like electricity. Electricity’s a good thing, but it has to be handled with care, especially when the voltage is high.

Some stories are low voltage, like a triple A battery, an anecdote about my journey to work this morning, for instance. It might be entertaining or funny but in terms of personal or social consequences it’s probably neither here nor there.

But what about high voltage?

Some stories strongly influence how people behave, the choices they make, the way they vote. And it affects the storyteller too. Any form of storytelling includes a measure of vulnerability so it should be done with awareness and support and be an explicit choice on the part of the storyteller.

Without that level of care we’re inviting unintended consequences a bit like leaving live wires exposed.

Narrative awareness

Going back to some of the points Tom Shakespeare makes, narrative is an extremely powerful thing, especially in the face of facts. Quite often the compelling story will win out over a rational argument.

If we’re engaged in storytelling we need to be aware of our responsibilities and develop an understanding of how narrative and “truth” are related and what happens when the two diverge.

And for me, this is one of the core purposes of education. Do we equip learners to use stories effectively and do help them see where narrative begins and ends and to challenge it when needed?

 

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