When we want to convey or convince, our first instinct is often ask to “tell a story.” It may be a joke or fable, but the ideas that we want to promote aren’t thrown out there randomly. We try to embed them in a plot and setting that engages the listener. It also brings together the teller and hearer in a way that fishing for a “yes” to an idea never can.
There is an enormous amount of whining these days about our ideological debates. This gets the problem wrong. Ideological debates are fought over ideas, but politics is more often about competing stories, or, as the eggheads call them, “narratives.”
This insight — ideas ≠ equal stories — is one of the reasons McKinsey is the dominant strategy consultancy. The firm’s associates are great at sweating the narrative through dozens of drafts, yet they also hang the “footnote” details just out of sight. The details are out of sight of the listener perhaps, but available for the speaker to summon in a second.
I often relay the story of sweating the prep for a strategy presentation for a CEO under the tutelage of a McKinsey alum. Not only did we go through fifteen full drafts, but we carefully positioned our proof points in the appendices. Therefore, when the CEO questioned an assumption — one that underlay a key plot twist — I could then go straight to the idea that supported the assumption. In fact, those ideas were their own little story.
The result? The executive said “now I know why the story goes the way it does…I’m not sure I agree with that premise, but it makes sense now.” This careful layering of narrative and support bounded the problem for us. Now we could focus on refining and selling that plot point, not patching up scattered plot holes.
On the other hand, other consultancies don’t do this nearly as well. It’s either all story and no setting, or all setting and no plot. To tie this back to politics, I can’t say I was surprised that Bain founder Mitt Romney’s platform was a barrage of ideas, with little story to focus their aim.