“As there are so many people who cannot wait to follow the prevailing trend of opinion, I am not surprised that a small group becomes an army.” — Josef de la Vega
Everything you see and hear is part of a narrative. Whether political, celebrity, financial, science, religious or sport. Every story we see is part of a narrative that makes sense on some level, be it personal, societal or cultural.
The prevailing narrative of our time is known as the zeitgeist. It includes the general intellectual, moral and cultural climate of a particular era and embodies all of our ideas and beliefs. The word zeitgeist comes from the German words Zeit, meaning “time”, and Geist, meaning “spirit”. The media (newspapers, TV and social media platforms) is both a mirror on the zeitgeist, and also a chief protagonist in its development.
We tend to think of the story coming last, after the action or event — the tidy narrative that ties everything together into a cohesive explanation. The reality is that it is often the story that comes first. To achieve something we have to believe that it is possible. We have to construct a narrative in our minds of what the future could hold.
The stories we tell have the power to motivate a nation, to finance projects that had previously been seen as impossible and to help ourselves meet our goals. Stories drive action. Action drives results. Results, in turn further drive the story. As Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast And Slow said, “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.”
But why do some narratives gain traction and spread, while others wither and die? The answer is important since the narratives at work in the world are driving your actions right now, whether you know it or not. According to Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point you need three things for a narrative to spread; the right people, a sticky story and the right context.
The right people
Who are the right people to spread a narrative? There are three distinct groups; connectors, mavens and salespersons.
Connectors are not just people that know a lot of people; they have a special gift for bringing the world together. Think of a connector as someone who has lots and lots of acquaintances, in Gladwell’s words, “We rely on them to give us access to opportunities and worlds to which we don’t belong”. The closer a story, idea or compelling piece of information comes to a connector the more opportunity it has to spread.
The strength and speed with which a piece of information spreads depends upon the ‘majority illusion’. When people believe that a majority of their network think a certain way — whether that perception is correct or not — they are more likely to act on it. Connectors play a central role.
While connectors are people specialists, mavens are information specialists. Mavens are unique in that they go out of their way to help, sharing their knowledge. Mavens have the knowledge and the social skills to start word of mouth epidemics. They spot trends, patterns and insights that other people have neither the inclination nor the patience to find, let alone share with others. Think of the maven as the investigative reporter who doggedly pursues dead end after dead end before finally coming up with the nugget of insight that she can share with the world.
The final group of people that are required to turn a narrative into an epidemic is the salesperson. While connectors bring disparate groups of people together, mavens share information, salespersons persuade. Salespersons have the charisma to persuade you that a narrative is worth paying attention. Rather than being the result of what they say, it’s normally what they don’t say that is so persuasive. These non-verbal clues are often what motivate people to act a certain way.
A sticky story
Narratives vary in form, across time and often even between telling’s. For a narrative to spread, for it to go viral requires a contagious element. This isn’t always evident in advance, but by looking at what narratives worked in the past we can begin to see the tell-tale signs.
Chip Heath, a Stanford University professor had spent years researching why some ideas won out in the social marketplace, cataloguing the unique characteristics of sticky ideas such as proverbs and conspiracy theories. His brother, Dan started an education start-up firm that sought to re-imagine the textbook. He discovered that the best teachers all had a very similar method to make ideas stick with their students. In their book, Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die the brothers outline the 6 principles that makes a story stick:
1. Simple: There is a reason proverbs stick; they are simple and profound.
2. Unexpected: Ideas that stick violate our expectations. They generate interest and curiosity.
3. Concreteness: Sticky ideas are often encoded in concrete language. Think of the proverb, “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.”
4. Credibility: Sticky ideas force people to question themselves or others around them.
5. Emotion: You and I only care about an idea once it makes us feel a certain way.
6. Stories: Stories, whether true or false engage us. They take us on a journey, while the best captivate us.
A narrative packaged to tick all of these boxes? Look no further than the meme. According to Wikipedia a meme (pronounced meem) is, “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture — often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme.”
The word first dates from the 1920’s when the biologist Richard Semon used the term “mnemes” to describe biologically inheritable memory. The meme has become a peculiarity of the social media age. Now anyone can copy and make small variations to funny images, videos or text and stand a chance that it might go viral.
If the meme is the most visible vehicle by which our narratives are carried and spread through the population then they also tell you much about the stories that people are concerned about right now. While those that fail to reflect the cultural zeitgeist wither and die, those that do grow reinforce the zeitgeist. A viral meme is a story that sticks.
The right context
The third and final factor behind the transmission of narratives is the power of the right context. According to Gladwell narrative epidemics are “sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur”. When someone wakes us from our sleep to tell us something we assume it must be important. If we hear something that resonates with us on a personal level, particularly when it’s connected with the emotion of fear then it weighs more heavily in our minds.
The media is also complicit. An on-going narrative is highly valued by the media because a story that fits an existing storyline is strengthened by every subsequent story. If the broader narrative is considered important or compelling, no story is too small to run.
More reporting puts more examples and more emotions into more minds. Public concern rises, and reporters respond with more reporting. The feedback loop is established and the narrative continues to grow stronger and stronger.
People and institutions with an interest in a particular issue staying in the public spotlight (politicians, lobbying groups, campaigners and businesses selling a solution) ride this feedback loop but they also hope to perpetuate it. The point to remember is that just like a spinning top only needs a slight nudge to keep it revolving, outside influencer’s just need to nudge here and there in order for the narrative feedback loop to keep on spinning.
It is only when something dramatic happens that the feedback loop is broken. The spinning top is knocked over. It’s only then that we often wonder why we paid so much attention to something of so little consequence for so long.
Conversely, if a story isn’t part of a larger narrative, or if it contradicts the existing media narrative it is far less likely to see the light of day. Big events happen all the time. Compelling human interest stories are everywhere. However, if the story doesn’t fit then it may not get the air time it might otherwise have received had the existing media context been more in line. The impact of that event or story fails to grow.
The most contagious of all narratives is gossip. Psychologists have discovered that three things happen when rumours develop and spread. First, the story is levelled with details essential for understanding the true meaning of the event left out. Second, the remaining details are sharpened with extra information — whether true or not. Finally, the story is assimilated and so it makes sense to those spreading the gossip. Who does the levelling, sharpening and assimilating? Why, the right people of course! The connectors, mavens and salespeople of this world.
The narrative of the rumour, or indeed any story that takes hold is constructed from three basic building blocks: sentiment (whether a story is positive or negative), attention (the volume of the narrative) and cohesion (the consistency and strength of the narratives foundations). The right people have a defining role in how the structure of a story changes over time. Look out for these three building blocks and you will begin to see their work.
While much of the language about narratives is cloaked in the language of disease (contagion, infected), the important point to take away is that narratives are an entirely human construction. Narratives are constructed, and spread. Narratives are embraced, and passed on. With the right people, the right story and the right context narratives spread — because ALL of us want them to.
“The Emperor has no clothes”
If a compelling narrative can drive change, then a loss of belief in that narrative can result in change to stall, or even to reverse. Remember, narratives require certain types of people, a sticky story and the right underlying conditions (the context) in order to spread. A change in those underlying conditions may result in doubt to set in, and then once it reaches a certain threshold, the process can quickly tip into reverse.
Ever wondered why some stories in the media (especially the scandalous variety) suddenly appear, seemingly out of nowhere only to find out later that people, often many people already knew about it? That’s the power of the narrative machine.
Think back to a time when you have heard a scandalous report in the media about a celebrity. You were understandably shocked (SHOCKED!!!) that this person could have done such a thing. You went to this person’s public appearances, you bought that person’s products, hell you were only wearing a T-shirt with their name on last week. What happened? How could this scandal have stayed under wraps for so long?
To understand this we have to consider the three types of knowledge — private, public and common. Private knowledge is the information locked up inside our heads, while public knowledge is information that everyone knows. However, making sure that everyone knows the truth (public knowledge) isn’t enough for a narrative to spread. People only change their behaviour when a narrative becomes common knowledge. Common knowledge is when knowledge (it can be either private or public) reaches a state when everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows it to be true.
The classic example of the common knowledge game is the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone in the crowd possesses the same private information — the Emperor is walking around butt naked. But behaviour doesn’t change just because private information is ubiquitous. Nor would we expect behaviour to change because a couple of people whisper their doubts to each other, creating pockets of public knowledge that the Emperor is naked.
The only thing that changes behaviour is when the little girl announces the Emperor’s nudity so loudly that the entire crowd knows that everyone else in the crowd heard the news. That’s when behaviour changes. It’s only when that transition to common knowledge happens that behaviour changes. And it can change very fast. Scandals come to light in the media through the narrative of a victim, or someone brave enough to shout loudly enough. In game theory this person is known as the missionary.
As human beings we have great trouble in understanding how change actually happens. We like to believe we live in a world where small changes have a direct linear impact on outcomes. That is not how the narrative machine works. Narratives have their own structure. Narratives don’t correspond to linear change; they involve and require distinct jumps and changes in behaviour. Understand that structure and you will begin to see them everywhere.