“The cat sat on the mat is not a story”, says the distinguished author John Le Carré. “The cat sat on the dog’s mat is”. That’s the essence of storytelling and why it works. You start with a problem and then discover how – or if – it’s resolved.
All stories are about disrupting the status quo and what happens when you do. They are propelled by uncertainty and doubt. That’s why they hook us. We’re hard-wired to fear disruption. Somewhere in our brain we think the cat is us – and we’re at risk. So we need to know, for our own survival, what comes next.
Politicians want to hook us, especially at election times. And there’s no better way than through stories that first create anxiety and then promise to take it away.
This election was only called, Teresa May tells us, because dissent at Westminster was endangering our nation. Never mind the competing narrative that says dissent in Westminster is the foundation of our nation, in this telling Teresa May presents herself as the only one who can restore stability and put the cat where it belongs, firmly back on its [Union Jack] mat. This has been the narrative and promise of ‘strong’ leaders through the ages, including that moustached Chancellor who promised a disorientated Germany a thousand years of stability. Hey, it’s a story formula that works.
With its new “for the many, not the few” manifesto Labour just signalled the problem is The Elite. They’re tearing a page out of the Hunger Games, where the hedonistic Capital dwellers feast in luxury (and Versace) while the proletariat’s children die for their sport. Corbyn, our own bearded Mocking Jay – is pledging to storm the citadel and reset the social contract. And may the odds ever be in our favour.
The Lib Dem focus squarely on the disruptor that is a Hard Brexit. We’re a bus careening towards a cliff and they are the only ones who are screaming to hit the brakes. Personally, it’s a story that is most compelling to this member of the audience, but I have to say they remind me a little of the final scene in Italian Job where the bus is already half over the cliff and Michael Caine perks up with a hopeful… “hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea”.
The thing about stories is they are fictional. The danger is imagined and therefore entertaining, like being ‘tickled with a dagger’. But when politicians tell their stories in an Election like this, it’s worth remembering the consequences are real, the stakes are really high and that cat on the dog’s mat actually IS us.
What’s your favourite example of the Problem/Resolution story this week? Which politician has sought to alarm and then soothe you to win your vote? Make your suggestion below and you could win a free, signed copy of my new paperback Story for Leaders.