Metaphors and storytelling are ways to navigate through complex, inter-related ideas in a way that brings coherence and delight to them in narrative form. Stories are not just for children, but a serious tool for bringing complexity to life, making it accessible and usable to a world that can benefit from learning more about it.
Have you ever found yourself curled up in bed with a book that you can’t put down or found yourself up much later than you’d planned because of a TV program or movie you got caught up in? Ever have the same experience with a piece of academic writing? How about a technical report? I’ll bet the answer is yes to the former examples more than the latter (if there is a yes at all to the second two). Books — mostly, but not always, fiction books — magazine and newspaper, articles, poems and even blog posts thrive on a narrative that takes you a journey even if you don’t know the destination. That narrative, if its engaging, has consistency, a tone, a flow and a ‘texture’ that makes it enriching. It is perhaps the reason why so much scholarly writing is so dull: the texture is rather dry and lacks appeal.
Not all scientific articles require such appeal. Indeed, the standardized methods of reporting experiments can be very useful in interpreting results and deriving meaning from complicated interactions. Yet, this application of the standard model of writing from science to other areas is perhaps taking scholarly work to places it didn’t need to go. Or perhaps it is preventing us from going places we need to go.
In terms of complexity, one of those places it needs to go is into widespread discourse on public policy, health promotion, and social program planning. Storytelling and metaphors are one vehicle.
Making metaphors and embodied cognition
A recent Scientific American blog post by explored the role of metaphors in some depth, bringing attention to some of the early work of psycholinguist pioneers George Lakoff and Noam Chomsky in looking at the role of embodied cognition, a concept where a metaphor actually gets integrated into the body (literally or figuratively). In the column Samuel McNerny looks at the history of the idea and the use of metaphor, drawing on interviews, literature and recent research.
As Lakoff points out, metaphors are more than mere language and literary devices, they are conceptual in nature and represented physically in the brain. As a result, such metaphorical brain circuitry can affect behavior. For example, in a study done by Yale psychologist John Bargh, participants holding warm as opposed to cold cups of coffee were more likely to judge a confederate as trustworthy after only a brief interaction. Similarly, at the University of Toronto, “subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the room to be 5 degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered being coldly snubbed. Another effect of Affection Is Warmth.” This means that we both physically and literary “warm up” to people.
Metaphors like “warming up” are therefore representations of real phenomena that become figurative in certain scenarios. McNerny adds:
The last few years have seen many complementary studies, all of which are grounded in primary experiences:
• Thinking about the future caused participants to lean slightly forward whilethinking about the past caused participants to lean slightly backwards. Future is Ahead
• Squeezing a soft ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as female while squeezing a hard ball influenced subjects to perceive gender neutral faces as male. Female is Soft
• Those who held heavier clipboards judged currencies to be more valuable and their opinions and leaders to be more important. Important is Heavy.
• Subjects asked to think about a moral transgression like adultery or cheating on a test were more likely to request an antiseptic cloth after the experiment than those who had thought about good deeds. Morality is Purity
The challenge for complexity in social life is coming up with the right metaphor and finding one that is embodied within the systems we seek to influence.
Telling systems stories
One of the best examples of the use of storytelling and metaphors to explain complexity comes from Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge with his humourous, insightful look at order and the art of organizing a children’s party.
What Snowden does is anchor something new (complexity) in a familiar frame of reference (a children’s party). While this is not something that directly translates to how we operate social organizations such as “warming up” does to explain relations between people, it offers something close.
Anchoring the novel in the familiar. Childhood is the one universal we adults all share. Travel the globe and watch children interact and you’ll see patterns repeated everywhere. Emotion is another universal: joy, fear, anger, contentment, curiosity, and such are all platforms that can be used to create and share stories about our world. For those of us working in communities, we need to understand what universals exist in those realms. This means paying deep attention to the systems we are a part of.
In short: systems thinkers may need to be participant observers to the systems they wish to influence and learn about the big and small things that drive them.
As systems are large, complicated and complex, it is unreasonable and perhaps impossible to know everything necessary to successfully navigate through it and maneuver the leverage points necessary to create responsible, sustained systems change. To do so, we need to enlist others and that means getting complexity into the minds of many operating in the system and not just a few ‘systems thinkers’.
We need to get better at telling stories and marketing metaphors of meaning.
Learning storytelling from marketers
Marketing is largely about identity and stories about identity. Marketers want to influence what you do (choose, use, purchase, etc..) and how you experience what you do when you do it. To do this, they know the importance of design and the stories to accompany that design. Design, when done well, is partly about creating empathy with those who are to benefit from the products of design and the best products out there are ones that apply empathy and guide behaviour at the same time. Steve Jobs and his design team led by Jonathan Ive were (are) famous for doing this at Apple.
In an earlier post I mentioned the work of Rory Sutherland and his discussion of tobacco use as an illustration of the ways in which failing to empathize with a product user’s life can change the impact of policies and programs aimed to improve it. The case (made in the video below) is that there are some real, tangible benefits to smoking that get ignored when we aim to snuff it out (bad pun intended). For public health to enhance its effectiveness, we need to pay attention to these benefits and find ways for people to derive them in healthier contexts.
But listen to what Sutherland says not only here, but in another of his TED talks he points to ways in which small changes can have enormous consequences if done in a systems-forward manner (my term, not his).
What Sutherland does is not just provide good ideas, but tells good stories. Like Dave Snowden, he captures our interest and makes us want to think about concepts like behavioural economics and marketing just as Snowden inspires thinking about the differences between order and chaos.
Not all of us can be great storytellers or funnymen (and women), but we need to take this seriously if we wish to use complexity and systems thinking to advance change in our world purposefully, because massive change is happening whether we want it or not. The key is whether we will be telling stories in the future of how we helped shepherd change that helped us be more resilient and thrive or let these forces shape us in ways that caused unnecessary problems. It is, as Bruce Mau said, not about the world of design, but the design of the world.