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Journalists aren't the only ones who tell stories

I'm a complete newbie to blogging. But all the blog experts I talked to as I readied myself for this brave new world said again and again how important it is to create a sense of dialogue, to really read reader comments, respond to them and highlight those that strike a chord. So, that's what I'm doing.

1162553.jpgThis reader came to Story Lab through Joel Achenbach's wild, wacky, wonderful and deeply addicting Achenblog and commented about my discussion with Joel about narrative writing. (Joel later blogged about the exchange.) Here, this reader is coming at the human need for story not from a news media perspective, but from a completely different venue -- inside the government.

Here's the comment:

I work in a part of the executive branch that attempts to make sense out of the world. As a result, we often feel a sense of kinship with journalists and the challenges they face. And in the training that we take, special emphasis is given to the power and danger of "The Narrative."

Creating the coherence and internal consistency that characterizes a successful interpretation of facts is, essentially, story telling. Just as those in the world of journalism must resist the desire for terse summaries, so too must we in the government. Busy and important policy makers, the argument goes, don't have time for so many words. But this, of course, is a mistake.

For when abstract facts are embedded in a compelling narrative they suddenly make much more sense. Causal relationships and common themes are revealed. Further, we respond to a good story on a very primal level. Stories move us in a way that a cold and disjointed presentation of "key points" simply cannot.

But here's the danger. Facts and data can always be interpreted in many different ways. Because there are so many ways to interpret reality, there is a profound temptation to abuse the power of the narrative. The story that is told can sometimes be the one that the writer finds most interesting or, perhaps, the one that the writer knows the reader will find pleasing. Resisting these biases and subtle (and sometimes not subtle) influences is crucial to prevent slipping into propaganda or spin.

All of which means that sometimes the real challenge is not telling a good story as much as determining which story to tell.

The reader's point is well taken: In a world of often competing facts and different perspectives, which story is it that you are telling? Think not only of political speeches, but of rationales for creating, expanding or cutting government services or programs - how the spark of understanding or connection comes with a story.

The question about whose story gets told is an age-old complaint. Just listen to any Civil War buff who will say that for the first 100 years or so after the war, most of its history was written by northerners, the victors. (To the victor goes the spoils, including shaping the story. I got an earful on this when I wrote about Robert E. Lee's 200th birthday.) But the reader offers good advice to any writer - or government worker - to think a little harder before taking up the pen, or sitting down to the keyboard.

By Brigid Schulte  | December 15, 2009; 10:46 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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