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Are we “story illiterate”?

My 11 year-old niece and 8 year-old nephew asked me what I like to watch. I presumed they meant on TV and said I like drama, documentaries, comedy … 

And then I tailed off. 

They looked confused. That furrowed brow, slack-jawed confusion that hits when a conversation takes a turn so bizarre you’re left wondering if you’re speaking the same language.  

I asked them the same question.

They said “YouTube”.

It was my turn to be confused. And then I felt really freakin’ old and out of touch. Because I realised I’d bumped into an invisible wall between their and my understanding of TV, film and other media—their purpose and the need for story to make anything worth “watching”.

And so I sat with them for a while “watching YouTube”, mostly brief snippets of professional gamers playing Minecraft while the kids narrated over the top. And tried really hard, not to sound like my own grandmother when I gently queried what they gained from the experience. 

Of course, the kids and I have entirely different ideas of what is worthy of our time and attention. I’m thirty-something years older than them. I don’t expect them to like what I like, to think as I do, or even to share the same cultural reference points. We’ve had various silly conversations about the Beatles, Freddy Mercury, Margaret Thatcher, Elvis, et al.

“Elvis? Is he the one who wobbles?”

But I did wonder that they didn’t seem to share my vocabulary of “drama”, “comedy” etc.

I’m building a business around the idea of story. In my world, no story, no point.

In their world, no drama, no narrative arc, no characterisation, no problem. Or at least, no characterisation beyond a voiceless pixelated creature with no voice or will, no problem.

When is a story not a story? 

When adult generations are using story for a thousand forms of communication—sales, marketing, education and misinformation—when even Dominic Cummings is calling for job applications from people who’ve worked at “the intersection of technology and story telling”, my young niece and nephew seem to be going another way entirely. 

It’s not that they don’t respond to and enjoy stories. Both are both keen readers. They also love going to the cinema and are avid fans of Star Wars. They just don’t (yet) have the vocabulary to explain or understand what a story is and its many different forms. 

Is this normal for kids at this age? Probably. I really don’t know. I’m sure I didn’t have a vocabulary of storytelling at that age. But what we all have, adults and children alike, is a hard-wired biological and cultural response to story.

Beyond my own conditioned knee-jerk horror, is this lack of storytelling vocabulary a problem? Maybe not in a shallow, keeping-the-kids-entertained-and-temporarily-out-of-the-way sort of way.

But it concerns me. Here’s why.

That’s entertainment! (and a whole lot more)

The reason why a well-told story holds your attention is the same reason it’s such a powerful tool for other purposes. 

If a film doesn’t entertain you, you won’t invest two hours of your life to watch it, nor absorb its message. Some of the most culturally significant films from history were devised specifically as propaganda.

You’ve grown up with stories. They’ve become an integral part of your cultural, social and familial identity. You’re programmed to respond to stories. But your ability to recognise when a story is in play and when it’s being used against you is severely compromised by the (rapidly increasing) number of stories you consume each day and the increasing number of ways those stories are delivered. 

Even in journalism, (maybe particularly in journalism) social, technical and budgetary changes have fundamentally changed what you accept as “normal”. News stories based on robust research, considered analysis and an attempt at impartiality and reference to legitimate authority, are overwhelmed by soundbite journalism. Stories culled from the uninformed opinions of Twitter are offered verbatim without analysis or commentary. They’re designed only to fill the insatiable demand for content.

And then there’s the stuff that’s designed deliberately to mislead and affect massive social change. Targeted adverts, memes, and “fake news” based on your age, income, political leaning, and opinions expressed online.

This is the stuff you consume every day in the careless minutes when you first wake and reach for your phone, while you’re waiting for a friend or for a coffee, or even while you’re on the toilet

Whatever your world view, politicians (elected and unelected), retailers, marketers and others, use stories to manipulate and affect your thinking for their own ends. 

We need a language of storytelling 

We have to become more story literate—to be aware of when a story is in play and what the storyteller hopes to achieve by engaging us in their narrative.

Key to this is having the right language to understand and describe it. When we don’t have the words to describe something, we fail to notice, understand or truly value it.

The same is true of the stories we consume. Without the language to understand and describe a storytelling technique, you don’t see when it’s in use. That doesn’t mean stories don’t affect you. It means that when you consume them carelessly and unconsciously, you’re not aware of the impact they have on your mental health and on your view of the world you inhabit.

Our children may be growing up in a vastly more story-filled world than we did. They may be more adept at quickly processing vast quantities of data than we are. But they don’t have the understanding to recognise when a story is in play, to assess its validity, or respond appropriately. 

At the same time as my niece is enjoying her Minecraft world on YouTube, she’s also desperately anxious about the state of the real world—specifically about Donald Trump, climate change and about Brexit. She’s 11 years old. Her brain hasn’t yet developed sufficiently to make rational analyses of the stories she hears, to assess the sources of these stories, nor to analyse the intentions (conscious or otherwise) of the storytellers. 

The stories she’s consuming aren’t offering her solutions—only fear.

But my niece doesn’t have the filters necessary to make informed choices about what she consumes. She absorbs every story and anxiety that’s fed to her, and spouts it back out in a stream of trying-to-be-an-adult anxiety.

But we adults aren’t a whole lot better. Even we find it increasingly difficulty to process the sheer quantity of end of the world stories that fill every news, and social media feed. And it’s adults who are fueling my niece’s anxiety.

Time to switch off? 

The number people switching off from news and social media consumption is on the rise. Switching off is often touted as the answer to achieving that nebulous state of happiness we all aspire to

But what if, instead of just ignoring this new, over-saturated world, you armed yourself with the tools to assess the quality of what you consume? What if you had the means to make conscious and informed choices about what affects your sense of self worth? Or about what you adopt into your belief systems?

What if you understood implicitly how story works, how it affects you and how it’s used against you? What if you could teach these lessons to your own children?

It’s up to us to teach kids how to cope in the world we’ve created for them.  But we can’t expect the children we love to know how to recognise and respond to stories in a healthy way when we’re so bad at it ourselves. We have to teach ourselves first and then model the behaviour we want our children to adopt.

Children are perfectly capable at setting their own boundaries when we give them the tools, the understanding and the trust to do it. Nir Eyal, gives a beautiful example of helping his five year old daughter set her own on screen-time limits on Sarah Tasker’s podcast.

Do we need to teach narrative literacy? 

Every day, we’re bombarded with stories built on limited data, designed to reinforce our existing biases and exploit our fears. From toxic marketing that exploits our “pain points” to political campaigning and social conditioning spawned from our fear of “the other”, storytelling, a powerful tool for connection and survival, is being turned against us. 

We need a new understanding of narrative literacy. A new way to recognise, challenge and rewrite the stories we tell ourselves. 

Story is at the core of our success as a social and creative species. Understanding this is also the key to understanding and protecting ourselves against the weaponisation of story. It’s time to examine the stories we’ve inherited and those we’re fed daily, to consider how true they really are, and figure out why we keep paying attention to harmful stories that keep us stuck in fear and overwhelm. 

How about you?

What stories are keeping you stuck? What do you listen to too much of for your own good?

How do you deal with story overwhelm, toxic marketing and “alternative facts”? Do you switch off or fight back?

What’s your solution to our over-saturated story world?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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