Matters of Narrative
I sit in the meeting, engaged in the conversation but not landing my point. I put my idea out there, but no one latches on and the tangled…
I sit in the meeting, engaged in the conversation but not landing my point. I put my idea out there, but no one latches on and the tangled mess grows and tightens. Just as I start feeling like my calendar needs a checkbox for “endless,” someone else makes a point. And, while I am thinking “I just said that 20 minutes ago” and expecting their voice to get lost in the wind too, it doesn’t. It rises above the dust kicked up by clashing factions, catches the light and draws the full attention of the room. The energy of the debate is channeled into consensus and entropy turns to decisive action.
Why does this happen? Didn’t I say the same thing that moved the room forward? Why wasn’t I heard? Are you listening? WTF?
There are three parts to consider:
The situation is context for the decision. An objective set of facts I “know” and, ideally when taken in totality, these facts create a shared reality for the audience and me. But, the facts I “know” reflect me, not the world. Everyone knows it’s important to understand the audience, but I think it is even more important to try to understand myself. About 80% of my view of any situation is stuff I brought to the party, not what is actually there. The distance between the facts I “know” and the facts the audience “knows” is ambiguity. The more ambiguity there is, the more likely we talk past each other no matter how hard we communicate.
For example, in America today there are about 35,000 fatalities per year caused by car crashes. We accept this level of carnage and call crashes “accidents.” The framing is around human intent. When a robot car crashes and there is a fatality, the reaction is extreme because we think the robot had an “accident.” The robot killed a human.
Parts of this situation are an obvious shared reality. A robot car killed a human. The audience values human life very highly and I reflect that value. But there is ambiguity between valuing human life and evaluating how that life was taken.
This framing matters. If I am arguing for robocars, it would be a mistake to craft a narrative about “what” when in fact, the unknown for my audience, the source of ambiguity in the situation has roots in the “why.”
Let’s assume autonomous vehicles are 10x safer than human drivers. This would reduce the fatalities from 35,000 to 3,500. If the audience was simply valuing human life, a story about the lives saved shows we are all better off. The room moves toward acceptance of autonomous vehicles based on societal safety. But, because the audience cares about “why” a life is taken and the acceptable number of human lives lost due to robot action is zero — no one in the audience would celebrate the 31,500 people who were not killed on the road. Instead the audience would focus 100x the attention on the 3,500 unfortunate souls who met their demise at the hands of Elon’s robot army.
If I want to control the narrative of ambiguity, I need to know my audience values a human life AND understand how they evaluate the actions that may end it. I need to see how this affects the situation in their eyes. I also have to be clear about my own feelings on the question and understand the impact this has on what I believe I “know” and why I believe I “know” it.
The winning narrative in this case could define the unknown reality of 100% fully autonomous vehicles and the years between now and then as a path to zero lives lost — not just many fewer. When all cars are autonomous and the system works to some number of nines, there will be zero fatalities on the road. The first step is cars with autonomous technology that are 10x safer than human drivers and can reduce the fatalities from 35,000 to 3,500. This technology represents a huge step towards a safer future on our nation’s highways and shows us a path to realize the vision of zero fatalities due to car crashes on American roads.
Knowing what I bring to the situation and what the audience is bringing lifts the ceiling on our communication. To pursue a narrative that lets me own the ambiguity between my audience and me is to go beyond what I think and what they think into why we think what we do. Whoever controls the narrative of ambiguity gets to defines the situation. And situations define decisions.
Good narrative requires understanding your audience, but the real demand is that you first understand yourself.