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Is it time to move on from Stats and Numbers to Metaphor and Narrative?

November 23, 2016
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Post Brexit and US elections, I’ve been doing some thinking about how we talk to people. It seems to me that, along post-truth-21with much of the aid and development sector, and quite a few other social change movements, we have been in thrall to the power of numbers and evidence. Everyone is a policy wonk these days.

The trouble is, as this year’s political events have shown, we are in a world of public debate that if not exactly post-truth (truth means different things to different people), feels very post-evidence or post-fact. Actually I think it’s probably always been like that, but people were more willing in the past to defer to experts and their alien language. The death of deference (good thing) means they are now no longer willing to do so (not so sure).

So what does this mean for those of us working on progressive social change? I think we need to at least partly put aside our preference for number crunching and lists of policy recommendations, and make greater use of metaphors or narratives instead.

This goes back to the long-standing discussions on framing – what kind of emotions are we trying to evoke? What is the underlying picture of the world? I would say positive emotions like trust, love, pride and self-reliance, laced with anger at injustice and discrimination.

metaphors-be-with-youWhat kind of narrative or metaphor could capture that? As an example, we could do worse than London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s soundbite that we should be building bridges not walls. That seems to conjure up exactly the right blend of emotions – optimism in the face of a threat.

So what could a ‘bridges not walls’ campaign cover? Off the top of my head:

  • Bridges between communities and nations (anti-racism, better treatment of migrants, fair trade agreements)
  • Bridges across cyber communities (efforts to span the filter bubbles that divide us – are there apps yet that bring quality analysis from other political/social perspectives into your feeds? If not, someone should design one – here’s some good suggestions for Facebook)
  • Bridges between rich and poor (social mobility, fair taxation)
  • Bridges between present and future (education, early years nutrition, climate change, environmental sustainability)

Oxfam’s Head of Global External Affairs, Katy Wright, had some good (if slightly painful) questions on where my eliot-on-information
much-loved ‘Killer Facts’ fit into this. ‘Don’t you think “killer facts” are, in a way, part of that post truth landscape?  Like all statistics they only tell part of the picture, they are designed to evoke emotions, to give you social currency when you pass them off as your own down the pub, and they’re pretty black and white. The problem with them is that they don’t inspire action or a belief that things can change.’

What do you think? What other overarching (sorry, bridges again) metaphors might get us away from the wasteland of stats and numbers that we have wandered into, and reconnect with a wider public?

Update: Lots of people agreeing with this on twitter, so help me out here – what other metaphors and narratives (in addition to bridges v walls) should we be looking at?


  1. I couldn’t agree more. I think what we really need is mixed methods that respect each other and speak to each other more. You’ve had some great posts in that regard.

    Like to share a tool I’ve found extremely powerful related to narrative and metaphor. Transformative scenario building (Adam Kahane) is a process that supports multi-stakeholder groups and networks to analyze their context, generate likely scenarios for future as well as leverage points. The group also generates metaphors to go with each scenario. It’s a wonderful process and let’s the group generate the narrative which I believe is a critical part of change. Not easy though. Debate and lots of it. Messy dialogue and sense and meaning making. Each of us reflecting and re-reflecting on our roles and connections, the bigger picture. Small shifts leading to bigger longer ones. We talk about unpredictability in systems thinking but maybe we should talk more about ambiguity?

  2. Whilst I don’t disagree at all with the power and importance of communicating better through metaphors and narratives, I worry that you suggest these can replace or put aside work on evidence and stats. In the battle for hearts and minds, what makes ‘our’ narratives better than ‘theirs’ if not for the facts and the grounding in truth. There is a bit of moral high ground here too, as well as making sure our narratives take us in the right direction. I would argue these are complements rather than substitutes. (Full disclosure- it’s my job to work on the stats!)

  3. Interesting discussion we had here in CARE around whether we needed to get more polemical (a saving grace for killer numbers), which chimes with your suggestion that we move away from wonkiness. The general response to Trump’s repeated lies were fact-checkers. In a similar vein, our response to critiques of aid is to evidence impact in increasingly robust (and expensive/technical) ways. Our response to claims we are unaccountable are to design complex accountability mechanisms. Are these the ‘right’ responses? Probably yes in terms of better aid. Are they effective at making the case? Clearly not in the case of Trump, and despite DFID’s massive investment in evidence, it doesn’t seem to have calmed any of the aid critics. Jury is out, but I think business as usual won’t work.

  4. Narrative unhinged from data can get carried away, very easily

    Facts are still useful: In US 61.9m of 241m eligible voters voted for Trump i.e 25.7% (and 1.7m less than Clinton) And of the 61.9m Trump voters what proportion of these were habitual Republican votes versus real Trump supporters? Are we perhaps taliing about not more than 12.5% of adult Americans?

    My concern is more about events getting over-interpreted, by people on all sides

  5. I happen to have read this piece on BrainPickings just the other day:

    Apart from a nice and subtle distinction between truth and verisimilitude, it makes a case for the complementary function of empirical truth and story. I don’t think for a second that you’re arguing for abandoning evidence – but just to reinforce the point that we need both. I agree with the line above that “narrative unhinged from data can get carried away”. I’d argue for narrative that’s more closely connected with evidence and goes beyond nice sounding stories or soundbites. Turn evidence into narrative, or build your narrative with evidence in the mix (good journalism does that).

    Not sure that can be done with metaphors but speaking more broadly here…

    And I think a key ingredient is connecting with the emotions and concerns that are already there – arguably a grand failure with Brexit and the US.

  6. Metaphor and narrative (and parable and fairy-tale and much more …) are deeply embedded in humans and it is how we teach and pass on the “great truths” and important lessons.

    However, they must be used with the same accuracy and precision as data and statistics if we are to avoid drifting towards a view that any interpretation is equally valid and personal viewpoints can take over from evidence. Metaphor and narrative need to find an “evidence” voice that ruthlessly cuts through conflicting tweets based on invented stories of the post-fact world. Metaphor and narrative have to be sharp and incisive not a list of excuses and too often they are used as a “soft counterbalance” to the dry rigour of statistics that are accurate but not illuminating. Metaphor and narrative should not be a comfort zone but a discomfort zone (some great examples of this in well known religious literature – almost any prophet will serve as an example). Speaking truth to power to make change happen.

    Not an alternative to data-based evidence, but another complementary pillar. Presenting the two approaches as either “alternatives” or “opposites” misses the point.


  7. A first issue that comes to mind in this discussion is how metaphor and narrative (and what else one may come up with) are thought of at the global level. Granted, “post-truth” or “post-facts” scenarios are being identified in different countries, but that doesn’t mean counter-arguments in the arena of metaphor and narrative can be easily drafted everywhere. Also, the post-truth “thing” needs to be criticized somehow in what it appeals to dishonesty and plain verbal terrorism. I sense a danger of buying into its “efficiency” when its terrible consequences have yet to be proper identified and discussed. Lastly, there’s the need to criticize the use of hard data and hardcore evidence without further arguments and narrative to support them. It’s difficult to keep believing in stats and hard data if they go unchanged for years and years. What did we do wrong? Combing data and narrative may be a more effective way to tackle this “post-truth” tsunami.

  8. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was a moment when he got carried away (as his original text, on which he had embarked, was falling flat). The resultant speech was very short on evidence (or policy proposals) but inspired by painting a picture of an aspirant future; and, that is what we need more of. What scenarios are we painting that create (recreate) social norms into which one can pour as much policy wonkery as you care? Or, alternatively, J.B. Priestley’s fire side chats on the BBC (in 1942) that painted a picture of a society fit for heroes (and so rattled the government that he was taken off air) and yet the broadly apolitical Priestley laid the foundations for the 1945 Labour landslide (and if that is an exaggerated claim – think that 40% of the UK population listened to them – and yes he no doubt articulated a zeitgeist as well as helped create it). So less ‘we must stop climate change’ (which sounds much too like ‘we must not be unhappy’) and what does a circular, green, socialised world look like – and why would anyone want to live in it, what would it feel like to live in it?

  9. Surely the issue here is more to do with how change happens. People are rarely inspired by “facts” but inspirational leaders not only “reflect” reality but “shape” how people perceive it. So framing and metaphors can create a landscape in which people interpret events. For example in UK talk of “strivers or skivers” might be flawed but rings true for many people and impacts on how they might vote. re metaphors that might work and resonate : “a hand up not a hand out” could ring bells re investment in education and training.

    Perhaps the key to this debate is to get the wonks talking with the people who frame and communicate, far too often lots of great research is left to wither on the shelf in part because it is written in accessible language.

  10. Great blog topic – one we discuss almost daily in Oxfam, where I head up the research team. A few thoughts

    1. Data will always be critical. Let’s imagine a world without data – we wouldn’t know that hunger exists, in which forms, locations and for who and why. We wouldn’t know the full extent and likely scenarios for climate change. Etc. While we might not be asking enough critical questions or in ways that give us more useful insights, data is and will remain crucial.

    2. Where much of this discussion focuses and where we’re challenge is the use of data. Data can be communicated in various forms as an infographic, a blog, a report, a vlog, or a ‘killer stat’. (It is a term I dislike by the way as it is aggressive and arrogant – assumes that all counter-argument will be ‘killed’ instantly simply because of this one stat.) Killer stats are a very blunt communication tool, as blunt as a referendum for profound societal questions. They are not framed with the values and interests of others in mind – it’s like shouting. We don’t listen enough or diversely enough. We don’t connect data to values that might be different from ours, eg climate change action as critical to save the planet vs climate change as critical to be efficient with our income. So yes, I’m all for better communication. But there is more.

    3. To be used well, we need to think think more about the qualities that ‘evidence’ needs to have for people – in all their diverse parallel worlds – to take note. Data travels a journey – to stimulate people to act, we need to make evidence credible , relevant, viewed as coming from legitimate places/sources and above all inspirational. This brings me to my last point.

    4. We don’t invest enough in sitting down together and making sense of data. How can data be transformed into a narrative, trusted evidence that has resonance and is relevant? I’m increasingly passionate about figuring out and investing more in ‘collective sensemaking’. Interpretation is not sufficiently shared, democratized, diversified. It is overwhelmingly the domain of the analytical elite. The data then unsurprisingly has little relevance or resonance with those who haven’t been part of any kind of ‘so what, now what’ process. So our post-truth challenge goes well beyond just being savvy with the communication.

    So it would be good to distinguish between data, information, and evidence and between collection, translating and communicating. Perhaps this can get Duncan beyond his beloved 2 x 2 matrices, to an impossibly complicated 3 x 3?

  11. I absolutely agree that there is a need to get away from statistics and figures to connect with a wider audience. In fact, in several cases, attacking a particular discourse with facts might be more detrimental than beneficial. But I do wonder if this aversion that we see to facts and figures is unhealthy, in the first place. Powerful narratives need not necessarily be supported by facts – so how can we convince the public that those supported by facts hold more water? I agree that in order to communicate effectively to a wider audience, we need to do a lot more than just spout statistics. Constructing narratives that tap into shared ideals and commonalities is important. However, I wonder if, in the long term, it is more important to create an environment where people are more open to and accepting of facts and figures. We need narratives and discussion to engage with people, but what we also need to do is build an appreciation for factual accuracy and evidence-based argumentation.

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