‘Numbers numb, stories sell’: The key messaging lesson from Trump’s win

Why scientists and progressives must embrace narrative in their messages and marches.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

“No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story,” explains Dan Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics for his pioneering work on the psychology of decision-making.

Inspired by the game-changing Women’s March, scientists have embraced their own march, now set for Earth Day. But the best social science says storytelling lies at the heart of memorable and persuasive communications. So I hope the people organizing the March for Science take this wisdom to heart if they want the general public to take notice.

Scientists need to tell their stories — stories about why they became scientists and what science has done and is doing for humanity. Remember, science is an abstract, intellectual process for most people. It is very hard for people to gain an emotional connection to science. That’s what narrative is for.

Donald Trump’s mastery of the elements of storytelling and emotional persuasion (also known as the figures of speech) gave him a strategic advantage in the 2016 presidential election, as I first wrote about last March.

Hillary Clinton, tragically, was “known for taking a draft of a speech and changing it some indelible way to make it more literal and less readable,” Politico reported in July. One campaign joke was that she’d turn the slogan, “If you see something, say something,” into the more literal-minded “If you see something, alert the proper authorities.”

It turns out Voldemort can beat Hermione — if he’s a master of classical rhetoric — what Plato called “the art of winning the soul by discourse.”

Listen to the leading experts on science messaging. “Numbers numb, stories sell,” as Ed Maibach, director of George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication, summed it up at a 2015 White House panel on climate communications. You can learn many of the “secrets” of winning with words by watching the entire panel:

Unfortunately, the conservatives and deniers not only understand these secrets, but they practice the “dark side” of story-telling regularly.

Top GOP messaging strategist Frank Luntz gave this advice in his infamous 2002 memo to conservatives and team Bush about how to pretend you care about the climate while opposing serious action: “A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.”

And no, I’m not urging anyone to embrace the Trump-Luntz strategy of telling factually inaccurate stories. Quite the reverse.

I want progressives to tell stories, since that is the only thing that can counter conservative stories, but keep them accurate. For instance, scientists have been trained to depersonalize their speeches, to speak literally, not figuratively. As a result, it has been easy for the Luntz-Trump crowd to create stories in which scientists are the villains.

But people have emotional connections to the things they get from science — like iPhones — because the people who sell those things have spent millions studying the best emotional marketing and branding techniques, which are built around stories and the figures of speech.

So a key aim of the marchers and speakers must be to help humanize scientists — and show how scientists help humanity. And that requires storytelling.

As Nobelist Kahneman explained in Thinking, Fast and Slow, his best-selling popular treatment of behavioral economics, “The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly on the quality of the story they can tell about what they see, even if they see little.”

If you want some good advice on crafting stories, read the latest book from marine biologist turned filmmaker Randy Olson, Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story. You can also hear him dissect the election results in a podcast: “Brander in Chief: How Trump’s Narrative Intuition Beat Clinton and Put a Reality TV Actor in the White House.”

Everyone has a great story to tell, but not everyone knows how to tell a great story.