The Stories We Tell Ourselves Matter. Let’s Get Them Right!

Iñaki MT Flickr

 

Iñaki MT Flickr

I work in the peculiar world of communications consulting. And while that might seem like an odd profession for someone trained in political theory, there is no lack of historical precedent for political theorists and philosophers alike acting as advisors to those in and with political and financial power. Ultimately, consultants in general, and particularly communications consultants, are storytellers. What makes their profession peculiar is that they do not trade in anything tangible but deal in the abstract; consultants are in the business of ideas and ideas are powerful


Ideas are powerful because they are the building blocks of stories. And stories, in turn, weave together and keep intact the social fabric on which all communal life depends. There is no sense of community without both a shared cosmos of ideas and a common language through which these ideas are continuously internalized, reaffirmed, and even evolved. Epics in times past and, nowadays, stories are the vessels of ideas in a growing, ever more immersive range of formats.


If communal life is indeed anchored in ideas and the stories that bring them to life and keep them alive, then consultants, by virtue of dealing in the abstract, are nothing less than architects. The visions and ambitions they enable, refine, and sanction, are the material from which our lifeworld–our living and breathing conceptual and physical environment–is made. In that sense, consultants, unlike public servants, who are preoccupied with the administration and upkeep of already established lifeworlds, co-create the very ideologies that inaugurate and shape futures.
 

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.” –John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money 

But not all consultants are the same. Whereas my management consulting peers often author ideas on behalf of their clients, we in the world of communications consulting are primarily tasked with clarifying ideas and helping articulate them through narratives that are timely and likely to resonate with the audiences for whom they are intended. Now, one can debate whether the authors of ideas or those who convey them are more powerful; in other words, is it the message itself that counts or the way in which it is delivered? And similarly, are those who help articulate ideas as responsible for their impact as those who conceive of them in the first place?


Whatever the answer may be, the more important point is that ideas and the stories into which they are packaged matter. They matter because they reflect Zeitgeist, meaning the prevailing dogmas of a particular time and place, as much as they determine it; and, if you will, Zeitgeist is the dark matter of human civilization, the elusive but omnipresent substance of our lifeworlds. We are a meaning-making species: we cannot not interpret what we perceive, and we function by endowing our experiences and actions with meaning. As humans, we are hopeless ideologues.


The future is as much subject to chance as it is to the actions we take today, but the perhaps single most determining factor of the course of history are the stories we tell ourselves and those we tell each other. While the stories we tell ourselves set the trajectory of our individual lives, defining who we are, what we stand for, and who we aim to be, the stories we tell each other direct communal life, how we relate to and interact with each other at the micro and macro level. 


But what am I on about? We have known about the importance of ideation and storytelling since the time of Plato, given his much-discussed Allegory of the Cave, written over 2,000 years ago. Why should we care now? There are at least a few reasons to revisit these truly age-old themes. 


First, given the unprecedented sophistication and intricacies of communal life, we are drawn more to transient policy debates than to the fundamental, often moral questions of civilization. Second, because of already comparatively high levels of economic security, political stability, and social continuity in developed countries, incentives for creative destruction are fewer, so that maintaining the status quo becomes more important than disrupting it. And third, with there being a significant gap between the haves and the have-nots within and among countries, ideation and storytelling have become highly exclusive enterprises à la trickle-down economics. 


So, what do we do? As every generation before us, we must put the onus on young people, on the next generation. From #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter and a fast-growing movement toward stakeholder capitalism, young people around the globe continue to be prolific and inclusive authors and advocates of ideas and stories that shape our paths as individuals and communities. They can lead us to grapple with fundamental questions, encourage us to tread untrodden paths, and remind us that we are all in this together, that our gains and losses are, in fact, collectivized. 


If we succeed in making ideation and storytelling an inclusive enterprise–within and among civic communities and certainly in the communications consulting industry–and if we work together to get our stories right, then we have a shot at carving out a more permanent place for ourselves in the cosmos, defying the odds of extinction to which many species before us have succumbed. Time to join consultants like me in dealing in the abstract, in rediscovering the power of ideas and stories, and embracing our shared role as architects of the marvel that is human civilization. 

Alexander M. Wegner is a One Young World Ambassador and an account director at APCO Worldwide where he works with leading public sector clients in the Arabian Gulf region. Prior to this position, Mr. Wegner was the Project Manager at the Dubai office of Richard Attias & Associates (RA&A), a high-powered communication advisory firm that helps clients globally spark conversations, shape perceptions, and generate impact through world-class events and initiatives. He holds a Master’s degree in political theory from The University of Chicago and a Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and draws on over a decade of experience in the Middle East. Aside from being a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum (WEF), a Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), and a One Young World Ambassador, Alexander is a member of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Mars Society, and the Planetary Society.