Why Storylistening Has The Edge On Storytelling

By Giulia Sirignani
on 7 August 2022

Everything is a story we’re told so we better learn how to powerfully tell stories to persuade, provoke impact and be memorable. But now there’s a new and important counterpoint to storytelling on the narrative blocks – “storylistening” – which is both a theory and practice on how to be a more discerning consumer of stories in a post truth world.

Women Love Tech speaks exclusively to the co-author of the book “Storylistening” Dr Claire Craig, who is the first woman to be appointed as the head or Provost of The Queen’s College, Oxford.

Claire Craig has had a brilliant career. She gained a BA in natural science and then was awarded a Doctor in Philosophy from University of Cambridge. She’s a geophysicist and civil servant who’s provided scientific evidence to decision-makers in British government and business as the Director of the UK’s Government Office for Science as well as Chief Science Policy Officer at the Royal Society. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2006 and from 2019 has served as Provost at The Queen’s College.

The Queen's College, Oxford University
The Queen’s College, Oxford University

Dr Craig’s work is about informing, educating and raising awareness of science-related topics among decision makers, policy curators, students and the public at large. She’s combined her talents with Sarah Dillon, who is Professor of Literature and Public Humanities at Cambridge University, to coin the phrase “storylistening.”

Their book Storylistening was published in November last year. It makes a case for the urgent need to take stories seriously to improve public reasoning. It’s a revealing exploration of how policymakers can gather evidence from stories to inform their thinking.

“Storytelling is commonplace,” says Dr Craig. “So much of the literature is about how to tell stories, how to persuade people or maybe how to catch their attention, while so little is about storylistening. If we could more widely think about what we are hearing, then that would help decision makers, help those providing evidence, help anyone of us abroad in the world thinking about what is going on around us. The notion of storylistening is that we pause and begin to say, hold on a second – I’m not captured by that story immediately rather, I’ll think about what it is actually meaning.”

Dr Craig and Professor Dillon use the term “story imbibing” in their book. Dr Craig says this a deliberate play on the idea of being inebriated by story.

“Story imbibing is when you take in a story, and it changes you. Occasionally a good story, a charismatic or seductive story, which could be about numbers by the way, we’re not just talking about a blockbuster film; that story imbibing is sort of getting drunk on stories and being misled by them.”

The Queen's College, Oxford University
The Queen’s College, Oxford University

Dr Craig offers “storylistening” as a more considered approach. “Storylistening has got that slightly more thoughtful, slightly more detached state, which gives you more control and more power over what’s going on around you and a better ability to stand back and shape the future.”

In a digital age which relies on story, and which is often unchecked, misleading and dangerous, Dr Craig’s work is right on the zeitgeist. It implores us to critically examine stories when we hear or read them.

“Stories need to be taken more seriously for two ways. One is because of anxieties about misinformation and “post truth”. We need to be able to be more reflective about the kind of firehose of stories that is coming at any one of us. And the other is by not including the kind of knowledge that’s within stories in thinking about the future of A.I. or the future of climate change for example, we are really hamstringing ourselves.”

“We’re interested in what stories do to reframe and to model the world and then to anticipate it,” Dr Craig asserts.

In Storylistening, Craig and Dillon use the examples of four crucial issues facing our world today – Artificial Intelligence, nuclear warfare, the economy and climate change. By excluding people’s stories and relying only on data and evidence, an opportunity to understand the impact of a flood or fire for example, is to limit how we plan for and organise around emergencies linked to the climate crisis.

“If you are thinking about climate change, then groups of people who are possibly not included in political making structures might be telling stories about what it means for them.  They have knowledge about ways of adapting and anticipating that are really useful. Their stories are being heard.”

Storylistening provides a theory and practice for gathering narrative evidence that will complement and strengthen, not distort, other forms of evidence, including that from science.

Dr Craig argues for what she terms “narrative literacy” and believes our public structures and reasoning should better incorporate narrative evidence.

“Narrative literacy would mean any one of us would at least pause and think – ok, there’s a story going on here. Maybe I should think about who’s telling it. And maybe I should think about who’s sharing it and therefore what it’s like for me in terms of what I am taking in about the world. How is that story changing my points of view? How is it connecting me with other people? How is it creating a model of the world or how is it anticipating it. Narrative literacy means knowing that stories matter. It’s ok to ask questions about them. You don’t have to be either ignoring them or seduced by them.”

The practice of Dr Craig’s storylistening might well provide a missing link to better decode and interpret stories and thereby using them as a force for good when combined with scientific data.

“And we’ll all carry on listening!” she adds with a smile.

Storylistening, Dr Claire Craig and Professsor Sarah Dillon
Storylistening by Professsor Sarah Dillon and Dr Claire Craig

Find our more about Storylistening here: https://www.storylistening.co.uk/

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