‘Partygate’ and the art of good storytelling

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For a story to connect with its audience, it needs to be well told. You can have the perfect story structure, the most inspiring lead character and a beautifully evocative theme. But they are nothing without a good storyteller to share them.

John Harris recently discussed Boris Johnson’s dwindling effectiveness as a good storyteller in a  refreshing take on the current ‘Partygate’ scandal. As he argued, ‘Britain’s Covid story is about sacrifice and selflessness. Boris Johnson can’t tell it’.

In case the news has managed to escape you, the police are currently investigating several social gatherings attended by senior members of the UK government, including the Prime Minister, at various stages of lockdown over the last two years.

Almost across the media spectrum, the dominant narrative to have emerged is one of a select few party-going rule-makers, led by Johnson, and a majority of dutiful rule-followers.

And thanks to Johnson’s initial attempts to deny that the parties ever took place, he has now seriously eroded public trust.

And herein lies the nub.

Once the great storyteller and inspirer of collective optimism, Johnson now struggles to convince his audience. He has a strong narrative available – of personal vulnerability (he was admitted to intensive care with Covid), through some difficult-but-necessary choices, to a successful domestic vaccination programme.

But people won’t believe these messages if they don’t believe the messenger. Especially when they’re engaging with a much bigger story, with a much stronger emotional pull.

People won’t believe messages if they don’t believe the messenger.

The three pillars of brand storytelling

As all good brand storytellers will tell you, the best brand stories are authentic, relatable and emotional – three useful lenses to apply to Partygate.

Let’s take emotional first. Given the many hardships people have endured during lockdowns, it’s unsurprising that Partygate has made people angry. And this anger is trumping any feelings of empathy or even admiration the Prime Minister might otherwise have sought to evoke.

As for relatability, all Covid stories are at some level relatable. The pandemic has been a universal – albeit uneven – experience. But the Prime Minister’s apparently casual approach to the rules has prohibited him from appealing to a sense of shared sacrifice.

And then, there’s the trust issue. With his personal experience of serious illness, Johnson has the potential to tell a highly authentic story of Covid and its effects. But in initially trying to give the impression that there were no parties, he has lost all credibility.

Stories are important. They give us a sense of where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re headed. They tell us who we are as individuals and in society.

Storytelling and storytellers

Stories are important. They give us a sense of where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re headed. They tell us who we are as individuals and in society.

Told well, a good brand story can contribute to a person’s sense of self. And lots of people can tell brand stories. They might be an employee, a person your organisation has supported, a volunteer, a fundraiser or an influencer. In happy workplaces, with trusted brands, doing positive work, the more brand storytellers, the merrier.

Your organisation’s storyteller might be your chief executive or chair of trustees too. In Brand Storytelling, Miri Rodriguez talks about the benefits of a senior manager brand storyteller – they believe in the brand and can leverage their thought leadership. 

But importantly, they need to be credible. And that means being honest – even when they get things wrong.

Unreliable narrators have their place in fiction. But with brands and in politics, they usually end up doing more harm than good.

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