Authority: The second deadly sin of storytelling

Girl and puppy on lawn

Make an emotional connection. People don’t trust experts and their data. They need more.

We all know the story of the emperor’s new clothes. The emperor trusted experts who told him he had a fine new garment, even though he couldn’t quite see it himself. He paid them lots of money for the fabric and construction. It took a child to tell the truth: the emperor was wearing nothing.

Our belief in our own expertise causes us to commit the sin of authority, according to Jonah Sachs in “Winning the Story Wars.” We believe that the facts speak for themselves, that the data are persuasive. We forget to make an emotional connection.

The problem is that in today’s world, facts aren’t enough. The public no longer believes experts. Scientific opinion changes. Are eggs bad for your cholesterol, or are they a good source of protein? What about cigarettes or DDT, lead paint or leaded gasoline?

When I worked on reducing pesticide use, we turned to the potential impacts of pesticides on children. We knew that parents loved their children and would be concerned about harm to their children’s health. We thought their concern might get them to act.

One of our strategies was to send postcards like the one above, with compelling messages about children and pesticides and a few tips for alternate ways to deal with garden pests. A follow-up survey found a high recall of the postcards. Those who remembered the cards were more likely to change to a less harmful garden practice.

Sachs singles out people working on climate change for the sin of authority. He talks about NASA scientist James Hansen, who spent 40 years dispassionately publishing his findings about the role of CO2 in climate change.

Now Hansen has become an activist. He protests outside of coal-fired power plants and participates in climate rallies with 350.org. His own story of scientist turned into activist gives him an emotional authority.