Curiosity and Public Affairs Storytelling

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It takes more than facts to tell a complex public affairs story. It takes an insatiable curiosity to find the facts that make the story compelling – and believable.Curiosity is one of the most useful tools for writing in the public affairs space. The more you know, the better you can be at explaining a complex subject with an engaging story.

Malcolm Gladwell, who has been called the "eclectic detective," is an excellent example of a storyteller with an immense, far-reaching curiosity. Many of his stories could easily qualify as textbook examples of effective public affairs writing.

A staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996, Gladwell has turned his unquenchable appetite for answers into an amazing aggregation of information.

In his 2009 compilation of stories titled, "What the Dog Saw," Gladwell recounts the fall of Enron, with the counter-intuitive conclusion that it succeeded for as long as it did because no one took time to examine carefully its public financial data. If people had, Gladwell concludes, they would have seen Enron's numbers didn't add up. But few did, which made it easier later for Enron-bashers to blame its executives for deceiving the public. Their deceit, it turns out, was hidden in the light of day. 

Another story talks about the problem with pictures, such as mammograms and satellite photos. Still another probes how The Pill went off the rail with the Catholic Church, but if explained differently as a medical life-saver for women it might have had a different outcome.

Most of the 19 resurrected New Yorker articles by Gladwell dealt with subjects that people facing public affairs challenges would find familiar. What would be unfamiliar is how Gladwell wove together background information and related data from tangential sources to produce a compelling story, a page-turner. 

Many "experts," including us, urge more storytelling in public affairs campaigns. What we fail to mention is the importance of diligent research to find the facts that will make a story compelling – and believable.

Facts are good, but often not enough to persuade people. You need to make the facts come alive so the target audience for the story can relate to them and ultimately believe them. That's where indefatigable homework plays a huge role. You often need to know more than your own stuff to make your point. There is no greater asset in this quest than an insatiable curiosity.

A profile of Gladwell described him as a "writer of many gifts," with a "nose for the untold back story that will have readers repeatedly muttering, 'Gee, that's interesting!'" That, in a nutshell, is the holy grail of writing in the public affairs space. 

The Gladwell profile added, "He avoids shopworn topics, easy moralization and conventional wisdom, encouraging his readers to think again and think different." That's hard to do if you haven't done it yourself as the writer.

Gladwell has his flaws. Lack of curiosity isn't one of them.