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The New Power of Stories: How ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ changed how stories should be told


By Nick Gold, Managing Director at Speakers Corner

NIck Gold - Business Express
Nick Gold

It’s hard to imagine the pitch meeting for ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ – “A drama about an accounting software malfunction?” Hardly edge-of-your-seat stuff. 

Yet the momentum the recently aired ITV drama has generated, and the public opinion it has changed, is unprecedented. The four-part drama starring Toby Jones as a wronged Sub-Postmaster was viewed by 13 million UK viewers in January and has just been sold to a dozen broadcasters in four continents. From its unlikely-sounding roots, ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ has become ITVs biggest drama since the success of Downton Abbey. 

What makes the success of this slightly obscure drama all the more fascinating is that nothing in the drama was actually ‘new’. Unlike a fictional series, where viewers are gripped by watching the story unfold and reach an unknown conclusion, all the details of ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ were already well known. 

The lack of public interest in the story until the series wasn’t due to a lack of news coverage – the details had been in the public domain for years. It was 15 years ago that Computer Weekly broke the story about problems with Horizon, and the BBC has been running coverage of the story since 2011. There had never been a lack of information. It had simply been a lack of engagement.

So, what was it about the re-telling of the story this time that finally struck a chord?  And what does it tell us about how people respond to stories and narratives as opposed to facts and figures? 

The answer, of course, is that the TV drama made the issue human. Until the talent of the writers and actors brought the post office story to life, even people who had seen previous coverage hadn’t grasped the seriousness of the situation or the real human impact of the computing error. In the hands of the writers, it was never about an accounting software malfunction, it was about despair, frustration, unfairness, devastation, and a passion for justice. 

By shifting the emphasis of the narrative from the software fault itself to the effect it had on relationships, marriages, children, homes, careers – all the things we each personally hold dear – it made the situation relatable to each of us individually. It was no longer somebody else’s problem. Through the drama we saw the possibility that it could just as easily be our problem. 

We’ve always known the power of fiction to create an emotive connection with its audience, but to see an already well-known story having such a dramatically different effect through a change of genre is a staggering testament to how powerfully we all relate to the narrative.

From a business perspective, this is a fascinating point. Nothing in ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ strayed from the hard truth, but the way it was presented made a stark difference. It’s easy to forget that we are all, underneath the façade, emotional creatures. Particularly in the business world, it’s tempting to shy away from consciously shaping facts and figures into a narrative, but we have something to learn from ‘Mr Bates’.

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But as Managing Director of the UK’s leading speaker’s bureau, I’m lucky enough to see first hand how the most skilful storytellers in our society manage to bring dry information to life using narrative. And also how our appetite for the storytelling approach has grown in recent years.

Moving on from the old-fashioned authoritative speakers who relied on their fame, prowess and expertise to win an audience, we now see greater success from speakers who understand that the audience doesn’t connect with an ‘expert’; they connect with an equal. One who can weave a story out of their experience that encompasses struggle, authenticity and, perhaps above all, vulnerability.

The human experience, emotions, relationships, hopes, dreams and fears are all incredible levellers, and instead of shying away from them in a business setting, powerful orators embrace the things that make us all human and talk openly about their mistakes and failings as well as their success. 

Whether it was the unravelling of our hierarchy that came with the Pandemic in 2020, or the earlier disillusionment of the financial crisis in 2008, our trust in seemingly infallible ‘experts’ has dissipated. Audiences – and that includes your employees – don’t want an authority figure to lecture them on what should be done; they want a storyteller to arouse emotion and motivate them to take action because it aligns with their values. 

The writers of ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ understood all of this, instinctively. But the drama had one more trick up its sleeve – the power to motivate action. Not long after it aired, more than a million people had signed a petition, and the government had announced a new law. There has been a change in our legislation, and there will be a change in how sub-Postmasters are compensated. The structure of the whole Post Office has been impacted – it will no longer be allowed to judge or rule in its own cases. Within weeks, the momentum the emotional drama had created was enough for the public to ‘rise up’ and force a response from the Government that had failed to be achieved in the previous two decades. The story evolved on its own.

And therein lies the final secret of what makes a powerful story – the ability for the audience to take ownership of the narrative themselves. The creation of a successful business culture, or the delivery of a hard-hitting project, doesn’t stem just from the creation of a well-rounded narrative. It stems from evoking enough emotion in the audience that they feel compelled to demand the ROI of their own emotional investment.

Stories evolve, narratives evolve just as companies and cultures also need to evolve. Telling the narrative so well that emotional attachment and ownership of it passes to the audience as individuals is the true measure of a successful story. 

A drama about a software malfunction didn’t change the world, but one about human struggles and vulnerability did – one that motivated its audience to take action in line with their personal values; one presented the facts in such a way that emotional engagement was inevitable. 

This is the fundamental truth that skilled writers and orators already know. One that’s just as true in your business as it was for ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’.

 

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