Soothsayers and oracles knew that the hazard of prediction was that if you live long enough, you’ll find out how wrong you were – so better to couch the future in metaphor and symbol. And if you’ve ever read or seen Macbeth, you’ll remember that even if the news is delivered in plain English, what is left out can be as important as what is said.
Although we’d be cautious about calling the UK election, others have been downright reckless with proposing various combinations of parties that they confidently state will form the next government. We still think it’s too hard to call, but if you reckon the weight of a party’s news clippings is more important than their content, you should put your money on an SNP / UKIP coalition. Your money, mind, not ours.
In any case, we are always wary of looking into the future, because if it’s difficult to make accurate predictions, it’s even more challenging to make predictions that people will act on. We once went to a financial conference about eighteen months after the 2008 crash. One of the speakers on a panel was explaining broadly why the crash had happened. An audience member, a trader, put his hand up: ‘Why didn’t you tell us this two years ago?’ There was a murmur of assent among the audience. The speaker’s response: ‘I did, but you were so busy making money hand over fist, you didn’t listen to me.’
Fortunately you don’t have to peer into the entrails of an unlucky chicken to predict what the commentators will say on the morning of Friday 8 May, as the last of the constituencies call their result. Whether a voter makes their mark after a close analysis of the manifestos, or because they like the look of one of the leader’s kitchens, or stay home because a comedian told them not to vote anyway, it all comes down to story.
What do we mean?
Stories are how we make sense of the world. We take random events and join them together and give them meaning. Statisticians make a living by stripping away all this meaning, and telling us a counter-intuitive truth, devoid of all the curlicues / twists our ape brains are determined to contrive. You flip a coin ten times, and each time it comes up heads. What are the chances it will come up heads next time? ‘Very likely’ – says one gambler, ‘it’s on a run of heads.’ The next gambler disagrees and says, ‘Very unlikely: it’s tails’s turn to come up.’ The statistician will say that, assuming it’s a fair coin, the chances are always 50:50, thus disappointing both gamblers. Whichever one of them wins will have their story validated, and it may well be a story they stick to until the day they lose their house on the spin of a roulette wheel.
Let’s take a political example. Ed Miliband’s critics are divided between those who think he is a hapless Mr Bean-type character, and those who think he’s a ruthless political animal who ‘stabbed his brother in the back’ over the party leadership. It’s very hard to have both of these characters inhabiting the same person, but it’s immediately apparent that his critics will always have plenty to go on: if Ed talks tough, he gets cast as Caligula; if he encounters a bacon sandwich, it’s Mr Bean again.
What does this mean for the rest of us?
If you’re going to have a public profile, you’ve got to be in control of your own story. People will take what they want to from the information you put out there, and if you’re going to be two dimensional, make sure they are two dimensions you can live with. People either hated Mrs Thatcher because she crushed the unions and unleashed the City – or they loved her for precisely the same reasons. Complexity may be helpful: we feel we know David Cameron better than Ed Miliband, so it’s harder to put him in quite the same narrow box as the Labour leader. Likewise, ask any Brit who the next president of the USA will be, and they’ll likely say ‘Hilary Clinton’ because she is the one they have either heard of or know best.