During an era when most of society’s collective attention span is seemingly shrinking by the day, I am holding out hope that the merits of telling a good story is still the most effective means of communicating a message that resonates with people. Having made my career as a business writer and reporter, I like to think there is no better way to share opinions, educate, inform, engage and enlighten a targeted audience than by using written words. And just maybe there is some merit to my theory and how it might be a path to ensuring that the many things the meat and poultry industry gets right isn’t overshadowed by misleading sound bites, video clips and 140-character posts on social media by uninformed opponents to animal-based food production.
According to Innova Market Insights’ “Top Ten Trends for 2020,” storytelling is the top consumer interest when it comes to making food and beverage purchases. Consumers are increasingly infatuated with the origin of the food they buy and consume. “Provenance platforms can communicate a whole range of messages to the consumer, including flavor/taste, processing methods, cultural and traditional backgrounds, as well as the more obvious geographical origin,” according to Innova Market Insights’ explanation of the No. 1 trend: “Storytelling: Winning with Words.” Learning about how products are produced adds value by teaching consumers about provenance-based benefits instilling brand loyalty and trust, according to the research company. This kind of data fuels my hope.
During last month’s Animal Care & Handling Conference, hosted annually by the North American Meat Institute, Vance Crowe, communications strategist with Articulate Ventures LLC, made the point that the meat industry’s science-based defense of its practices is overmatched by fear-mongering storytellers promoting a global shift to non-meat diets. Crowe’s presentation, “The Architecture of Stories that Change Hearts and Minds,” demonstrated how opponents to almost any cause or institution often gain traction and create followings using components of storytelling that are as old as time to lure the uninformed into their camp.
“There is no room of people anywhere on the planet that knows more or cares more about handling animals than the people in this room,” Crowe said, acknowledging the academic prowess and industry expertise of the attendees and presenters at the conference.
“And yet the science is not enough,” he said. “So why is it that people believe that you are doing terrible things?”
He explained that many provocative stories told about a similar topic – animal cruelty in this case – creates memes around an issue, which creates a tribe of like-minded advocates around the topic. Crowe said the successful storytellers advocating against the meat industry masterfully position the listener or reader as the hero of the story they are telling to explain to them why they should care about the story and how they can play a role in how it ends.
“This is why all stories are, at their core, about change,” he said. In almost all stories that are told about either the evils of agriculture or the misunderstanding of those opposed to all things related to agriculture, each side has some valid points and good ideas that warrant consideration. “My guess is you think that about your critics; that they have some good points but they’ve taken it too far,” Crowe said. For the meat industry, the challenge is to tell the story that addresses what it is that has been taken too far and tell the story that demonstrates – without science – how they can be the hero riding the white horse by supporting the industry that is feeding the world.