UNITED NATIONS (AP) – Pakistan’s new prime minister took to the UN podium and confronted world leaders, ready to spin a story floods and climate change and more than 33 million people at risk. Shahbaz Sharif began: “As I stand here today to tell the story of my country…”
Basically, that was what every world leader was here to do over the past week.
One after another they took the stage – different leaders from different traditions who, under one roof, have reflected most of the history of the world. All had a fleeting opportunity to create a story about their nation and the world that – they hoped – would inspire others to sit up and listen. Some have done it better than others.
We are storytellers, we humans. And even in an age of globalized politics and instant streaming simulcasts, the story – the way it’s told, the details used, the voice, the pacing and the passion (or lack thereof) – can win the day.
Yet the dawn of large-scale storytelling over the past two decades – of ordinary people being amplified on a global scale right next to world leaders and entire industries devoted to spreading disinformation across continents – makes harder for even the most powerful to get their messages noticed.
“In an environment of public discourse where people simply choose to believe what they wish to believe, the challenge for a speaker at the UN is enormous,” said Evan Cornog, author of ” Power and History: How the Elaborate Presidential Narrative Determined Political Success.”
“It’s so hard to break through,” Cornog said. “And I think it got a lot more difficult. In the era of Dwight D. Eisenhower politics, there was more of a predisposition to think, “I should listen to this person. Today, the predisposition is: ‘It’s just propaganda, and I shouldn’t pay attention to it.’
Nonetheless, watching a week of what is effectively an open mic night for the people who rule the world has revealed that in the attention economy, especially for nations that are not in the limelight for the moment, how you tell the story can make all the difference.
Urgency was a key theme. The ‘inflection point’ has often been mentioned, as has ‘the moment to act’. Said Bharat Raj Paudyal, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nepal: “We are indeed living at a watershed moment.
Tandi Dorji, the Foreign Minister of Bhutan, read a letter from a child on climate change. “Help and save our little village from global warming,” he was saying, and it was hard not to stop and not notice.
Other speeches were more everyday. Some were just bullet points on priorities. Some were adjectival-rich screeds over old feuds. Some were, frankly, pretty goofy.
Yet some leaders (or their speechwriters) have honed storytelling to a persuasive art. Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for example, won a waiver to be the only world leader allowed to talk on video this year thanks to his status as wartime president. In doing so, he obtained certain advantages:
He controlled production values. If he made a mistake, he could re-record. Above all, he could leverage the lens of storytelling that have served him so well since the invasion of Russia – his trademark olive t-shirt, his flag in the background, his ability to dominate his own surroundings rather than being framed in the same green marble as everything the world.
Then there is the case of Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of the island nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. His speech on Saturday was replete with metaphors and language that some might call epic and others grandiose – but were very noticeable either way.
“I ask relevant and haunting questions: what’s up? What world? And who gives the orders? The future of humanity depends on satisfying answers to these questions,” Gonsalves said.
Storytelling, of course, goes beyond oratory – even in the context of a speech. Some of the UN’s most memorable stories have been told by leaders who have gone beyond words.
Consider Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, whose legendary shoes at the 1960 General Assembly was a defining moment in his public life – and he wasn’t even on the podium at the time. And the Libyan Muammar Gaddafi, who spent 1 hour and 36 minutes venting his anger at the United Nations before pulling out a copy of his charter and tear it up.
Most of the speeches aren’t that lively and, in fact, would be boring for a lot of people. This is in part because storytelling often speaks to audiences other than a general international audience.
Sometimes a story is intended for other leaders gathered together, or for a specific leader (many UN General Assembly speeches have been delivered to an audience of only one: the President of the United States). Sometimes it is for a financial institution, such as the World Bank. Sometimes it is told for a national media audience or for people in a neighboring country.
“They are still learning. Heads of state are learning to tell stories, to use this format to get their message across,” said William Muckhead of the political science department at North Central College in Illinois.
“They’re not always great storytellers,” he said. “But now we have the means and the technology to share these stories. So someone who is into storytelling can really thrive in that space.
A story that took a back seat this year: that of COVID-19. The dominant narrative of both the all-virtual 2020 United Nations General Assembly and the 2021 hybrid edition, it has shifted to a B-story this time around as war, climate change and food insecurity escalate. are found in the first row. Beyond the overall desire to move on, there seemed to be a recognition that it was time for other stories.
Just outside the General Assembly Building this month, a mock outdoor classroom with desks and student backpacks was set up for a Education Transformation Summit. Every day, delegates walked past and saw these words carved on the blackboard: “Only one in three 10-year-olds in the world can read and understand a simple story.
The message was clear. Telling stories, understanding them and looking at them both appreciatively and critically are at the heart of 21st century literacy. It is central to being a citizen, an informed consumer and a leader.
It is also, as some here say, a step on the way to what the United Nations covets above all else: peace.
Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation at AP, has been writing about international affairs since 1995 and overseeing coverage of the United Nations General Assembly since 2017. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyte and, for more AP coverage of the UNGA, visit https://apnews.com/hub/united-nations-general-assembly
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