The Power of Narrative

Posted by Brad McMillan, CFA, CAIA, MAI

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This entry was posted on Sep 27, 2019 2:46:07 PM

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power of narrativeAfter this week’s trip to California, I am in Denver next week for Commonwealth’s National Conference. As always, I am looking forward to seeing old friends and making new ones, as well as learning a lot from the different presentations. On top of that, I know I will have a great time at the many social events. Should be a wonderful week!

The problem is that work thing. I am finalizing the slide deck for my own talk, which will be on interest rates. I’m starting to rehearse, working out the timing and the jokes, and generally trying to turn it from an economic exposition into something more like a story. Before each conference, I wonder whether I am actually going to be able to do it again. I hope it will all come together.

Facts don’t move people

When I go through this process, it forces me to realize the power of stories—of narrative—in what we see and understand. My own job is not just to understand and to act on economic and financial factors but also to help others do the same. Over the years, I have learned that facts don’t move people. For some reason, we simply don’t see facts. There seems to be a filter over our perceptions, created by a narrative that we have in our heads, that simply doesn’t let the facts through unless they agree with the filter.

A very current example is the White House Ukraine call transcript. As with the Mueller report, two people can read it and come to completely different conclusions. There have been a couple of internet memes recently that show the same effect in a less confrontational form. People see what they see, which might be different from what someone else sees.

Professionally, I stay out of politics. When asked, I usually can get away by saying something like, “The answer is obvious, isn’t it?” Whoever is asking usually does think the answer is obvious, so he or she assumes I agree and we move on.

Removing the filter

To be successful at investing, however, you can’t filter out the facts you don’t like. The hardest part of our job, in fact, is to eliminate as best we can those filters on our perceptions to see what is right in front of our faces. The housing crisis is a good example of something that was apparent but largely ignored. I would argue there are several things we should be looking at today, for similar reasons, but none are that bad. But how do I know what I am missing?

Putting together a talk, whether for clients or advisors, compounds the problem. First, I have to remove my own filters to come up with something original, thought-provoking, and useful that, ideally, will also prove to be true. Second, I have to find a way to present it: to construct a narrative that allows the listener to accept those facts. It’s harder than it looks, and every year I worry whether it is even possible.

Hopefully, it is. But at this point, just as we get close to National, I always wonder. Back to work.

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