Does Economic Development Need Storytellers?

Aug 31, 2020 | News, Newsletter

Sandra Harbrecht Ratchford
Paul Werth Associates

 

 

In 1992, political strategist James Carville coined a phrase that would help focus Bill Clinton’s campaign and lead him to a presidential victory later that year. That phrase: [it’s] the economy, stupid.

Today, economists are sharing a surprising message of their own: Economics needs storytelling.
But I wouldn’t stop there. Economic development professionals need storytelling too, and, just as important, storytellers.

In her eye-opening article in The Washington Post, Heather Long details how the decade-plus shift toward STEM fields and the “great migration” away from the humanities now calls for a correction. This is intriguing given that individuals in STEM-related fields are advocating for skill sets deeply entrenched in the humanities. 

Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller is leading that charge with his book Narrative Economics, where he makes the case for storytelling to help advance the science of economics. Shiller’s advocacy for storytelling comes at a time when English majors are in steep decline, and perhaps that too is in part due to STEM’s memorable storytelling of higher pay and guaranteed employment in IT and computer science fields. 

Yet, as Long points out, a 2017 study revealed that English majors had lower unemployment rates
than individuals with degrees in Economics, Mathematics, Mechanical Engineering, and Computer and Information Systems. Another study suggests that earnings for those with backgrounds in the humanities catch up with STEM-based peers by mid-career.

The takeaway is that narratives evolve, but too often they aren’t being communicated effectively. Most economists aren’t natural storytellers, and neither are economic development professionals. However, it’s critical to their work. Today’s environment, in which there are a lot of distractions and data points flying around, makes this task even more difficult. Targeted messaging reinforced with compelling stories are essential to making economic development stories stick. 

In an excellent Forbes column from a couple of years ago, branding expert Ryan Short puts it simply: “A brand is the shared system of beliefs and values that define an organization and attract others to it …  Economic development experts, developers and business owners who get that are smartly investing in defining and nurturing district and community brands.”

Economic development initiatives are, at their core, about persuasive storytelling that goes beyond tax incentives. Why is this community right for this project? Why will business owners and their employees want to live here? Why is the targeted business or industry the right fit? Why is the investment worth
the risk? Why do we have the right workforce to make it successful? How will this positively impact businesses, individuals, local government and the local economy? 

Answering these questions requires a consistent narrative by all the stakeholders who stand to benefit. It’s about weaving a compelling story that brings all stakeholders together in full, or near, consensus.

Think of it this way: English majors might not write a single line of computer code, but they know how to crack the code when it comes to telling a story about what that code can do. And that’s just as valuable.