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The Power of Storytelling: Mr Bates v The Post Office 

A promotional image from the ITV series 'Mr Bates vs the Post Office' showing a number of sub-postmasters with the words 'Justice for Post Office Victims'.

Powerful storytelling has the ability to move people, create momentum and bring about seismic change. 

The recent TV dramatisation of the British Post Office scandal is a prime example of how telling stories is essential if you want people to engage with your message. 

Between 1999 and 2015, a defective Post Office IT system led to more than 900 sub-postmasters being prosecuted after having been wrongly accused of theft, false accounting or fraud. 

Mr Bates vs The Post Office follows the subpostmasters’ fight for justice and the hurdles they faced in attempting to clear their names and gain compensation. After the drama was broadcast, millions of people voiced their anger through petitions and pressure on politicians.

But the thing is, this isn’t a ‘new’ story. The people involved have been fighting for justice for more than 20 years. It’s been well covered in the broadcast and print media

So why has it taken a TV series to ignite meaningful public interest in the scandal?

It’s all in the power of storytelling.

Personal stories speak to us

One of the reasons why people have suddenly engaged with the Post Office story is the fact that it shows us the human face of the scandal, rather than focusing on its scale.

Many people suffered financial ruin trying to pay back the shortfall, some were imprisoned. At least four people are known to have taken their own lives. 

Hearing these personal stories helps us to connect emotionally to the information. We can empathise with their situation and imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes. We begin to care about what happens to the characters.

Interestingly, even though the sheer scale of this scanadal is what makes it particularly significant (more than 900 people were prosecuted), simply sharing the numbers of people affected is nowhere near as impactful emotionally as telling personal stories. 

This inability to empathise at scale has been identified by psychologists as a ‘collapse of compassion’, or compassion fade. Put simply, the more people are involved in a problem or tragedy, the less we are able to empathise with the situation. 

Telling personal stories is a much more effective way of engaging people with information that you want to share.

Make complex information understandable

Another reason that Mr Bates vs The Post Office was so engaging was its ability to make a complex web of information easy to understand. 

The challenge of telling a story with many moving parts that spans more than 20 years is as much about what to leave out than to include. 

We can often suffer from what is called ‘the curse of knowledge’, where we have so much information to impart that we end up sharing what’s effectively a list of facts or a timeline of events. However, for audiences, it’s too much. We can become lost in the detail and if it’s hard to follow, people will switch off quickly.

If you want to really engage your audience, find ways to simplify your message. Do you really need to include all of the information, or can your story survive without some of it? Are there any words, phrases or ideas that need extra explanation in order to be understood? Try and imagine your story from the audience’s perspective. 

If you’ve got a lot of facts and data to share, think about chunking it down into three key areas. This will make it feel easier to follow and much less overwhelming.

Don’t assume people know the context already

The story of the Post Office scandal has been in and out of the media for decades now. 

But one of the astounding takeaways from Mr Bates vs The Post Office is the sheer number of people who had never come across it before. Just because information is out there and available doesn’t mean that people have engaged with it previously.

When we’ve got information to share, we can often assume that people already know the context or background behind it. Don’t take this for granted. Give people the context that they need to understand the story. Sometimes, a gentle reminder of the background to your presentation or message is all that is needed to help people understand.

Elevate your storytelling

Sharing information in a way that will keep people engaged throughout takes practice. If you want to get help to tell your story, we’re here. Get in touch with us today and we’ll be happy to help you.