What Jaws can teach us about influence in the Covid era
Stories are influential because they help us overcome fear and move forwards

When Jaws was released in 1975, beach attendance dropped across America. Even today the movie’s spine-tingling score can make us think twice about going in the water. Jaws influenced attitudes to the ocean, sharks and even movies themselves (it was the first summer blockbuster) and has never been more relevant than it is today.

As the virus tore through America, people drove to open-air cinemas to watch a movie about an invisible threat that shuts down the economy. The film went to No. 2 at the US weekend box office and people compared Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to the mayor who wouldn’t close the beaches (especially after it emerged Johnson once joked the mayor was the real hero of the film). The Wall Street Journal described Covid-19 as “the sequel to Jaws” and the parallels continue as we debate whether it is safe to go back in the water. Like all powerful stories – both fictional and factual – Jaws influences our beliefs and behaviours and helps us make sense of the world.

Influence is the ability to change how someone thinks or acts. This (as every leader knows) is not easy because we are ambivalent about change: we know it is necessary but we also know it is risky. Our natural fear of change protects us from reckless ventures but also causes paralysis preventing us from taking necessary actions. If you want to influence someone to embark on a change journey, you have to help them visualize what it will involve and you have to do it in a way that addresses their fears. That’s where stories come in: they transport us to a new reality and show what it will take – practically and emotionally – to achieve it. Thinkers from Aristotle to Joseph Campbell have observed that great stories are change journeys:-


Laura Peek

Laura is the founder of StoryCode and a former Staff Reporter at The Times and Daily Mail. She has also written for The Guardian.

Thursday, 01 July 2021

Photos: Universal / Ronald Grant Archive

1. HERO (Dissatisfaction)
At the start of a good story, we typically meet an ordinary person going about their everyday life. They are not in crisis but things are not perfect either. There may be a sense of unfulfilled potential. In Jaws, New York cop Brody is the new police chief on Amity Island. He is struggling to find his place in the seaside community, not helped by his fear of water. We are given a hint of what his change journey will be when his son gashes his hand on the family’s broken swing and we learn Brody knew it was dangerous but put off fixing it. He is someone who delays action. This small-scale injury foreshadows the deaths that will occur when Brody cannot convince the mayor to close the beaches.

Life throws down a gauntlet challenging the hero to embark on a journey. Fearful of change, the hero balks at first but eventually commits to the quest, sometimes with the help of a mentor. In Jaws, the call to action comes when the shark claims its first victim. Brody wants to shut the beaches but the mayor says: “Amity is a summer town. We need summer dollars.” Brody capitulates then watches uneasily as people head into the sea. When the shark kills a small boy on a yellow lilo turning the sea red in front of him, Brody sprints into the water but stops short – like a horse refusing a jump – paralyzed by fear.

The boy’s grieving mother, Mrs Kintner, later confronts him: “You knew there was a shark out there. You knew it was dangerous but you let people go swimming anyway.” (These words acquired new meaning in April 2020 when Lee Fierro, the actress who played Mrs Kintner, died from complications of Covid-19 in a care home, prompting the Los Angeles Times to say: “We are all Mrs Kintner now.”)

Brody makes a second unsuccessful attempt to convince the mayor then watches impotently as tourists pour off ferries on the Fourth of July. His fear makes him unable to influence others or take action himself. It is only after pulling his own son, unconscious with shock, from the water that he overcomes fear and commits to protect the town.

3. Quest (Commitment)
The journey involves difficult challenges, which might include practical problems, other people and the hero’s own temperament (we are often our own biggest obstacles). In Jaws, Brody wrestles with practical problems as the boat falls apart and human problems as the shark hunter Quint unravels. Most of all, he wrestles with his own fear. The climax of the movie comes when the shark pounds on the hull of the boat splintering planks and flooding the cabin – saturation therapy (literally) for a man terrified of the ocean. Tension is released when Brody, clinging to the sinking mast with the shark bearing down on him, blasts the oxygen cylinder clamped between its jaws, exploding both the predator and his own fear.

“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. ”
– Christopher Reeve

4. Transformation (Mastery)
The hero emerges from the journey transformed and with valuable insights to benefit the wider community. Heroes are traditionally ordinary people willing to leave the safety of the group to solve a problem. They achieve mastery or heroic status from the lessons they learn on the journey. In Jaws, Brody wants to do the right thing but lacks the courage of his convictions. He learns to overcome fear and lead from the front. As he paddles back to shore, he says: “I used to hate the water.” The oceanographer Hooper responds dryly: “I can’t imagine why.”

The shark in Jaws represents fear and the movie shows its paralyzing power as the people of Amity resort to denial, minimization and procrastination – anything to avoid facing their fear. The movie tells us we must conquer fear or it will leave us dead in the water. Change is essential for us to adapt and evolve as individuals and as a species and fear is usually the biggest obstacle to achieving it. Great stories help us resolve the conflict between our need for change and our fear of change enabling us to move forwards.

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

In a tightly structured story, there are several challenges of mounting difficulty culminating in the story’s climax. The rising tension grips audiences therapeutically purging pent-up emotions when it is released. The Greeks called this catharsis, which means cleansing or renewal. Great stories balance our emotions, increase our insight and help us achieve positive change.

People are watching Jaws again because they are hungry for a story that will help them navigate the pandemic. The virus shattered our sense of security and disrupted our stories leaving us stuck in limbo wondering what the post-pandemic world will look like. A story is not a panacea but it can be an effective antidote to uncertainty helping us picture and prepare for the road ahead. If you want to influence people to overcome fear and embark on a change journey with you – especially at the moment – move them to action with a good story.

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