2020 feels like an intense novel – you’re desperate to get to the end of the story and hope it will all work out, but right now you’re not so sure. The 2020 narrative is jam packed with ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ (depending on which side you are on). And it brings to a head all sorts of issues – the personal, the political and the cultural.
We have always tried to understand our lives and the uncertainty of the world around us through the power of narrative and storytelling; it begins when we are small and never really ends. But as we get older, those narratives become increasingly intricate, harder to control and the protagonists tend to be more set in their ways – influenced by a lifetime of bias, norms and values.
We engage with other people’s narratives all the time, from our friends and family to wider society. And today we are fully into an era where people are picking sides and digging in their heels. Try advancing a conversation with anybody when you have competing narratives! Then, there is the issue of whose voice to listen to and trust – is it the autocrat, the expert, your neighbour, social media, politicians?
I’ve been fascinated by narrative change for years. Traditionally the staple of advocacy groups and social movements, there is an increasing recognition by a range of sectors and disciplines that narratives are the bedrock to creating long lasting positive change in our societies, and that harmful narratives need to be recognised, unpicked and rewired.
Thinks tanks and research institutes could, and should, play more of a role in injecting ideas and evidence into that unpicking and rewiring of narratives – particularly in a time when competing voices are all shouting at once.
There are already some fantastic initiatives working on this. But beyond these pockets of work, narrative change can get overshadowed by other project or organisational objectives. Often there are limited resources or time to explore it in a meaningful way. Or it is diluted by traditional go to communication tactics (sure you can put narrative change objectives down on paper in a strategy, but try actually putting it into practice!). Maybe narrative work is seen to be too political, too sensitive, or just not the remit of researchers. And who is the priority audience – those who are already on side, those on the other side, or the undecided? The politicians? The doers? What about the general public?
If you are a new to the world of narrative change, it can be quite daunting. There are so many directions you can take it in. On Think Tanks and Oxfam, have recently published two sets of conversations (Narrative power & collective action: conversations with people working to change narratives for social good, part 1 and part 2) with a wealth of individuals from around the globe who are grappling with this every day. So, to get you started, here are seven key themes that I have pulled out, which might spark some ideas for how you can think about narratives in your work:
1. The role of power is central
Try getting a pre-schooler to budge when they don’t want to do something! They have understood the role of power, and parents frequently try an array of tactics to shift the power dynamic or focus.
South African feminist and human rights activist Phumi Mtetwa describes narrative change as shifting ‘invisible power’. And there are a whole array of relationships and assumptions at play. A dominant narrative is incredibly powerful and the first step to narrative change is understanding those power struggles.
It is easy to focus on the negative. And it is true that narratives in society can be abused by those in power. But Alejandra Alayza – a policy and campaigns manager for Oxfam in Peru – reminds us that they can also be a tool of liberation and positive change. As Isabel Crabtree-Condor (the publication’s curator) says, ‘narratives can mobilise and connect, as well as divide and isolate’.
Looking into these dynamics is central to understanding narratives and to creating movement. You also need to look at who tells the story and how they tell the story (trust and credibility are everything), says Nita Luci, an academic working on post-conflict narratives in Kosovo.
2. Narrative is more than words
Narrative change can be all about imagining a different future, and the written or spoken word is not the only way to get there. Narratives can be made up of images, photos, cartoons, film, ads, theatre, dance, you name it.
Humour is incredibly powerful too. According to Sarah Ditty, who leads a global campaign for an ethical fashion revolution, it makes people think differently about a situation or reality. I couldn’t agree more. During COVID-19 lockdown, it was memes that got me through those first weeks to try to make sense of this bizarre new reality, add a bit of lightness to a heavy situation and create a sense of camaraderie with others.
3. Framing is fundamental
Negativity bombards us daily through media and digital channels but is it really doing anything constructive or is it just creating inaction, apathy, and fear?
Framing and tone are critical to shaping narratives. Narratives of doom and gloom can turn people off, or leave them feeling helpless and even hopeless. Another common strategy is to name and shame opposing narratives, but by doing this we are actually reinforcing and normalising that storyline (rather than discrediting it) says cognitive scientist Laura Ligouri.
A strong thread in all the conversations is the need to create narratives of hope, positivity and inclusion. ‘This isn’t about counter narratives or countering the forces against you’ says marketing expert Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock, ‘it’s about changing the rules and conversation completely so that everyone can be a part of it.’
4. Don’t underestimate the role of emotion
Here’s a challenge for you: try to find a narrative or story that doesn’t involve emotion in some way.
When you talk about emotion in evidence and policymaking, it can raise eyebrows (we are all so rational after all!). But emotion is fundamental to narrative change – turning data, ideas and cold hard facts into human stories we can relate to. Emotions are a part of our humanity and they are not just to be instrumentalised or politicised. They are the foundation of our connection with others… they make an audience care.
Two emotions that often get forgotten from the list are surprise and trust. And Ravi reminds us that in these times audiences want honesty and authenticity too.
5. Narratives thrive on shared values
To build a new narrative, you need to think about the role of values. What do you stand for, what is your identity? Creating shared values can be fundamental to bringing people together, points out the ‘hope-based communicator’ Thomas Coombes, and to building trust with others, adds Isabel.
If you can demonstrate your values then that can help others to buy into that shared vision. Or in the words of Ibrahim Faruk from the Movement Starters in Nigeria, it can help you to ‘sing from the same hymn sheet’.
Nat Kendall Taylor and Nicky Hawkins from the FrameWorks Institute suggest thinking through values that are shared by your audience, and deciphering which are the most effective and how you should organise them. Don’t lead with the problem, start with your values and a vision for change. Then you can move on to finding solutions.
6. Narrative change as a strategy, not a tactic
This type of work needs good financing, and energy. You have to be prepared for the fact that it can take a long time. Brett Davidson, who funds narrative change work at the Open Society Foundations, urges us to see narrative change as more than just a tactic, rather as an integral strategy.
Change is incremental and takes time. Start with baby steps, think local or small scale. Rachel Weidinger – who uses big listening to help shift narratives – gives us an example: don’t start by trying to shift a conversation about the whole ocean, first shift conversations about sharks.
Narrative change is fundamentally about creating an alternative future, not just problem solving or having the loudest voice. As the author Eliz Shafak recently said, there is much value in nuance and in slowing down instead of rushing into conclusions.
7. It doesn’t work without collaboration
According to the Philosopher Alain de Boton, ‘change can only come through collaboration’. It seems so obvious that I almost missed it out, but every single conversation talks about collaboration in some way.
For think tanks and other research institutes, it’s important to emphasise that one piece of research, one short term project or one organisation cannot create change alone. For systemic cultural or political change, we really need to look at narrative change. And think tanks and research institutes have a critical role to play in rewiring narratives with ideas and evidence and, as knowledge conveners, bringing together not just different narratives but, crucially, different and plural voices.