Narrative Change

Lessons and tools for activists to bring about progressive narrative change

Narrative Change

What is Narrative Change?

Human beings are natural storytellers and narratives have been central to life for thousands of years. Stories and narratives help us to make sense of the world around us, allow us to communicate with others and build long lasting relationships.

A narrative consists of a collection of stories which together convey a common worldview or meaning - it is a shared interpretation of the world and how it works. 

(McBeth et al., 2015; Fisher 1984)

In the world of social change, the stories that we tell can be an extremely powerful tool in shaping public opinion and influencing policy. Narratives, if framed in the right way, can be used to communicate with your audience, spark changes in their thinking, shift difficult conversations in a positive way to create more resilient and inclusive societies.

Small shifts in mindset can trigger a cascade of changes so profound that they test the limits of what seems possible.

(Dr Carole Dweck)

With the decline of traditional journalism, the prominence of social media and growing misinformation, it seems like populism and polarisation are on the rise. What can activists do to change narratives?

Drawing on our own experience and the work of our partners and wider network, we set out below some lessons and resources for anyone interested in working towards progressive narrative change.

Lessons Learned

1. Understand your audience

Knowing your audience is the first step to understanding and influencing narratives. You must know who you are talking to, what are their opinions/concerns, and what drives those opinions (values, world views, age, income etc.).  Without this knowledge it’s hard to have any meaningful dialogue. Understanding the audience enables you to create tailored messages that resonate with that group, opening the door for positive conversations so that opinions can shift, and the dominant narrative can be altered.

For this reason, being able to categorise the public/your audience into different segments of opinion is important. For example:

  • ‘The Choir’ are your members and activists that are working with you.
  • ‘The Base’ are your supporters (although don’t take them for granted as they can always find other things to do).
  • ‘The Persuadable’ middle are perhaps the most important group as they are uncertain, and often conflicted, about your issue.
  • ‘The Opposition’ are those that tend to disagree with what you are saying and doing but are not as intransigent in their opposition as the ‘Unreachables’. 

There is a real danger that progressive advocates see everyone outside ‘the choir’ and their ‘base’ as opponents.  The reality is that this isn’t the case, but advocates need to think about how to speak to ‘the persuadables’ without alienating them.

2. Understand narratives and frames

Narrative change needs to take account of both the existing frame of reference held by target audiences and clarity about how to shift those frames.  ‘Frames’ are stories that people use to make sense of complex issues.  The narrative usually encompasses the nature of the problem/issue, what’s causing it, who the good guys are, who is to blame and what the solutions are.  When repeated and reinforced by people (messengers) that are regarded (by any particular group) as credible, frames of understanding can become ‘the common sense’ understanding. A single dominant frame can be reinforced by media coverage and/or by politicians/policy-makers.  Once a particular ‘common sense ‘narrative becomes established it can be very difficult to shift.

Established frames of understanding tend to incorporate biases – often differentiating between the ‘in’ group that agrees with us and the ‘out’ group which sees things differently.   Before attempting to develop messages that engage with ‘the persuadables’ it is important to recognise the biases, and current frames of understanding that they hold.

3. Create actions and messages that are framed by common values

Messages should start by referring to shared values rather than by stating the problem or challenges.  In his famous speech Martin Luther King did not start off by saying that he (or the USA) had a problem.  He talked about a shared vision – a dream –

He then went on to talk about how that dream could be realised – to offer solutions.  This approach is represented by the following formulation –

The focus works best when it is on solutions and what people can do.  Outside of ‘the choir’ it has also been found that people respond best to messages that adopt a see-feel-change approach, rather than an analyse-think-change rather more abstract approach.  Maya Angelou underlined this when she wrote –

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Four principles offered by Opportunity Agenda (USA) for messaging include –

  • Start with shared values – ‘shared humanity’ for example.  Stress how the issue affects us all.
  • Cast your target audience as the hero (that can do something significant).
  • Avoid naming and shaming – guilt tripping generally doesn’t work.
  • Offer ‘enabling narratives’ – where people can do something that makes a difference and enables the solution/outcome.

It is important not to repeat opponents’ arguments (even to counter them) as this can serve to reinforce them in people’s minds.  Instead, tell affirmative stories to counter false information.  Stories are important – they have been called the Trojan horse of engagement.  The person who tells the story is also important – authenticity and lived experience is the best.

Resources for Narrative Change

1. SCI Stories of Change Case Studies

In 2015, at the height of tensions around the arrival of increased numbers of refugees and migrants into Europe, Social Change Initiative was asked to help tackle the pervasive, negative narratives about migration and migrants. In response we mobilized resources to establish the Migration Narrative Project (MNP).

As part of the MNP, SCI commissioned two case studies to recount the experience of our partner organizations working to change two different migration debates. In Germany, JUMA and ICPA built a public campaign to change attitudes of middle audiences towards Muslims. In France, Destin Commun and four French Catholic organizations worked to change Catholics’ views on migration.

Read the Case Studies in full below

2. Narrative Initiative

The Narrative Initiative defines narrative change and connects, amplifies, challenges and encourages networks of practitioners, thinkers and creators. They teach narrative as the common sense approach to an issue or experience. Start here to understand what narratives are, where narratives live, and how/when/why to change them and how we can all play our part.

3. ICPA reframing migration narratives toolkit

Designed by our colleagues, ICPA, the highly successful Migration Narratives Toolkit is now available in three languages (German, English & Italian) with a Greek translation coming in 2021. The toolkit is a suite of practical, easy to use resources designed to empower progressive campaigners working to put diversity and inclusion back on the public/policy agenda. As part of the resource, ICPA have designed a set of core lessons in card form called the 12 keys to reframing the migration debate as a helpful reminder of how to talk to the movable middle.

Watch ICPA’s video for an overview of their important work on narrative or visit their website to find out more.

4. Opportunity Agenda

A comprehensive and deep set of resources covering: how to talk about specific issues like race, migration, criminal justice reform, and democracy; examples of value based messaging; telling affirmative stories; build your own message tool for interviews and persuasive writing. Opportunity Agenda also offer free webinars, training, networking and fellowships.

5. Frameworks Institute

The expert of the experts in framing. Provides research, recommendations and examples of issue reframing from adolescent development to environment to health. Excellent series on framing in the time of Covid-19 epitomizes all of their work and provides the clearest example of what reframing sounds like and means.

6. ASO Communications/words to win by

Anat Shenker-Osorio “examines why certain messages falter where others deliver.” She is a strong progressive voice whose research, practical guides and case studies illuminate how to “energize the base and move the middle” with narrative, framing, stories and messages. 

Listen to her podcast! These provide an assortment of real world successes and case studies about how using narrative change tools made a huge difference: from the election of Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, to winning marriage equality in Ireland.