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Think narratively

Contributed by and

In Sum

Sometimes the best response to a powerful enemy is a powerful story.

As much as we’d like to believe that human beings are rational actors making decisions based on a sober weighing of the facts, cognitive science reminds us that we are narrative animals that apprehend the world through stories. We make decisions more with our guts than our heads, and the facts alone are seldom enough to move public opinion. Therefore, social actors are constantly waging a “battle of the story” to shape public perception.

The unequal nature of our media and communications systems see THEORY: The propaganda model means that moneyed interests will always have more access to the airwaves — but that doesn’t mean their story will be more creative or compelling. We can make up some of that difference, not just by becoming master storytellers, but by thinking narratively. By paying attention to how story and power are always interwoven, we can better understanding how political power operates, and also how we can contest it.

Thinking narratively means we’re also strategizing narratively and listening narratively. When designing our actions and campaigns we need to step outside our own perspective to analyze how the issue is perceived by others who don’t share our assumptions. (Remember, people respond to a story not so much because it is true, but because they find it meaningful.) We need to consider our audience see PRINCIPLE, and build our campaign narrative out of the core building blocks that make for a good story. Here are five to keep in mind:


What is the problem or conflict being addressed? How is it framed, and what does that frame leave out?


This can be a profound organizing question: Who are “we”? Who are the other characters in the story? Do the characters speak for themselves or is someone speaking on their behalf see PRINCIPLE: Lead with sympathetic characters?


What powerful images can help convey the story? Is there a metaphor or analogy that could describe the issue? A good story uses imagery and evocative language to show us what’s at stake rather than tell the audience what to think see PRINCIPLE: Show, don’t tell.


What is our vision of resolution to the conflict? What is our solution to the problem? How do we evoke that desired resolution without, as it were, giving the end away? see TACTIC: Prefigurative intervention.


Every story is built on unstated assumptions. Sometimes the best way to challenge a competing story is to expose and challenge its unstated assumptions see PRINCIPLE: Make the invisible visible.

These five elements of story can be used together to conduct a narrative power analysis on a dominant narrative or as scaffolding to construct a narrative of change see THEORY: Narrative power analysis. Fleshing out these elements as we plan out our campaigns can also give us insights into strategic opportunities for action or intervention.

Doyle Canning was struck by a tear gas canister in the streets of Seattle in 1999, and has never been the same since. She is a creative strategist with a deep commitment to building broad-based movements for social justice and an ecological future. Doyle is a co-founder of the Center for Story-based Strategy (formerly known as smartMeme). She delivers training, coaching, facilitation and framing to high-impact networks who are taking on greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, racist laws and polluting policies. Doyle is co-author of Re:Imagining Change with Patrick Reinsborough. She lives with her husband in Boston, where she enjoys practicing yoga, cooking, and making music.

Patrick Reinsborough is a strategist, organizer and creative provocateur with over twenty years of experience campaigning for peace, justice, indigenous rights and ecological sanity. Patrick has helped organize countless creative interventions, including mass direct actions that shut down the Seattle WTO meeting in 1999 and protested the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He is the author of numerous essays on social change theory and practice, including co-writing Re:Imagining Change (PM Press 2010). He is the co-founder of the Center for Story-based Strategy (formerly known as smartMeme), a movement support organization which harnesses the power of narrative for fundamental social change. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay area.

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