We tell stories to make sense of the world around us. Stories are based on commonly held beliefs about people, institutions, and society. It allows us to communicate with others and build connections. Narratives have the power to liberate or oppress because they have the potential to influence the beliefs and behaviors of individuals, which in turn can shape institutional policies and practices. It can also be fertile ground for individuals to perpetuate dangerous and harmful beliefs.
The Importance of Narratives
Changing the narrative is a significant piece in constructing and promoting narratives that challenge existing narratives and the stories to drive change for issue-based organizations, such as social justice organizations, like Color for Change, or non-profit organizations. When narratives are reframed, a context is created to help generate widespread support. For non-profits and other organizations, narrative change as a strategy is an opportunity to build power and shape the conversation around their work and their values, which is part of their communications plan and strategy.
The following steps and set of guidelines can be used to better understand what your narratives need to do to help establish the desired outcomes that are most relevant to and appropriate for your organization’s strategic goals and objectives and help to build support for real change that shifts people’s focus.
Questions to ask when developing a narrative change strategy
Before creating narratives and messages, you need to define and determine how and why the narratives need to be created by asking the following questions:
What is the narrative you want to advance?
A good narrative includes both values and ideas about how the world could work. Organizations, such as First Nations Development Institute, have their core values and belief about the potential of First Nations communities woven into their narrative that access to appropriate resources creates the environment for ingenuity to help ensure the well-being of First Nations communities.
What messages can be used to move your narrative?
A successful narrative is based on a value-based message that considers the larger social climate in play in order for the message and narrative to resonate with a greater constituency base. Part of the process is to determine the people you will need to reach. It is important to be as specific as possible when determining and defining the people who are outside your immediate organization. These messages explain your big idea and how it fits into the current conversation about a particular issue. Color of Change, a racial justice organization, understood that the messaging and narrative surrounding Black communities needed to be changed to challenge bias and misrepresentations. The messages were nuanced ways to discuss the real-life experiences of Black communities in an effort for a more accurate portrayal versus the hostility and unfair representations that have the potential for grave consequences.
Who are the messengers and storytellers that can most effectively deliver these messages and move this narrative?
While it is imperative to understand and acknowledge existing narratives in order to challenge them, it is also of the utmost importance to determine who would be the best individual to effectively deliver the message of the narrative so that it resonates with clarity and authenticity based on real-life experiences. The Ford Foundation partners with organizations to help dismantle entrenched narratives that undermine equity, inclusion, and tolerance to elevate underrepresented stories and diverse voices to carry social justice forward.
Putting narrative change into action for impact
Internal monitoring will be an ongoing process to identify narratives that have been used and to measure how well the narrative is moving in the public space in various channels. It is important to review content on blogs, videos, and other collateral materials to see what narratives are being used and if any need to be phased out. Also, map your narrative environment to better understand where and how the narrative is being used and to consider if improvements are warranted. Understand narratives and frames – Narrative change needs to take account of both the existing frame of reference held by key audiences and clarity about how to shift those frames.
Social media has been a go-to broadcast partner for organizational narratives with quick adoption of messages and narratives in the wider media and societal conversation. Narratives are profoundly shaped by social media and can be a marker for tracking changes in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Part of your strategy should be to monitor your social media channels to see that the narratives are resonating in comments and feedback and are making an impact on individual attitudes.
When creating new narratives it is important to identify which narratives need to be changed or counteracted from the dominant narrative. The process includes examining and reviewing the narratives that currently bolstering the power structures, in order to challenge them. This will help pinpoint ideas and concepts that can be changed and embedded in the new narrative. Think of the takeaway messages that will help to frame the narrative. Does it flow clearly and authentically from the stories and concepts about the issue? Does it refer to the shared goals and values rather than stating the challenge? Narratives about issues can have impacts and implications for policy. Misleading narratives can prevent an organization’s ability to better motivate individuals and design effective policies.
Changing the way narratives are framed to more accurately tell a better and complete story can have significant results in getting hearts and minds to be moved and in turn, make a lasting change in society. New narratives can amplify many different and diverse voices so that the story is everyone and ultimately shift challenging conversations in a more productive way to build more inclusive communities.