Stories that really count

Last time, I explored three narratives that are currently being propagated across the UK, giving the powerful and influential opportunity to construct a debate that favours their interests. This week I want to explore how organisers can take action through their work to counter such stories and to promote narratives that speak of justice and truth for those with different interests.

Before Christmas we were looking at the way stories are constructed – from mythic structures, using frames and drawing on current cultural memes. I outlined the approach to public narrative taught by Marshall Ganz from Harvard that encourages organisers to develop their own Story of Self, Story of Us and Story of Now. Creating effective narratives is not guess work but nor is it about applying preset recipes uncritically We have already seen many of the key building blocks of great storytelling and today I want to discuss some of the key elements of compelling narrative.

12 Years a Slave by Craig Duffy CC FlcikrMake it Human

Stories are built deep within our consciousness because they carry meaning for us. And meaning is about touching the fundamentals of our soul, our emotions, our capacity to feel for and with other people. A memorable story is one that holds our attention through its human quality; the characters make us feel and organiser stories need to centre on human life. Such a human focus causes us to recognise ourselves in others and so generates compassion. When we know something of the experience depicted in the story, we can leap the boundaries of time, culture and space and see in the other something of our own lives. The human dimension is central to stories of justice and peace; it speaks to our heart and motivates us to action.

Solidarity is built from a sense of common humanity and shared purpose

yelp helps hawaii fundraiser for hawaii foodbank by Yelp Inc. CC FlickrSo as organisers we need to look for stories in our work that allow individuals and families to speak for the issue. People get the pain and trauma of others; they recognise in other’s circumstances, their own dilemmas and they celebrate as with family members when others overcome the odds stacked against them. Making people just like us heroes of our stories gives our community members the opportunity to see themselves as potential heroes and heroines. And what is true for one or a small group can be seen to be available for many in the crowd.

Setting your frames and values

The essence of telling stories that empower and articulate another reality is the frames we use. Every frame has embedded within its structure certain values that can build collective action or undermine it. As we saw in my post on frames, some values enhance the work of organising and some pull in the opposite direction. So for example developing stories that support values of self-reliance, image and status will tend to encourage individual action whilst values that speak to our common humanity will lead more naturally to collective action. In developing the frame behind your community’s narrative, focusing on values that build shared effort and mutual dependence will support the work of organising more effectively than frames that highlight values such as wealth creation or hedonism.

Young Leaders Soiree by United Way Greater St Louis CC FlickrFrames are also bound to the culture of your audience. If your community gives precedence to older people, then your narrative of change needs to take that into account. You may of course want to offer an alternative perspective – that young people have an energy and drive to offer, for example – but you need to take the existing frame into account in developing your narrative. Change driven through by energetic young people may just fall on deaf ears if you are not also able to justify how the wisdom and experience of older people also contributed. This cultural awareness is difficult to achieve as we are often shielded from the general view by our own bias toward alternative perspectives and values that sit ill with the prevailing mood. Testing your stories with different audiences is the only way to be sure of what works.

Creating the broader myth

Whilst our local action is in the foreground of community members’ consciousness, the narrative you tell through organising can have greater impact if it reinforces and supplements stories told in a wider field and with a greater audience. So if your local action is essentially about giving space for new arrivals to contribute, then you can give your story more credibility by linking it to overarching narratives that emphasise the value of mobility and migration to the community and the wider world. If you are working on living wages, then develop it within a wider saga of workers’ rights to benefit from the accumulated meaning that struggle has for many communities.

Testing your stories with different audiences is the only way to be sure of what works.

Occupy Solidarity by Wolfgang Sterneck CC FlickrOrganising is about building community members’ sense of their shared destiny and their capacity to take collective control of their lives. Narratives are the way we touch the emotions of our supporters and our opponents; they transcend the immediate concerns of the moment and offer a relationship with the larger dimensions of life and death, over time and space. Solidarity is built from a sense of common humanity and shared purpose and we gain awareness of the human struggle of others through stories of dilemmas overcome, wrongs righted and dragons slain.

Next time: Building stories that resonate and play the key role I have been outlining in these posts is a skill we all learn to exercise to one degree or another. In my next post, I want to conclude this series by looking at some practical ways to develop as a storyteller and myth maker and point to some resources that will help us all be narrative artists!


Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning (2010) Re:Imagining Change: How to use story-based strategy to win campaigns, build movements and change the world PM Press Also available as a pdf at

Jonas Sachs (2012) Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell (and Live) the best stories will rule the future Harvard Business Review Press

Tim Holmes et al (2011) The Common Cause Handbook Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) Available as a pdf from and in hard copy

Micha Narberhaus (2013) How to Break Out of the System Trap? A model to support conversations for a more strategic activism Smart CSOs Available as a pdf at

This entry was posted in Democracy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s