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Is it just us or does NARRATIVE seem to have taken over the communications conversation — even though few folks seem very clear about what it is or how to use it?

Today one of our clients mentioned how her staff has been coming to her communications team not just asking for tactics (like press releases and social media posts) but also asking more and more about “doing narrative shift.”

Wait, We’re Doing Narrative Shift Now?

There’s no doubt that these requests are stressing out comms folks. As if you didn’t have enough to do already, now you also have to become a narrative shift organization? Is that in your mission? What does it even mean? 

Let’s take a deep breath. 

With some thoughtful reflection, you can become an organization that challenges harmful narratives while also just, well, doing your work.

It doesn’t even have to add another layer to your work when you think of it as the Hippocratic oath for communications: first, do no harm!

Levels of Narrative, Simply Put

Narrative operates at many levels — in fact, at every level — of communications. 

Leading social justice communications organization the Opportunity Agenda defines narrative as “a Big Story,” rooted in shared values and common themes, that influences how audiences process information and make decisions.” 

At the most fundamental level, it’s the “water we swim in” or the big ideas that root the stories we tell and make those stories believable.

For example, let’s take the issue of borders.

When most people imagine borders, they make some common assumptions, such as borders are real, borders are important, borders separate people meaningfully, or that borders keep us safe! These dominant narratives are both pervasive and often reflect the perspectives of those with the most power. You might not even be entirely conscious of dominant narratives as they are constantly repeated, underscored, and amplified everywhere.

Many of us are working to challenge, complicate or even replace dominant narratives with narratives that better reflect our values and the world we know is possible. 

Where to Start

Organizing against dominant narratives can seem overwhelming, especially if you have no idea how to do it or where to start. But building narrative power is possible, and it only takes a few small changes to make a big difference.

For example, let’s go back to the border example mentioned above.

Narrative ideas that challenge the dominant narrative include: borders are imaginary lines drawn by people, borders artificially disconnect us from people we are actually in relationship with, and borders hurt people. Though this isn’t the current dominant narrative, it is a set of easy-to-understand and easy-to-exemplify ideas that we could introduce to people by telling the right stories and using the right language. By doing so, we can complicate and therefore begin to shift the dominant narrative and build new forms of narrative power.

Here’s a worksheet we developed to help you start the process of unpacking dominant narratives that inform and surround your work.

“Big Stories” at Play in Your Work

Start by identifying and describing the dominant narratives affecting your organization and your constituents. The good news is that there is so much already out there when it comes to narrative change; there is likely someone who has already done this work related to your issue.  

For example, take a look at The Opportunity Agenda’s Shifting the Narrative report, which highlights past successful narrative change efforts related to economic opportunity, the criminal justice system, gender equality, and more.  For issues related to immigration, check out Race Forward’s Butterfly Lab for Immigrant Strategy. If you work in the abolition space, Radical Communicators Network offers this toolkit

The next step is to review your language and story choices to be sure that you are not reinforcing the dominant narrative accidentally, and that you are challenging–or at least complicating–harmful assumptions and narratives where possible.

Then comes the fun part: imagining what other ideas you could be spreading and reinforcing through your stories, and how your stories could weave new narratives.

Senior Partner Amanda Cooper is curious to know about the big stories at play in your work. Want to talk more about building new forms of narrative power? Get in touch: