As much as we’d like to believe that we human beings are completely rational decision-making robots 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 hearts than our heads, and the ‘facts’ alone are seldom enough to change others opinions. Therefore, we emotive humans are constantly waging a “battle of the story” to shape public perceptions and narratives.

The unequal nature of our media and communications systems means that people with power via money 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 strategising narratively and listening narratively. When designing our actions and campaigns for social change we need to step outside our own perspective to analyse 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 – or they see themselves in it.) We need to consider our audience 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 organising 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?


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


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?


Every story is built on unstated assumptions. Sometimes the best way to challenge a competing story is to expose and challenge its unstated assumptions.

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.  Fleshing out these elements as we plan out our campaigns can also give us insights into strategic opportunities for action or intervention.

This principal, Think Narratively is taken from Beautiful Trouble and is contributed by Doyle Canning & Patrick Reinsborough

The image is Protest Princesses by amandaallenniday.

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