I’ve written a lot about the untapped power of narratives, including in my new book, The Journey Beyond Fear. But, what are the specific elements that contribute to that power? I’ve been participating in the development of quite a few narratives, and it’s led me to focus on four elements that will make or break a narrative.
Stories and narratives
Let me start, though, by reminding everyone what I mean by narrative. Those who have been following me will remember that I make an important distinction between stories and narratives, even though most people view them as the same thing.
For me, stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Stories are also about the storyteller or about some other people, real or imagined, but they’re not about the people in the audience.
In contrast, for me, narratives are open-ended. They focus on a big threat or opportunity out in the future, but the threat or opportunity has not yet been achieved. The resolution of the narrative hinges on the people in the audience – it provides a call to action that will ultimately determine the outcome of the narrative.
As I discuss in greater detail in my book, narratives can play a powerful role at multiple levels, starting with us as individuals – we all have a personal narrative. But narratives can also have significant impact at the level of institutions, geographies (cities, regions and countries) and movements. The elements that I’m going to explore below apply to narratives at all these levels.
The four elements of a powerful narrative
As I indicated, narratives can focus on either a significant threat or opportunity in the future. Since I believe we are in great need of more opportunity-based narratives, I’m going to focus here on opportunity- based narratives. Based on my experience and research, the four elements that will determine the power of an opportunity-based narrative are:
- Framing the opportunity
- Identifying trends enabling the opportunity
- Identifying obstacles and challenges that stand in the way of achieving the opportunity
- Framing the call to action
Framing the opportunity
The foundation of an opportunity-based narrative is of course the opportunity itself. This is ultimately what will motivate people to come together and act for impact. For this reason, it is important to find an opportunity that really inspires and excites the people we are trying to reach – it should not just be something that is “rational” or supported by data. Finding this kind of opportunity requires a deep understanding of the people we are trying to reach so that we find an opportunity that is aligned with their aspirations. Of course, they may not yet be aware of the opportunity, but we should explore whether this opportunity would excite them, once they become aware of it.
Effective narratives focus on a very big opportunity that will require long-term effort by many to achieve. If the opportunity can be quickly achieved by a few people, it will not become the catalyst for large-scale action by a growing number of participants. What we need are narratives that can sustain us and excite us over a long period of time. Of course, that also implies that we should be able to make progress in addressing the opportunity relatively quickly so that we will be encouraged to continue on the journey together.
The opportunity framed by a narrative also needs to be a positive-sum opportunity. This means that the opportunity will expand as the number of participants expands. If an opportunity is fixed in its size and rewards, it will discourage more people from joining and collaborating with each other.
Identifying trends enabling the opportunity
One of the big risks with framing large, long-term opportunities is that it can generate a lot of skepticism, especially from those consumed by fear. For this reason, it’s important to be able to identify some long-term trends that suggest this opportunity is achievable, and not just a fantasy.
But there’s a balance that needs to be maintained. While these trends should reinforce our belief that the opportunity is achievable, they should not be viewed as making the opportunity inevitable. If the opportunity is inevitable, we will tend to become passive. Why would we need to act and take risks if the opportunity is going to emerge anyway?
Identifying obstacles and challenges
That leads to the third element of powerful narratives. Somewhat paradoxically, the strongest narratives are those that identify and assess significant obstacles and challenges that will make the opportunity difficult to achieve. This will underscore that significant effort will be required to address the opportunity identified by the narrative. We can’t just sit back and assume that the opportunity will emerge on its own.
This will also help to prevent early participants from becoming discouraged too quickly. If they’re expecting obstacles and challenges, they’ll be motivated to forge ahead and find ways to overcome the obstacles and challenges.
Framing the call to action
A call to action is a critical pillar of powerful narratives. The people addressed by the narrative need to be clear that the outcome depends on the action they take.
For this to be effective, another balance needs to be struck. The call to action needs to be high level enough that participants can improvise and adapt the action to their specific context, especially as unexpected situations emerge. On the other hand, the call to action needs to be specific enough that it can provide tangible direction to people regarding the kind of action that will be needed to achieve the opportunity.
The call to action also needs to be framed in a way that people can initially make small moves and begin to see progress in addressing the broader opportunity. If people believe that their action will not yield any positive results for decades, they’re much less likely to maintain their excitement on continuing the journey.
This increases the importance of focusing on impact, not just action. Effective narratives have a call to action where the progress can be measured and monitored. The call to action needs to be specific enough that it can help to define metrics that matter. This will help all participants to assess how much progress is being made and to reflect on how to achieve even greater impact. It will also give them encouragement when they can see the progress that is already being made.
Properly framed, opportunity-based narratives can be very powerful. At their most basic level, they excite people about coming together and acting to achieve a really inspiring and meaningful opportunity. It’s ultimately about moving people beyond fear to hope and excitement.
As with most things in life, it’s ultimately about balance. We must believe that the opportunity is achievable, but also that it will not materialize without concerted action because of roadblocks and challenges that stand in the way. We need to be able to take small steps, especially at the outset, but we also need to see how those small moves can set big things in motion.