What is that a picture of?
Without a doubt, many of us will say that it is a cat. We dont have to think about it really. In a fraction of a second, everything we know and learned formulates this image as a cat.
Weve seen cats lounging in our homes, scaling sidewalks and alleyways or at least seen the cutest pictures of them on the internet (you really cant escape them online). When you look at the picture above, you are also reminded of your early grade school years when we were taught to connect-the-dots. Fun!
All of these things are pulled together to formulate an idea that we choose to believe to be true. We agree that it is an image of a cat. We will even tell our kids that it is a picture of a cat.
We believe it because of culture a matrix of shared mental maps that define how we collectively create meaning and the the world around us.
But what if youve never seen a cat or what if youve never played connect-the-dots?
Right, you must be thinking that this person must have been living under a rock.
But there are people out there who have never seen a cat and Im sure that there are many people out there who have never played connect-the-dots. If they choose to believe that all they see are dots and numbers or maybe perhaps an image of a tiger (or some other animal), are they wrong? Are they wrong because they are partial to a different culture than ours and agree to a different set of shared mental maps? Perhaps not.
All the things within our own culture weve learned to accept as true weave together to formulate narratives and beliefs that guide and frame a lot of our values, attitudes and actions. They become stories we choose to believe. They become narratives that shape the fabric of the meaning of our lives.
Contesting the Story of Thanksgiving
The Thanksgiving Holiday has become synonymous with images and messages of Pilgrims, Native Americans, harvests, turkeys, feasts, and colonial celebrations that weave together the story of the first Thanksgiving. Its actually a fairly young story, less than 120 years-old as pointed out by author Richard Greener in his Huffington Post article on The True Story of Thanksgiving. The dominant narrative of Thanksgiving tells a tale of how Pilgrims and Native Americans share a feast to give thanks to partnership, cooperation, and natural abundance between the two groups. Like most Americans, I remember being told this story as a child in school.
Greener reminds us that there is another story, one that contests the current dominant narrative about Thanksgiving. It is a story whose occurrence did take place in 1637 in Massachusetts, but involves the massacre and defeat of the Pequot peoples.
For me, I choose instead to celebrate this coming national holiday as a day to pay respect to the Pequot and all native peoples of this land. I also still take the time to pause and give thanks under a different narrative that is more personal my family, health and work. At LimeRed Studio, we give thanks to all of our clients, our work and creativity, partners, collaborators and our successes this past year.
This week, well hear stories about Pilgrims and Native Americans, how to prepare the perfect turkey dinner, Black Friday sales and perhaps travel stories back home. Soon, well hear other narratives as we approach the winter holidays; Santa Claus, holiday shopping and giving, the Christmas Spirit, varying religious beliefs and customs, and even more holiday travels.
You see, whether they are dominant social narratives or close personal narratives, stories drive much of what we choose to believe and what we choose to accept. Stories give random dots and numbers meaning. They validate our values and actions. They awaken our senses and they give us reason.
Your Story-based Strategy & Analysis
We walk around everyday with these pre-existing stories that act as filters to what we read, see, hear and smell. We use what we know to make sense of a thing and pass a judgement on whether or not it fits within the narrative we choose to believe. We seek meaning, and much of that meaning is based on what we already know and accept to be true. Just look up at the stars on a clear night sky and think about what you see.
When developing a public communication campaign (this includes our print materials, emails and websites), its important to use story-based strategy in your analysis to help think through and develop appropriate messages to your audiences. It helps us understand and more effectively frame narratives that are acceptable and believable to them. It also helps us think about how to challenge and contest narratives that work against our own strategies.
So, what story is your organization telling? What dominant social narratives do they fit in? What do people believe about your organization because of this?
For starters, use the basic elements of a good story to develop your narrative analysis and strategy.
Elements of a Story
There can be no story without conflict. Conflict in a story pulls audiences in. Just how we connect the dots to complete an image, audiences want to see and understand how things become resolved. Every organization has its beginnings. Most often our organizations (especially nonprofits) arise out of a need to solve a problem.
What is the conflict your organization is trying to solve? How does this benefit or impact your audiences? Is the conflict person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. nature or person vs. society?
We see ourselves through characters in a story. We relate most to stories because of characters, whether they are the hero, the villain, the side-kick or even a messenger of the story. In your story strategy, you need to think about who these characters are. Often times we like to place ourselves at the center, as the hero. But what if we place our audience at the center, as the hero of a conflict and your organization as the messenger? This changes the strategy of how we communicate with our audiences. Ask yourself the following to push your ideas further:
Who is solving the problem in your story? Who is the villain or antagonist? What role does a side-kick or messenger play in your narrative?
We like to say, Show dont tell a lot here at LimeRed Studio. Why? Because images, metaphors, anecdotes, memes and descriptions capture our audiences imagination. It allows them to be pulled into our narratives. This approach allows our audiences the opportunity to use their own values to draw their own conclusions about a conflict. These elements are also effective communicating to audiences quickly. They also open the door for imagination and emotion key factors for getting someone to choose to pay attention to you.
What images or symbols illustrate the problem and solutions for audiences? What images are more familiar to them? What images can your organization use to quickly tell a story?
Images and other story artifacts are often found in storytelling to hint the possible outcome of a story. It is an influential force that gives them direction toward an outcome. It also keeps them engaged.
What do audiences want to see as a resolution to a conflict in a story, what do they expect? How do we use images and other artifacts to guide them along our narratives? How much should we give away without spoiling the outcome?
Assumptions are made of the things that audiences already know and understand about a conflict. They act like a hurdle or bridge to their narratives and help you decide how best to frame your story. Ask yourself the following:
If audiences have never heard of my organization, what assumptions do they have about the problems and conflicts we are trying to solve? What things should we place inside or outside of the frame of our stories? What images or characters do I need to include or exclude? What do our audiences value the most?
Weaving the Story Together
After reviewing these story elements, use them to analyze what you are currently communicating to audiences then begin to develop a new emerging narrative that fits within their own mental maps.
Think of other narratives or mythologies that currently exist that your audiences are already familiar with to help deliver and frame your story.
If you need more help or are interested in using story-based strategy to develop and design your communications strategy, contact us!
If story-based strategy is new to you, I highly recommend getting a copy of the Center for Story-based Strategies book RE:imagining Change.
From all of us at LimeRed Studio, we wish you the happiest, healthiest and safest of holidays!