Deserai Crow and Michael Jones
Imagine. You are an ecologist. You recently discovered that a chemical that is discharged from a local manufacturing plant is threatening a bird that locals love to watch every spring. Now, imagine that you desperately want your research to be relevant and make a difference to help save these birds. All of your training gives you depth of expertise that few others possess. Your training also gives you the ability to communicate and navigate things such as probabilities, uncertainty, and p-values with ease.
But as NPR’s Robert Krulwich argues, focusing on this very specialized training when you communicate policy problems could lead you in the wrong direction. While being true to the science and best practices of your training, one must also be able to tell a compelling story. Perhaps combine your scientific findings with the story about the little old ladies who feed the birds in their backyards on spring mornings, emphasizing the beauty and majesty of these avian creatures, their role in the community, and how the toxic chemicals are not just a threat to the birds, but are also a threat to the community’s understanding of itself and its sense of place. The latest social science is showing that if you tell a good story, your policy communications are likely to be more effective.
This blog is based on our recent article on narrative as a tool for influencing policy change in the 2018 special issue on Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.
Why focus on stories?
The world is complex. We are bombarded with information as we move through our lives and we seek patterns within that information to simplify complexity and reduce ambiguity, so that we can make sense of the world and act within it.
The primary means by which human beings render complexity understandable and reduce ambiguity is through the telling of stories. We “fit” the world around us and the myriad of objects and people therein, into story patterns. We are by nature storytelling creatures. And if it is true of us as individuals, then we can also safely assume that storytelling matters for public policy where complexity and ambiguity abound.
Based on our (hopefully) forthcoming article (which has a heavy debt to Jones and Peterson, 2017 and Catherine Smith’s popular textbook) here we offer some abridged advice synthesizing some of the most current social science findings about how best to engage public policy storytelling. We break it down into five easy steps and offer a short discussion of likely intervention points within the policy process.
The 5 Steps of Good Policy Narrating
- Tell a Story: Remember, facts never speak for themselves. If you are presenting best practices, relaying scientific information, or detailing cost/benefit analyses, you are telling or contributing to a story. Engage your storytelling deliberately.
- Set the Stage: Policy narratives have a setting and in this setting you will find specific evidence, geography, legal parameters, and other policy consequential items and information. Think of these setting items as props. Not all stages can hold every relevant prop. Be true to science; be true to your craft, but set your stage with props that maximize the potency of your story, which always includes making your setting amenable to your audience.
- Establish the Plot: In public policy plots usually define the problem (and polices do not exist without at least a potential problem). Define your problem. Doing so determines the causes, which establishes blame.
- Cast the Characters: Having established a plot and defined your problem, the roles you will need your characters to play become apparent. Determine who the victim is (who is harmed by the problem), who is responsible (the villain) and who can bring relief (the hero). Cast characters your audience will appreciate in their roles.
- Clearly Specify the Moral: Postmodern films might get away without having a point. Policy narratives usually do not. Let your audience know what the solution is.
Public Policy Intervention Points
There are crucial points in the policy process where actors can use narratives to achieve their goals. We call these “intervention points” and all intervention points should be viewed as opportunities to tell a good policy story, although each will have its own constraints.
These intervention points include the most formal types of policy communication such as crafting of legislation or regulation, expert testimony or statements, and evaluation of policies. They also include less formal communications through the media and by citizens to government.
Each of these interventions can frequently be dry and jargon-laden, but it’s important to remember that by employing effective narratives within any of them, you are much more likely to see your policy goals met.
When considering how to construct your story within one or more of the various intervention points, we urge you to first consider several aspects of your role as a narrator.
- Who are you and what are your goals? Are you an outsider trying to affect change to solve a problem or push an agency to do something it might not be inclined to do? Are you an insider trying to evaluate and improve policy making and implementation? Understanding your role and your goals is essential to both selecting an appropriate intervention point and optimizing your narrative therein.
- Carefully consider your audience. Who are they and what is their posture towards your overall goal? Understanding your audience’s values and beliefs is essential for avoiding invoking defensiveness.
- There is the intervention point itself – what is the best way to reach your audience? What are the rules for the type of communication you plan to use? For example, media communications can be done with lengthy press releases, interviews with the press, or in the confines of a simple tweet. All of these methods have both formal and informal constraints that will determine what you can and can’t do.
Without deliberate consideration of your role, audience, the intervention point, and how your narrative links all of these pieces together, you are relying on chance to tell a compelling policy story.
On the other hand, thoughtful and purposeful storytelling that remains true to you, your values, your craft, and your best understanding of the facts, can allow you to be both the ecologist and the bird lover.
You may read the original research in Policy & Politics:
View the special issue full table of contents here. The whole issue is free to access until 31 May.