The Struggles & Strides of Narrative Change

April 28, 2021


The Struggles & Strides of Narrative Change: What the Voices for Economic Opportunity Incubator Has Taught Us So Far

At Purpose, we understand the power of stories in shifting perceptions, building community, and mobilizing systemic change. From Delhi to Melbourne, we’ve seen that when we challenge long-standing assumptions and social constructs, we can create new norms and help actualize our vision for a more just, habitable, and open world. In that way, narrative is an important tool in “winning” on the issues that matter most and providing a better future for those who are most impacted.

Starting with this understanding, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invited Purpose to help tackle the deeply-rooted toxic narratives about people experiencing poverty and who “deserves” to rise out of it. In collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and six other domestic foundations, a call for ideas was launched that would work to challenge dominant narratives on economic mobility. Since then, Purpose has been working with 28 grant recipients, also called participants, to bring that narrative change work to life and to replace the damaging narratives about economic mobility with more accurate stories. Along the way, we’ve learned a thing or two about approaches that work, and approaches that need some work. 

The number 1

Map the narrative landscape to identify “ways in.” 

Only when you understand the ocean people are swimming in, can you identify how to turn the tides.

Narrative change shifts power, people’s focus, and the ways our issues are framed to help us build widespread support. It can lay the foundation for improved policies, more equitable practices, and better opportunities. The challenge of this work is to remove existing toxic narratives and to replace them with healthier, more accurate narratives. For example, moving people away from the “bootstrapping” narrative that implies individuals should be able to pull themselves out of poverty if they work hard enough, to narratives that address the realities of poverty and the systems that fail individuals. To do that, you have to understand what you’re up against; who believes these dominant narratives and why? A common challenge in the narrative change space is a lack of resourcing to understand the stories people have in their heads and the content they’re engaging with. Only with this understanding can you begin to disrupt storytelling patterns and open the door to change that meets people where they are.  

In the context of poverty, Voices Incubator participants have an advantage. They’ve been given access to Harmony Labs research which has broken down the narrative landscape on poverty, identified core audience segments, and provided inspiration for potential entry points. One participant used this resource to identify stories, platforms, and formats to reach, and sway, their intended audience: 

1) My audience spends more time watching NCIS than thinking about my issue 

2) When they do engage with poverty, the narratives that move them focus on individuals “giving back”, which doesn’t recognize the systemic barriers at play 

3) Based on what my audience is consuming, they probably won’t watch a full-length documentary, but they do like short-form YouTube videos

4) Maybe we should focus on bite-sized videos with feel-good stories that put those experiencing poverty in the driver’s seat and show that the solution is community members coming together to advocate for systems change

Through detailed audience insights and understanding, we can uncover ways to reach the right people, on the right platform, with the right message.

When defining an audience, put persuasion first.

Those sharing their story don’t need to be swayed, and it’s not the job of the storytellers experiencing poverty to be the persuaders.

An ongoing struggle for the narrative change community is holding persuadable audiences front and center. Organizations are often balancing a range of stakeholders: those listening to stories who are working in the impacted community, the storytellers who are sharing their personal experiences of poverty, the story producers or crafters who are bringing this to life, and the story marketers who are ensuring that story reaches the appropriate audience. In the incubator, we’ve continued to reiterate that the focus of this narrative change work is persuasion. Whose mind do we need to change? 

We’ve also found it important to express that narrative change isn’t something that happens organically through others’ storytelling but is rather a responsibility of participants to develop a strategic plan for packaging those stories and delivering them to the masses. It’s not equitable or reasonable for those experiencing poverty and sharing their story to also wear the hat of an editor, copywriter, producer, and distributor. 

We’ve seen this challenge to navigate multiple audiences play out for many in the incubator. Multiple participants are juggling policymakers, funders, and the media in addition to community members who are taking part in storytelling programs. Purpose is helping these groups work through audience decisions based on their goals for the scale of their content’s reach, existing audiences that may be primed for change, and which audience they should prioritize given their project timeline. 

To help participants focus on a narrow, swayable audience, we’ve found that it takes a collection of exercises and touchpoints. We’ve developed activities that help people get into their audience’s mindset, understand their perceptions, and consider what action that audience might take. We’re encouraging participants to seek experience-based feedback through testing, focus groups, and clear pressure-testing with the Purpose team. We’ve already started to see some “aha” moments happen through the exercises we’ve crafted for participants and predict there will be more to come through additional research and collaboration.

To sway your audience, your stories must be tailored to them.

In marketing, we know that understanding our target audience is critical in reaching them, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Once we’ve identified whose mind we need to change, we begin the difficult work of deciding how to do so. It’s through tailored storytelling that we can grab and keep an audience’s attention. 

A struggle of those engaged in narrative change work is crafting stories for an audience that isn’t like themselves. The characters they feature, the tone of voice they use, their visual and verbal choices all must contribute to a story that moves their audience to act. We’ve been encouraging incubator participants to step out of their comfort zone and to use the media their audiences consume as inspiration for their own narratives. It’s about telling stories in a way that audiences will respond to without reinforcing harmful narratives or abandoning the larger vision of narrative change. 

The solution here is testing, testing, testing. Participants have had access to message and engagement testing and will have the opportunity to explore this further in the coming months. Through each round of testing, they’ll gather additional insights that will allow them to continually adapt their messaging for their audience, and the Purpose team will be there to help them navigate the creative decisions that should make their stories stick.

We’ve seen promising decisions from participants in this regard. One participant is shifting their distribution strategy to meet their rural audience where they are. Knowing many of their audience members may not have access to the internet, they’re focusing on sharing their message through newspapers, radio, and billboards. Building content based on local understanding and contextual needs is exactly what is needed for narrative change to be effective.  

Narrative change doesn’t happen overnight.

Look for allies in narrative change to strengthen and scale your work.

Narrative change doesn’t stop at one story; it requires a collection of stories working together to win. In the Voices Incubator, we often refer to the rule of seven: the idea that a message must be heard seven times to stick with someone. Thankfully, the incubator has 28 participants to share a collective message far and wide. The advantage of this incubator is that it has built a community of organizations and individuals with a shared goal and equipped them with the tools to tackle it. It’s through this community that we can amplify our efforts to change the script on poverty. While narrative change takes time, the learnings gathered from doing this work can strengthen the next movement and ensure that the impact of our work reaches more people each time.

Becca Hovland Associate Creative Director
Prachi Rao Strategy Director
Ari Curtis Associate Creative Director
Keno Sadler Partner & Chief Experience Officer
Alexandra Prow Associate Director, Program Management
Genesis Henriquez Art Director
Choose Both: A Digital Guide
for Equity & Evidence