Constructing the Perfect Narrative

August 4, 2023

As a newcomer in the world of politics, I found myself intrigued by the powerful narratives that shape our public discourse. Why do politicians choose certain words, and how do their messages resonate with the public? These were some of the questions that propelled me into an exploration of politics and communication.

I began my political journey working for the Liberal Party of Canada. Throughout my career, I worked for Party five leaders, and participated in countless leadership and local candidate campaigns, including at all levels of government. I experienced firsthand the making and breaking of policies, and more importantly, the struggle to communicate these ideas to the public. One lesson became crystal clear: the simplest ideas often have the most traction. A concept reflected in the struggle the federal government is currently experiencing with complex ideas like national carbon pricing.

“Money Follows Message”

In the political arena, there’s a saying that “money follows message.” But I believe it’s the compelling narrative behind the message that truly attracts the investment of trust, time, and resources. This belief was fortified by my journey through a series of enlightening books that have helped shape my perspective on narrative building.

The first book I was gifted, “The Revolution won’t be Televised: Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything” by Joe Trippi, was a revelation. Trippi’s examination of digital technologies’ impact on political campaigns was insightful at the time, but more importantly, it imparted key lessons on authenticity, engagement, and decentralization in narrative crafting.

Reading George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate” introduced me to the power of framing in political discourse. Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, provided a unique perspective on the importance of language in shaping our understanding of complex issues. His insights further emphasized the need for messages that resonate with the audience’s values and stimulate emotional responses.

In “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation,” Drew Westen explores the role of emotion in our political decisions. His thesis – that feelings guide our political decisions, not just objective information – further underlines the effectiveness of narrative, imagery, and emotion in shaping political outcomes.

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Muriel Rukeyser

The convergence of these books’ insights, combined with my experiences, directed me to the works of Marshall Ganz. A well-known community organizer and senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, Ganz developed an approach to leadership and organizing known as the “Public Narrative”. This model involves three parts: the Story of Self, the Story of Us, and the Story of Now, which together provide a compelling framework for crafting narratives.

In 2015, during Canada’s federal election, I observed the Ganz framework in action. Justin Trudeau, who would become the Prime Minister, executed an effective campaign that told his Story of Self – his personal journey that led him to politics, which included personal tragedy. He also articulated the Story of Us by appealing to shared Canadian values of diversity and inclusivity, while his Story of Now capitalized on the growing desire for change after nearly a decade under the same government.

This journey through politics and literature has shaped my understanding of the art of narrative building. Crafting a compelling narrative is not merely about conveying information but connecting with audiences on an emotional level, appealing to shared values, and inspiring action. It is about authenticity, engagement, adaptability, and understanding the power of framing. As Marshall Ganz’s framework suggests, it is about telling the story of who you are, who we are together, and why the time to act is now.

The construction of the perfect narrative is a potent tool, not just in politics, but in any venture that seeks to mobilize a group towards a common goal. As I continue to apply these lessons in my work, I remain guided by the words of poet Muriel Rukeyser, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

Please reach out to learn about some of the specific compelling narratives that Rise Up Strategies has helped shape on behalf of its clients.