How can civil society groups and charities apply narrative work in practice? Based on our work with migration groups in the UK during the pandemic, we believe a crucial step is more narrative synergy between organisations that share the same values.
Have you ever looked closely at a detailed painting and then slowly stepped back to see the picture take shape and come alive before your eyes? It’s a magical feeling when the smaller component parts complement each other and align to create a unified whole. This is what happens with an intricate mosaic, where small individual tiles collectively merge to create an image that is striking to behold.
The same synergistic principle applies to narratives. We communicate by sharing our messages and stories, but it is their accumulation over time that form lasting, memorable narratives. When we communicate strategically we need to think not just about how we craft our own message, but also how we are adding to a greater whole and strengthening shared narratives in the process. In short: to be strategic we need to be synergistic.
As the Narrative Initiative writes:
“What tiles are to mosaics, stories are to narratives. The relationship is symbiotic; stories bring narratives to life by making them relatable and accessible, while narratives infuse stories with deeper meaning.”
Elena Blackmore, writing for PIRC, has also used this metaphor to powerful effect where she writes perceptively about #BlackLivesMatter and the response that is required to change harmful narrative mosaics:
“This is the narrative mosaic of white supremacy and it comprises hundreds of years’ worth of tiles of violent history. We can understand a narrative in this way: as a ‘coherent system of stories’.”
If communications work is about crafting the right kinds of words, visuals and feelings to get a message across, then strategic communications is about stepping back and thinking about the big ideas, attitudes and behaviours we want to shift. This means thinking not just about promoting the work of our own organisation, but choosing the right stories to tell about what is happening in the world today. This means communications based more around moments than on campaigns.
These reflections are based on recent work with Unbound Philanthropy and Migration Exchange during the pandemic to help activist groups apply narrative messaging around Covid-19 produced by communications experts such as Anat Shenker-Osorio, PIRC, Frameworks Institute and IMIX to their daily work.
Creating new, striking narrative mosaics requires as many people as possible offering up the same sorts of ideas, creating images that bring to life our shared values and exchanging stories that reflect our worldview.
We have designed a messaging house to help guide this process, drawing on the idea of a Larger Us developed by Alex Evans at the Collective Psychology Project as a way of articulating what unites groups working on human rights, environment, poverty, racial justice and others in common cause.
This messaging house contains simple “common sense” ideas that we can all repeat over and over again, and bring to life in stories, videos, drawings and graphics. Rather than asking every group to use shared branding or slogans, we instead invite everyone to inject a little bit of the spirit of our shared worldview into their work.
Getting the wording of our messages right is important, but communications is often about more than words: it is about images, stories and emotions stirred by cultural products.
Five principles for creating narrative mosaics with strategic communications
There are five principles we’ve learnt from mosaic-making that help us to get to the heart and soul of strategic communications:
Principle 1: We need to unite around shared messages that capture the spirit of our communication. It takes many different tiles to make a mosaic. If all our tiles relay conflicting messages, our tiles will simply form a blur from which no narrative emerges. Only by constantly reinforcing a complimentary, shared worldview with stories and frames on a daily basis can we make our narrative salient enough to stand out.
Principle 2: We need to capitalise on key moments that arise — tapping into the zeitgeist, rather than purely relying on engineering the focus. Mosaic-makers innovate all the time. We need to be open to raising up what works and what resonates in response to key moments.
Principle 3: We need to build up powerful bonds of reciprocity. Building a mosaic is about elevating and building on motifs that work, and generating new, iterative content as a result. Reciprocity builds strong supportive networks, helps to further the message of a Larger Us and demonstrates that we are making progress together.
Principle 4: Apply the rule of thirds. There is sometimes magic to be found in placing the subject off-centre, resisting the urge of pushing problems to the front and centre.
Principle 5: We need to accumulate multiple stories and messages. Mosaics are created by adding together multiple smaller parts, some of which are plain and reinforcing, some peppering our communications with bursts of creative inspiration. Sometimes we need to experiment many times over to hit upon a powerful message that truly resonates. Everyone can add their tile to the narrative mosaic, even by retweeting another post or asking your supporters share some positive news.
Do read the full Medium article to find out more about each of these principles, and to explore the practical steps you and your organisation can take to create narrative mosaics!