Framing the Narrative
ecoAmerica’s America the Best conference, held September 28, 2010 in Washington, DC brought cross-sector leaders together for an important dialog on America's future, asking, among many questions: Is there another way? Can we transcend the system instead of trying to reform it? Is there a realistic, positive, and inspirational future that will engage Americans in finding a way out of our current social, political, economic, and environmental morass in time? Sanjay Khanna offers his and the late Michael Littrell's thoughts on framing the narrative as part of the solution.
by Sanjay Khanna, Director, Resilient People
November 1st, 2010
For Michael J. Littrell (1948-2010)
This briefing note considers framing in light of M.P.A.N. (Motivation – Proportionality – Alignment – Narrative), the late Michael J. Littrell’s detailed narrative-based methodology rooted in mythology and complexity theory. I learned about M.P.A.N from Mike, former international director of Earth Day International, whom I’m privileged to have had as my mentor in political and campaign narrative. Prior to, and during, the Rio Summit, Mike contributed to meetings with Maurice Strong, Lawrence Rockefeller, and other eminent business and environmental leaders; more recently, he provided counsel to the Obama campaign during the Iowa caucus. Sadly, Mike passed away less than 24 hours before the America The Best (ATB) conference convened, at age 62.
Between May ‘09 and April ‘10, Mike and I held strategy sessions on campaign narrative in a pivotal historical moment that—whether you’re a communicator, academic, citizen, or national security analyst—is defined by three key factors:
1. Our inability to calculate hidden systemic risk;
2. Our inability to effectively warn citizens of the socioeconomic and climate risks that we’re pretty much certain of;
3. Our limited window into audiences’ psychological states and cognitive contexts.
The text below synthesizes some of Mike’s, and my own, thoughts on narrative in the context of M.P.A.N. theory.
M = Motivation
1. Understand your own motives in crafting your external narrative
Be transparent about your intentions and about which constituencies you’re trying to reach. If your motives are mixed, then your narrative’s structural faults may cause it to crumble under duress. Mike said, “The mixed-motive narrative is most dangerous.” You will note, for example, that mixed-motive narrative isn’t yielding good results among incumbent House Democrats who are attempting to fend off Republican challengers.
2. Appreciate the implications of cognitive dissonance
Dueling perceptions of reality within a single individual or group can paralyze action. Which dissonances prevent people from comprehending a problem, understanding its implication, and being motivated to take action? Take the case of New York City. For more than a decade, experts from NASA GISS (Cynthia Rozensweig), from Columbia University, and elsewhere have advised the City of New York, the City of New Jersey, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the MTA, etc., to build a $4 billion Thames-like barrier around Battery Park to address sea-level rise. If this massive climate-related construction project had been undertaken as part of the federal stimulus, this one tangible act would have helped more people appreciate the reality of local climate change, bringing cognitive gears into synch with the need for action.
P = Proportionality
Adapt your narrative to the next two years
Every organization needs to craft a narrative that addresses the post-Copenhagen, post-climate bill, economic-crisis reality with a narrative that’s proportional to actual circumstance.
A = Alignment
1. Stress test your post-climate bill narrative
Reality models are often in crisis when they don’t equitably balance a description of the actual circumstance with listeners’ emotional and practical needs. Most organizations' narratives may need to be stress-tested at these "broken places." In particular, we should assess how our narrative approaches need to evolve if unemployment, economic issues, and political rivalries continue to make it difficult to educate the public about climate risks.
2. Help audiences to transcend inner obstacles and thus power through present circumstance
Narratives involving heroines or heroes typically involve going *through* whatever obstacles may present themselves by transcending the *inner barriers* (rather than the external conditions) that prevent either understanding a problem or taking action. This insight implies that we need to craft narratives that help Americans to find a way through our current social, political, economic, and environmental morass. (Not to put too fine a point on it, what would happen if we asked the U.S. military leadership in Afghanistan whether a meta-message would allow them to transcend the resistance of the Taliban or of the Pakistanis’ support of the Taliban?)
N = Narrative
1. Address the five needs
Consider crafting political and campaign narratives to address the five (5) needs outlined by the Ojibway: Leadership, Learning, Health, Sustenance, and Defense. If we run into a double-dip recession, for example, many Americans will want any job so they can meet their need for sustenance. How would the green jobs message need to evolve in response?
2. Return audiences to safety
A shared story must ultimately allow its audience to be part of a narrative arc that introduces them to the obstacles they face, but ultimately returns them to safety. If recessionary pressures continue to build, how will we make audiences feel safe enough to listen to our vision?
3. Address both transcendent and pragmatic elements
One year before he passed away, Mike said, “Remember, the narrative will tend to be biased towards either the transcendent (e.g., Al Gore’s movie) or the pragmatic (e.g., job creation: Obama’s Green Energy program). In the end, the transcendent and pragmatic must be equitably not equally balanced. Thus, any sustainable process or business tends to be 1) aligned to its culture’s beliefs, 2) proportional to its outcomes, and 3) obeys the Principle of Least Action or Fewest Assumptions.”
These are some of the principles I think would help us take next steps in narrative development and communications planning.
For profit: Wal-Mart Stores
“If it weren’t for your stores, I would have gone off the deep end a long time ago.”—
Walmart customer testimonial
Walmart Stores is fast becoming America’s private sector social safety net. During a time of economic unease, its slogan, “Saving people money so they can live better” is resonant with mainstream Americans. Their community program addresses the five needs of Leadership, Learning, Health, Sustenance, and Defense. The Walmart Foundation is providing $2 billion of direct and in-kind support to address hunger and food security (Leadership / Sustenance), the store offers low Medicare premiums via a partnership with an insurance provider (Health), the company is on a push to hire members of the U.S. military (Defense), they have major sustainability programs, which include programs courting small farmers. If the economy remains volatile, Wal-Mart may become a resource that a significant number of Americans trust more than government (Leadership). By the time climate impacts kick in more noticeably, Wal-Mart is well positioned to become a hub for climate change education and disaster response. It appears Wal-Mart is waiting for a groundswell of community concern so it can be more explicit about threats to its consumers’ well being. How might we learn from Walmart to communicate about climate change, so that our audiences see us as a safe haven?
Not-for-profit: 350.org <http://350.org> , Rockefeller Foundation
350.org <http://350.org> reaches millions globally by addressing Learning (about climate change) and Leadership (engaging with the issue) on a massive scale. 350.org <http://350.org> describes the Ojibway’s other three complementary needs—Health, Sustenance, and Defense—as threatened by climate change, but the campaign doesn’t provide a direct way for audiences to engage with these areas, except potentially through 350.org’s coalition allies. If the economic outlook remains uncertain, it may be necessary for 350.org <http://350.org> to address Health, Sustenance, and Defense more explicitly among its supporters.
The Rockefeller Foundation’s narrative, meanwhile, incorporates interconnected themes that explicitly and powerfully address the five needs. These themes are: Basic Survival Safeguards, Global Health, Climate and the Environment, Urbanization, Social and Economic Security. Whereas 350.org <http://350.org> speaks to the collective power of joint action, the Rockefeller Foundation doesn’t do so directly. Instead, the Foundation emphasizes its ability to help build capacity through funding key initiatives. A potential next step is to weave a shared narrative that activates popular engagement around the causes the Foundation supports.
Sanjay Khanna is a journalist, futurist, and Co-founder of Resilient People, which provides guidance on preparing for economic and climate shifts. A visionary thinker and 2009 TED Fellow nominee, Sanjay's focus is on helping civil society, governments, and the private sector to recognize and address the psychological, social, and cultural impacts of economic and climate change within their organizations and as part of an external mandate to safeguard communities around the world from climate change impacts.