So what’s with all this narrative sh*t, anyway?

By May 29, 2013December 13th, 2013Politics

If communicating with constituents and achieving change was just about the facts, and what is right, Greens policies (in my humble opinion) would be government policies, the world would be taking great steps to tackle climate change and social inequity, and I’d be able to afford to own my own home.

But it’s obviously not just the facts that determine government policy or voter intention. The language we use and the way we communicate ideas clearly has as much impact as the ideas themselves.

This is where narrative comes in.

Political commentators like to bang on about narrative every now and then. Earlier this year it was either that the government has lost its narrative, or they can’t find a coherent one, or quite simply, Labor is lacking a narrative.

In the SMH earlier this year, commentator Waleed Aly argued that “Labor had bought wholly into the Coalition’s narrative for no discernible reason,” and that “Labor has become a liberal party, so it isn’t even convincing when it sounds like itself.”

While sort of on the money, what Aly’s saying doesn’t really have much at all to do with narrative. Instead, he’s talking about Labor’s policy platform, which anyone with half a newspaper knows has been drifting to the right for years. It’s why messaging such as “Labor has lost its way” and “change your vote, not your values” continues to be an effective way for the Greens to frame Labor.

Commentators talking about “narrative” can easily ring hollow and send eyes rolling backwards into skull cavities. Quite rightly so – generally we relate a narrative to stories and stories, sort of, are related to fiction, and pretty much everyone already thinks politicians are full of shit.

But a narrative IS actually a story, and when the communications gurus (nee spin doctors) are trying to construct an effective narrative, they’re utilising the tenets of story-telling.

The core narrative building blocks are a protagonist – someone who has a goal they are trying to achieve– and an antagonist – someone/something standing in their way. Interaction between the two creates conflict (or drama, if you will) and propels the “narrative”.

Knowing even just this (and a few other tricks which would get me thrown out of the magician’s guild if I told you) can help immensely when we’re thinking about how we’re going to talk about ourselves, or our political opposition, or a pretty much anything, really.

Politically, at the base level of a media release, on a newly announced government policy for example, knowledge of narrative structure tells us that it’s not enough to criticise what the government is doing – you need to say what you propose instead.

Narratively, from the Greens’ point of view, in this scenario we’re positioning the government as the protagonist and the Greens as the antagonist. And by voting for the “heroic” Greens you can stop the “evil” government from implementing their regime.

Bob Brown (here with Fiona Byrne) - knows how to tell a good story.

Bob Brown (here with Fiona Byrne) – knows how to tell a good story.

When we’re being proactive in our “story-telling” the situation is reversed – we’re telling the story of the Greens, whose goal is to implement progressive policy change across the backdrop of the government, or opposition, whose policies threaten that vision.

If you get into narrative deeper there are other equally useful techniques, the “inciting incident” for example. This is the trigger which propels the protagonist into action towards their goal (whether they know it or not).

We can use this when talking about ourselves and why we got involved in politics, for example. Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of people say that they got involved in the Greens because of refugees.

That’s all well and good, great, but I’m not connecting to it emotionally yet. It’s just a thing you’ve told me.

But what if instead the person starts off by grounding us with where they were in life – just another regular person like you and me – and then this horrible incident with the Tampa happened, and it shocked them to their core, and they knew they just HAD to get involved and do something, and the only person they saw speaking humanely about refugees in the media was this guy called Bob Brown

Now, this “incident” has propelled the political journey of the person telling it, and told right it can establish a crucial emotional connection between the speaker and their audience.

Done badly, however, any kind of narrative comes across as forced and fake.

Novelist David Lodge writes in The Art of Fiction that “the structure of a narrative is like the framework of girders that holds up a modern high-rise building: you can’t see it, but it determines the edifice’s shape and character.”

The lesson here, basically, is that if all you have is some tricks – and nothing of substance to say or emotional depth or genuine connection with other people – you’re just going to look like an empty shell.

Crikey commentator Bernard Keane, based on a quick study of the polar choices in narrative style, and what is easiest to pull off, wrote earlier this year that “If Labor wants to meet our benchmark of successfully communicating a narrative, it should keep it simple, negative, divisive, artificial and relentlessly controlled.”

The question for the Greens, or anyone for that matter, is not whether or not we’re going to engage with narrative, it’s whether we do it effectively or not.

Given the Greens generally prefer (in direct contrast to Keane’s list for Labor above) to be complicated, positive, inclusive, authentic and decentralised, it’s crucial we understand how narrative and story-telling techniques can help us communicate more effectively, with the public and with each other.


Disclaimer: The writer is, at time of writing, the Communications Adviser (nee spin doctor) for Greens NSW MP David Shoebridge, He is proud holder of a Masters in Creative Writing and his views are (as far as he knows) my own.

This piece appeared originally in (a slightly different format in) the Aututmn edition of GreenMail – the Greens NSW members’ publication.

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