How does the public make sense of incoming information? Through stories.
What kinds of stories help the public make sense of information on social issues? Thematic stories.
People process new information best through narrative structure. Kurt Vonnegut, the famous American novelist of Slaughterhouse-five and Cat’s Cradle, knows this well. Watch this entertaining lecture as he lays the basic outline for three types of narrative structures.
What does this mean for those of us in the non-profit communications field?
As you can see, these narrative patterns queue familiar stories. While Vonnegut only briefly mentions key pieces of the story, like “a glass shoe” or a “girl in a hole,” we are able to fill in the rest to provide meaning to his construction. The pattern of the story and his added detail helps us create pictures in our head of what the stories are supposed to be and how they should play out.
Similarly, this is how people understand social issues. When experts and advocates use narrative structure to tell a meaningful story about social issues, they help the public more easily make sense of and take action on those issues.
It is important to distinguish, however, between narrative structure and narrative content. In Vonnegut’s lecture, he uses the specific narrative of Cinderella to explain the structure of the story. We, of course, do not want to tell stories of individuals facing challenges in their personal lives. This would be an episodic story that we know tends to individualize an issue.
To maximize public support, we want to use narrative structure to tell thematic stories that share the experiences of groups and communities facing challenges that they can surmount together. If you’d like to learn more about thematic vs. episodic stories, see our Framing Essentials pdf entitled, “Telling Thematic Stories.”
How can your organization use narrative structure and thematic content to better frame your issue?