The Power of (Finding) a Story

Values and metaphors get all the love.

As a communications researcher who works with experts and advocates on framing I have learned that people love metaphors. They love to hear about them, think about them, use them, and yes, critique them. FrameWorks’ explanatory metaphors frequently steal the show and overshadow the importance of the messages that we are trying to communicate. Values, as a frame element, are also subject to this same “shiny thing” problem. And I guess that all of this focus on the mechanism—the how in the translation process—isn’t a bad thing. These tools and recommendations do, after all, represent the culmination of the communication process. It’s good that they get so much love because this frequently translates into people using them.

But I want to rewind for a second and tell you about the most important (and frequently most difficult) part of communications research—synthesizing and distilling the information that needs to be translated. It is, after all, impossible for a piece of translational work to be effective without something to translate.

Distilling the “untranslated story” (the object that frames seek to “pass” to the public) is the beginning of the iterative process of Strategic Frame Analysis™. During this work, FrameWorks researchers interview experts, attend meetings, read literature and feed data back to experts for checks, refinements, and consensus. The result of this process is a set of messages that experts and advocates want people to be able to understand and have access to as they go about their daily lives and make decisions as citizens. I want to argue that this untranslated story is the unsung hero of our communications research and deserves a little more love.


I have spent the past week distilling an untranslated story with a group of leading scientists, practitioners, and organizational thinkers who work on issues of mental health and well-being in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany. They are doctors, therapists, nurses and managers who work at the Pfalzklinikum fuer Psychiatrie und Neurologie—a mental health clinic and community service provider in a largely rural (and unbelievably beautiful) German state. Over the course of the week, and the months that preceded it, this group has been reading, thinking, debating, and composing a story about the power of prevention which they want members of the public and their policy makers to be able to understand and use. The goal of their work is to shift the focus and resources of systems, programs, and policies from remedial and reactive approaches of dealing with illness, to preventative approaches that deal in wellness. Their story positions building resilience, at individual, organizational, and systems levels as the lever through which to achieve this reorientation. This is complex stuff, but the team, after much debate, has managed to synthesize a wide range of literatures and perspectives into a set of 10 core messages—a story to be translated through the design and testing of those coveted metaphors and values.