A version of this article was originally published by apolitical, a global learning platform for public servants and policymakers.
Want to change the way government works? Start with a story.
By Doug Hattaway
Governing in the midst of economic and social disruption, the Biden-Harris Administration has faced the challenge of leading personnel across the federal government to think and act in new ways. If you’re looking to drive the adoption of new policies and practices in government — or any organization — communication science says that storytelling is a good place to start.
As President Barack Obama neared the end of his second term in office, his domestic policy team aimed to share lessons from national programs that took a “place-based” approach to drive economic growth in local communities.
The “place-based” approach to economic development achieved real results for people living in very different places. For example:
- In Fresno, California, government officials and entrepreneurs revitalised the downtown area by creating a tech incubator that breathed new life into Fresno’s economy.
- In southeastern Kentucky, coal miners learned computer coding and helped create new job opportunities in the area.
- In Baltimore, Maryland, government officials worked with local businesses and nonprofits to find jobs for 8,000 young people who needed work.
The Obama team wanted to share lessons from successes like these and encourage government employees at the federal and state levels to adopt a new way of working with people in local communities. But communicating about “place-based” development was difficult. The term didn’t mean anything to people outside a small circle of experts, who often used technical language that others didn’t understand. Complex explanations of the approach made it sound difficult to execute.
Storytelling for change
For the new approach to catch on, we needed a better way to communicate with both government employees and people in local communities.
Communication science shows that storytelling is the most powerful way to instruct and inspire people, no matter their profession. Stories help people process complex and abstract information faster and easier. And stories open our minds to new ways of thinking and acting. For this reason, President Obama’s team was looking for a storytelling strategy that would help change the way people in the government’s economic programs approached their work.
The research and development team at Hattaway Communications worked with White House staff to put these insights to work. We began by re-naming the approach with more meaningful language: “community-led partnerships.” These simple words spoke to the secret of success in achieving positive outcomes — local communities led the way in designing the best solutions to their unique challenges.
Brain science shows that people are more likely to understand an abstract or complex idea — such as “how government works” — when you put people in the picture as protagonists in a story, and describe them taking action to solve a problem and achieve an outcome.
Guided by this insight, we interviewed the people behind the success stories to find out “who did what” to make the approach work. Our team described this approach to economic development in terms of six “players” in the process and eight “principles” that defined their role in the process. For example:
“Federal innovators” were people from government agencies who provided technical assistance or seed funding.
“Local leaders” in government, business, and other sectors identified needs and set goals.
These simple descriptions allowed key players to “see themselves” in the story and understand their roles.
Each principle was also given a name and simple description. For example, one key to success was “community conversations,” in which “local stakeholders define needs, identify assets, and inform the development of a strategic plan that addresses local realities.”
Each principle was illustrated by stories from different communities— such as New Orleans, Louisiana, where the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Federal Highway Administration funded local partners to convene public meetings to design an economic development strategy.
User-friendly language and human-centred stories were compiled in a manual for training and communications entitled, Communicating About Community-Led Partnerships. Hundreds of personnel across dozens of government agencies received this tool, along with training to put its lessons to work.
Creating a framework to guide content creation in this way can equip any organization to use the power of Strategic Storytelling to drive behavior change—by creating stories about real people in real situations that communicate the key ideas you need your audience to understand and apply.
A few tips from the guidebook:
Avoid overloading people with too much information. It actually demotivates them. Stories about people overcoming obstacles and achieving goals can illustrate a complex problem and solution in understandable, human terms — and show that change is possible. Find a story that creates instant comprehension of the approach and an emotional connection with the people involved, because emotional responses around new ideas and information make them more memorable.
Answer strategic questions first. You will need to determine which audiences need to see your stories. To determine your priority audience, determine who must think and act in a new way to drive the change you seek. Consider these questions to focus your communication: Is there a surprising fact or idea that can grab their attention and help them see the situation in a new way? What information or ideas will motivate them? What “characters” might help them connect to the effort?
Map out an interesting plot. Our guidebook provided government storytellers with a framework adapted from the Hero’s Journey, a tried and true model for structuring stories to capture people’s attention and imagination, based on research about storytelling in many different cultures. Our story map has four key steps that comprise a compelling story: (1) Status Quo & First Steps, (2) Obstacles & Allies, (3) Breakthrough and (4) Impact. Each step provides an opportunity to share a lesson and show how things get done in the real world.
Government professionals can use these science-based insights and tools to create their own storytelling strategies to communicate clearly with colleagues, inspire potential private-sector partners to collaborate, and inform the public about policies and programs.