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Government agencies do all kinds of great work for people and the planet, but they sometimes struggle to communicate effectively about their policies and programs. 

Cognitive science says the most effective communication will

a) motivate your audience to stop and think about your topic, by reflecting their aspirations and values; and

b) make it as easy as possible for people to process the ideas and information.

Effective storytelling can achieve both of those things. But what does storytelling look like in government?

To help answer this question, the Partnership for Public Service hosted a webinar with Doug Hattaway for hundreds of professionals at dozens of federal agencies to learn about the art and science of Strategic Storytelling. 

You can view a YouTube video of the workshop and read a summary of key points on the Achieve Great Things blog.

Cognitive Science

Cognitive science says the most effective communication will a) motivate your audience to stop and think about your topic, because it reflects their aspirations and values, and b) make it as easy as possible for them to process the information. Storytelling is the most powerful form of communication, because it equips you to do both. 

To be effective for government, stories must also be strategic—by communicating ideas that are meaningful and motivating to your target audiences. Below are a few useful insights from communications science to help you shape effective storytelling about government policies and programs.

Frame it First

The first thing you say about a topic shapes every perception and judgment that follows, so be strategic about the words you choose to introduce your idea. Framing a complex topic with a few key concepts focuses people’s minds on the ideas you want to emphasize, and enables them to process more detailed information that follows. If those initial ideas reflect the aspirations and values of your audience, they are more likely to care about your topic. 

Speak to Authentic Aspirations

Our aspirations are our ideas about the kind of people we want to be and the kind of lives we want to live. They drive our decision-making and behaviors. The science of Aspirational Communication suggests that connecting your idea to people’s aspirations will motivate them to invest the mental energy required to understand the details. Showing how your policy or program helps people achieve their aspirations in life makes it truly meaningful to them.  

Create an Aspirational Narrative Framework

Stories that connect programs and policies to the aspirations of your audience are powerful. The image below shows a framework you can use to do that. Your Aspirational Narrative begins with the people whose lives are improved by your policy or program. The goals are their aspirations in life. The problems are challenges or needs they face in realizing those aspirations. The solutions are the things your policy or program does to meet those needs and help people achieve their goals.

This is a simple framework you can use to create a narrative about your policy that helps people quickly see its relevance and understand its value. You start by putting “People” in the picture and describing the aspirational “Goals” your policy helps them achieve, then explaining the “Problems” addressed by your policy and the “Solutions” it offers. Using this framework to guide storytelling ensures that every story conveys key ideas.

An Aspirational Narrative about Anti-Poverty Programs

The Obama-Biden administration used an Aspirational Narrative to equip government agencies to communicate effectively about the “Ladders of Opportunity” initiative, which included a wide array of programs and policies designed to fight poverty.

The narrative described those served by anti-poverty programs as “hardworking” “responsible” people striving to achieve “financial security”—to “find a good job” that would enable them to “support a family” and enter the “middle class.” The vast majority of taxpayers and policymakers can see their own values and aspirations in these words.

Of course, intergenerational poverty is a complex issue with myriad causes. But you need to avoid overwhelming your audience at the outset by diving into the complexity of the issue. This Aspirational Narrative framed the problem as a “lack of opportunity,” pointing out that we don’t all “start out in life” with the same opportunities. That language speaks to a common understanding that our changes in life are shaped by the places we live.

Message-testing research found that U.S. voters agreed that unequal access to opportunity was at the heart of the problem. Obama echoed that idea in his second inaugural address by saying, “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else.”

Your message should make a simple, straightforward connection between the problem and your solution. The Ladders of Opportunity narrative presented government anti-policy policies and programs as providing “tools” that helped people lift their families out of poverty—things like job training, financial literacy, and education savings accounts. “Tools” is a metaphor of empowerment, suggesting that the programs equipped people to “work their way” out of poverty. 

The key ideas in this narrative framework can be communicated in a few short sentences:

Children born into poverty don’t have equal opportunities, because their families struggle to make ends meet. Government anti-poverty programs provide tools to help hardworking people find good jobs, so they can support their families and achieve financial security.

In national message-testing research, seven out of ten U.S. residents surveyed said the narrative convinced them that the government should, indeed, provide these programs to fight poverty. Agencies across the government were equipped with this narrative to create stories for speeches, news releases, reports, and many other communications that conveyed these ideas.

Of course, there’s much more to effective government communications, like avoiding jargon and making strategic use of visuals. But you can start strong by creating an Aspirational Narrative to introduce any topic, before you start delving into analysis, facts, and figures. 

This post was adapted from an article that originally appeared in apolitical, a learning platform for government professionals around the world.