author archive: amy-zalman

“Storify” Strategy to Locate New Stakeholders and Strengthen Advocacy

Angela Glover Blackwell  understands the power of stories to shape—and even change— outcomes. The founder and CEO of research and action institute, Policy Link, Blackwell’s goal is economic and social equity in the United States.

In order to explain why that’s important, she tells a dual story. One is about making sure that future Americans–the majority of whom will be people of color–are positioned Policy Link logoequitably to get the best education and jobs their talents permit.

The second is about the future of American competitiveness in the world: “If this country wants to have a middle class and be competitive in the global economy, we need to make sure that the people who are going to be the future are ready for the future,” Blackwell said in a recent interview with NPR Marketplace’s Morning Report.

There is genius in this narrative entwining personal and national economic advancement.

First, it displaces negative stories about the need for racial equality.  Many efforts to tell this story end up slamming unproductively against barriers of racism and fear.  Listeners are afraid that advocating for equality is some kind of code for inequality through favoritism, or advocacy of a “big government,”  or “welfare.”

Second, Blackwell’s story replaces negative and fearful stories about people of color and poverty with a positive one that makes every American a stakeholder in an equitable future for all.  A rising tide lifts all boats; economic fairness for all. The story transforms a potentially hostile audience—those who may feel that individual effort is being pitted against a big government giving handouts—into beneficiaries and even heroes of a fair system. Blackwell tells the story in data as well: “If we had eliminated racial inequities in 2011, the GDP would have been $1.2 trillion higher.”

The story  about the future that Policy Link tells has constructed has all the right traits for gaining critical mass. Like all good strategic narratives, it can put a check mark next to all of these criteria:

  • Heroic, participatory roles for a range of stakeholders. It makes poverty and inequality, not people, the story’s villain.
  • Engages collective values, such as Americans’ belief in fairness and the story of the United States as a leading player on the world stage.
  • Open ended It tells us the problem—no equity—but doesn’t dictate to us how to get to a happier ending, leaving us free to imagine our own next steps.

Map Stories to Find New Stakeholders, New Routes to Desired Outcomes

Organizations that fail to construct strong stories to guide communication and strategy can find themselves in trouble. Take Blackberry, the formerly dominant smartphone maker now struggling to come back from a 45% drop in sales in the last year.

One way to stress test a strategy is to “storify” it.  Take it apart, map it, find out where it began, where it is going, what assumptions underwrite current directions, and where it could go in the future.

Deputy business editor at the New York Times David Gillen described Blackberry’s failure to adjust to a changing landscape  “commitment escalation.” Companies “focus on their product rather than listening to their market changing.” Other analysts have suggested Blackberry didn’t focus enough on what existing customers liked, such as the QWERTY keyboard.

Mapping strategy as a story, in which each step leads to the next for a reason, can lay bare gaps in the strategy, suggest alternatives, or point to the need for more research.  A firm turning solipsistic and forgetting to engage its most important stakeholders—its customers—as it proceeds could discover the oversight by retelling its strategy as a story. It might, along the way, discover that it is important to situation the customer, not the product, as the hero.

Narrative network mapping can help identify stakeholders, and strengthen strategy

Mapping strategy as a story begins with articulating its beginning–the current challenge–and its end: Where do you hope to end up? (Mapping, of course, might change that endpoint). At every point in between, there will be people and actions driving the strategic “plot.”  Asking who has a stake in each step can help uncover stakeholders that may not have been apparent in the beginning,  whether competitors or naysayer or beneficiaries.  Communicating with and acknowledging their needs strengthens and enlarges the story you hope to tell, linking it to other stories. Public narratives are intrinsically networked, so the more paths your story travels. the stronger it is.

strategic narrative strategy as a story graphic

Relate and review strategy as a story to find gaps, hidden assumptions, alternative routes

Working through strategy as a story can help you:

  • Find stakeholders in unexpected places who may serve as advocates for your cause
  • Develop alternative outcomes and options that may not be evident at first
  • Create a strong basis for overall strategy: Knowing the story will help guide how your organization communicates, with whom, and guide the steps to cultivating advocates.

Posted in: Decision making, Marketing & Branding, Public Relations, Strategic Communication, Strategy Tags: , , , , , , , ,

7 Necessary Narratives for the New Digital Age

In the future, nearly everyone will be connected to the Internet and to each other, claim Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt in The New Digital Age.

Mass connectivity will transform our relationships, our governments, our work, our bodies and the objects around us.  But even these dramatic transformations will not change the fact that we are corporeal creatures, and that we will still live lives grounded in phnew digital agephysical circumstances, whether those are urban or rural, rich or poor, lucky or unlucky.

We will also come into the world with a set of inherited stories about who we are, what our lives mean, and what the future looks like.   These stories will have the same universal threads they always have: we will still have stories of love, stories of family, stories that try reconcile life’s fundamental unfairness.  But they will also fail in important ways to explain the transformations of our lives, and the new ways in which we will do old things.

We need new stories

We need new stories.  Creating them is of necessity not only a collective task, but a transnational one. As we grow even more connected, we also grow more capable of exporting our ideas about who we are and what is important on others, wherever they are. Yesterday, two Nigeria-descended men hacked a third to death on a London street, and then stayed on the scene to tell how they saw themselves in a world at war: “We must fight them as they fight us.”   As we grow more connected, and more willing to share our selves with others, maybe pernicious forms of shame—that universal emotion—will be knocked out, and we’ll be more healthy.

It all depends on how we decide to tell our future. Here are seven of the areas where we will need new stories in the new digital age, as described by Schmidt and Cohen. Continue reading

Posted in: Books & Films, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Marketing & Branding, Popular Culture, Public Relations Tags: , , , , , , ,

Let’s Celebrate the 2nd Anniversary of “A National Strategic Narrative”

This has been a tough spring for national cohesion in the United States. Automatic federal spending cuts called sequestration kicked in after Congress failed to agree on how to manage the federal budget. The Senate voted down a bill that would expand background checks for gun purchasers, despite strong support around the country.  And bombings at the Boston Marathon committed by young men hovering between foreign identity and American citizenship confused any clear idea of American identity.

This makes it a good time to mark the two year anniversary of A National Strategic Narrative, published in April 2011 by aNational Strategic Narrativeuthors Captain Wayne Porter, USN and Col Mark Mykleby, USMC under the pseudonym Mr. Y.

The document grabbed the attention of politicians and pundits here in the United States, and foreign ministers in Europe and the Middle East. Perhaps most important, it garnered attention from everyday citizens for proposing a reinvigorated American identity and role in the world. Continue reading

Posted in: Books & Films, Decision making, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, National Security, Politics and Policy, Strategic Communication, Strategic Leadership Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Post-Boston: A More Effective Battle of Ideas (Part II)

Boston MarathonReprinted from The Globalist,  April 24, 2013

 Instead of getting sucked into heat-of-the-moment reactions to Boston, let’s base our responses on a more stable paradigm of contemporary global terrorism. To fight a battle of ideas successfully, one must first show what one is going up against. Amy Zalman makes the case that there are three distinct trends in terrorism — Hybrid, Multi-motivational and Narrative Terrorism.

This paradigm is evolving, but several trends are coming into view and are likely to deepen in the future:

  •    Hybrid terrorism:

In traditional categorization of terrorists, there are “lone wolves” who are unconnected to any organized group and those who are members of organizations.

Today, a hybrid type appears to be evolving: someone who works without full organizational support or direction, but who is not working in total isolation from others. Continue reading

Posted in: Crisis Management, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, News and Journalism, Political Analysis, Politics and Policy, Strategic Leadership, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Post-Boston: Keep Calm and Think Clearly (Part 1)

Boston Marathon

Reprinted from The Globalist, April 23, 2013

The Boston Marathon bombings provide an opportunity for the United States to consider how to combat extremist ideas more effectively than it did a decade ago. But this is not the time to let fear and uncertainty drive us into misguided and — as importantly — ineffective forms of countering violent extremism.

Warning: Prominent policy makers are already making demands to disinter the discredited concepts of the Global War on Terror. Options presented range from designating the bombers enemy combatants to calling for sweeping surveillance of majority Muslim communities.

The motivations that led Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev to set off lethal bombs at the Boston Marathon last week may not yet be clear. But the characteristics of that event already tell us a substantial amount about the direction of 21st century terrorism — and how we might combat it with increasing effectiveness. Continue reading

Posted in: Crisis Management, Decision making, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, National Security, Political Analysis, Politics and Policy, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Resilience Narratives Key to Resilient Systems

The 2013 World Economic Forum Conference that began today in Davos is dedicated this year to resilient dynamism. As Arianna Huffington noted earlier in the day, the key concept that gives rise to the need for resilience is our global interconnectedness. Quoting Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin, she cites five attributes that resilient systems characteristically share:

  •  Spare capacity
  • Flexibility — the ability to change, evolve, and adapt in the face of disaster.
  • Limited or “safe” failure, which prevents failures from rippling across systems.
  • Rapid rebound — the capacity to reestablish function and avoid long-term disruptions.
  • Constant learning, with robust feedback loops.

Huffington adds a sixth, “the will to want to be resilient.”

To that list, I feel we must add a seventh requirement for the present and future, Resilience Narratives: stories that will help disparate and potentially adversarial players see themselves as active participants in collaborative futures. Continue reading

Posted in: Conferences, Crisis Management, Decision making, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Politics and Policy, Strategic Communication, Strategic Leadership Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The Need for a New Story: Faizullah Jan Compares Narratives of the U.S. Drone War in Waziristan

The narratives told in Pakistan and by international organizations about the secret U.S. drone war in Waziristan are so confused that “the people who are caught in the crosshairs of the war have lost their voice and their story to tell.” In this guest blog, reprinted from Dawn.com, Jan explains the issues.

Reprinted from Dawn.com

January 5, 2013 by Faizullah Jan

THERE are competing narratives about the US’s drone war in the Waziristan area, a bastion of militants. These narratives have so far failed to gain traction in the public, inside Pakistan and elsewhere.

The Pakistani narrative goes like this: the drone attacks are a violation of our national sovereignty. They kill innocent people, including women and children, as collateral damage and hence incite suicide attacks across the country in a cycle of reprisal and retaliation, thus killing more Pakistanis, which again includes women and children.

In short, suicide attacks on public places like markets — and even mosques and shrines — are provoked by drone attacks. If there are no drone attacks, there will be no suicide attacks in cities and towns. Continue reading

Posted in: Guest posts, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, National Security, News and Journalism, Political Analysis Tags: , , , ,

Narrative for Survival: My Grandmother’s Story

Stories can save lives. In One Thousand and One Nights, Sheherezade uses her storytelling talents to end King Shahrayr’s plot to punish his unfaithful wife by punishing all of the women of his kingdom.  Having put to death the unfaithful Queen herself, the King embarks on a plan to marry a virgin of the Kingdom each night, and to have each killed at dawn.  That is, until he marries Sheherezade, who spends her wedding night narrating to the King a most exciting and suspenseful tale. So exciting that the King puts off her death to hear how the story continues. And so their story continues for a thousand and one nights, after which the King abandons his goal to punish women, and marries Sheherezade.

My grandmother may not have had a thousand stories, but she had at least one, and telling it to an American Consul in 1939 saved her life and that of her husband and baby, when it permitted her to leave warring Europe on one of the last ships to cross the Atlantic. I had the opportunity to tell it at a local TedX event earlier this year, and was delighted when TEDx organizers chose it as one of their favorites.  I’d love to hear about other stories that have saved lives, if you have one you’d like to share.

Posted in: Books & Films, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Narrative forms, Politics and Policy, Popular Culture, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Intertextuality for Strategic Communication

The Power of Reference, Allusion and Quotation in Communication

Two recent films, Skyfall and Anna Karenina, are made more intensely meaningful by their intentional intertextuality–their incorporation of previous iterations and interpretations of the story they are themselves telling.  Both offer insights into the ways communicators can benefit from the same kind of internal referentiality.

The Concept of Intertextuality

Literary and linguistic theorists began to work with the concept of intertextuality in the mid-1960s, when theorist Julia Kristeva coined the term.  Scholarly definitions have proliferated and grown increasingly technical in the intervening half century. For our purposes, the following definition works just fine: Intertextuality means that texts – novels, paintings, films, but also tax codes and thank you letters –gain meaning not through their reference to an external reality, but by their reference to pre-existing other texts. Intertextuality is not a choice, but rather an inevitable by- product of creating, because we are always creating into already existing histories, discourses and ways of interpreting. These existing frames have already partly shaped what we will produce and how it will be recieved. An author or an artist may intend to give us something original, but they can’t, fully.  We readers,  in turn, never have direct access to a work, but can only get at it by making our way through its prior iterations and interpretations.

James Bond and Anna Karenina are among the most iconic popular texts in modern Western culture. The James Bond series, which is the longest-running film series in history, has given us the rules by which we define spy thrillers. Anna Karenina is no longer only the Leo Tolstoy novel, but also the dozens of derivative films, ballets, operas and musicals that have been created since the late 19th century.

Both are completely enmeshed in our everyday language — we think things about ourselves through the mesh of their expressions:“Bond, James Bond,” and “Shaken, not stirred,”are shorthand invocations of suave masculinity. “All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” has become a catch-all syntax for describing the singularity of just about anything, including in statistics, where the “Anna Karenina principle” is applied to ecological and economic puzzles.

Semiotics professor Daniel Chandler explains the implications of intertextuality: Continue reading

Posted in: Books & Films, Intercultural Communication, Marketing & Branding, Narrative forms, Popular Culture, Public Relations, Strategic Communication Tags: , , , , , , ,

A Presidential Campaign, but No Presidential or National Narrative

A presidential campaign is an exercise in storytelling. Each candidate is always seeking to tell the most compelling story of the nation, one that both reflects who we think we are and projects into the future the kind of nation we’d like to be.   The very occasion of campaign, with its promise of renewal, should be a strong backdrop for the symbols, themes, images and practices that tie past and future of a nation together.

This year, both Romney and Obama have struggled to find their foothold in a narrative that works. As the near tie in popularity makes clear, neither has a mandate, and neither has told a story with a powerful sense of forward momentum. Continue reading

Posted in: Narrative forms, Political Analysis, Politics and Policy, Strategic Leadership Tags: , , , , , , ,