category archive: Narrative Research

New Works on Strategic Narrative Advance Concept & Practice

As I wrote on this site a couple of years ago, there is no one definition of  “strategic narrative.”  International relations scholars, public relations practitioners, and professionals of all stripes working at intersections of leadership, strategy and communications use the concept. Yet as these different disciplines continue to develop ideas and scholarship around the topic, a general discipline of “strategic narrative” appears to be emerging.

All share the recognition that effectively mobilizing a story that explains unfolding events can influence the events themselves. The “strategic” part of strategic narrative lies in understanding how to develop, and enact, a story whose internal logic induces its various audiences to choose to behave in ways that will lead to a desirable outcome.

Three works published in the last decade epitomize that move, and I recommend them all. Together they help to clarify how to use “story” as an analytic device and an active instrument for making better decisions. All move beyond our understanding that storytelling is a way of thinking that comes naturally to us, and that our individual and collective stories perform cultural roles that regulate our social and political behavior.

Story as a Tool for Developing Strategy

Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman, Oxford University Press, 2013.

Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman

Freedman addresses the enduring fact that strategies frequently do not work as planned.  This endemic issue is not the fault of individual strategic failures, but a problem with the rationalist premises of modern strategy.  The Western Enlightenment left us with the idea that reason and knowledge could eliminate error from our plans, and provide us control over our own futures.  Yet even reason cannot eliminate the complexity of plans dependent on multiple actors, particular sequences and unexpected intrusions into the expected chains of events, and despite best efforts, we can never gain the perfect knowledge that perfect strategy would require.

Yet, Freedman argues, we need not throw out strategy altogether, but rather “recognize[] its limits.”

These limits include recognizing when strategy is actually required, and when it is not. For Freedman, only conditions of instability or conflict generate that need. Second, strategy should be “modest”: rather than establishing a complete desired end state, it can be productive to think of strategy simply as reaching for a next, better stage than the current one.   This is especially the case when conditions are dire, and simply managing crisis or preventing a collapse that is already in motion, are what’s needed.

Third, we should understand the difficulty introduced by the fact that strategy involves a lot of different parties, both friends and enemies. Freedman points out that although “strategy is often presented a seeing solely about opponents and rivals,” in real life it introduces tensions among friends and those whose cooperation is required.  Necessary negotiations and compromises impinge on strategy’s best efforts to be a rational document.

As an antidote to the idea of strategy as a perfect rational document that will lay out a clear, quantifiably verifiable path to the future, there is the idea of strategy as a story.  Indeed, as Freedman points out, many have observed that strategy is about language and communication, the ability to tell a story that persuades others to follow a course of action or that warns adversaries of what will happen if they fail to participate.  “Not only are stories instruments of strategy, they also give form to strategy.”

But stories are also problematic as strategic documents. One of the puzzles of the human personality is our virtual compulsion to storify our reality: we love stories. But stories simplify reality; grant too much power to human agency and too little to luck and randomness in the way that events unfold; they can be ambiguous and difficult to interpret.

These challenges are formidable. Yet Freedman proposes that a way to make stories more useful as a strategic tool is to consider them in terms of “scripts.”

“Scripts” is a term psychologists use to explain how we internalize the typical sequence of activities in various situations–whether it is taking money out of a bank at a teller’s window or undertaking known processes in our professional lives.  Scripts are useful shortcuts when situations are unchanging; however when a new situation presents itself, following a known script can be unhelpful or dangerous.  The problem is that it is very difficult for people to relinquish their known scripts.

Composing strategy thus becomes an act of “rescripting,” of consciously reflecting on existing scripts, rejecting them, and writing anew from the starting point of the challenge or conflict of the present.  The strategist  becomes a dramatist, developing a story, opening options before the characters and exploring their most plausible responses to these new circumstances.

Finally, for Freedman, strategy is  ”a story about power told in the future tense from the point of view of a leading character.”

Strategic Narrative as an Instrument of Power in International Relations

Strategic Narratives: Communication and the New World Order, Alister Miskimmon, Ben O’Loughlin and Laura Roselle, Routledge, 2013

For several years, the transatlantic team of scholars, Alister Miskimmon, Ben O’Loughlin and Laura Roselle have been sharpening their definition of strategic narrative as an identifiable artifact of the international push-and-pull between nation-states to shape the balance of power between them.  As they explain:

Strategic narratives are a means for political actors to construct a shared meaning of the past, present, and future of international politics to shape the behavior of domestic and international actors … a tool for political actors to extend their influence, manage expectations and change the discursive environm

ent in which they operate. They are narratives about both states and the system itself, both about who we are and the kind of order we want.

The authors seek to help us understand how the 21st century technological conditions alter traditional questions about how political actors achieve power.  They offer the unique proposition that strategic narratives are a conventional instrument of power.  A good strategic narrative gets others to do what they would not otherwise: if it is persuasive, “allies will commit resources, publics will re-elect your party to continue your foreign policy, and enemies will realize their prospects are bleak unless they change course.”

More forcefully still, strategic narratives, through repetition and strong appeal, can shape how political actors, like states, experience themselves: “If one convinced another state to commit to specific policies and actions on a consistent basis, then that other state may come to take on the identity of a state that carries out such policies naturally, as an expression of their values.”  The everyday equivalent of this maxim is the directive to act “as if” a particular trait were true until it actually begins to feel true.

Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order

Miskimmon, O’Loughlin and Roselle’s work promises to have great explanatory power. It can help make sense of current events such as Russian efforts to shape international perceptions of Putin’s actions in Ukraine and the meaning of American soldier Bowe Bergdahl’s release from Taliban captivity in exchange for Guantanamo detainees.  The Taliban video record of that release arguably helped establish a narrative of Taliban as powerful political actors, able to commit to legitimate negotiations with great powers.

In Freedman’s terminology of strategic scripts, we might describe strategic narrative in international relations as the work of states and actors who seek legitimacy on a world stage, such as the Taliban, seeking to establish and reinforce scripts for the rest of us about how we (and our governing institutions) should understand them, and how to behave in ways that serve their strategic agendas.

Public Relations as Strategic Narrative

Today’s Public Relations: An Introduction, Robert L. Heath and Timothy Coombs, Sage Publications, 2006

Today's Public Relations: An Introduction

In Today’s Public Relations: An Introduction, authors Robert L. Heath and Timothy Coombs argue that “publicity and promotion” can be conceived of as “strategic narratives.” In truth, the book is more new to me than it is new to the market, and ‘strategic narrative’ is a well-worn phrase in PR circles. But Heath’ and Coombs’ textbook is one of the only explanations I’ve found in print to explicitly map publicity and promotion to strategic narrative, and strategic narrative to PR as the co-creation of meaning between organizations and their stakeholders.

As they explain:

Publicity consists of the strategic processes of creating and responding to a story.  Promotion requires that a series of strategic tactical functions be performed over time to keep the story alive. To create and sustain the story, practitioners give some information in various stages in the evolution of the story. Practitioners may formulate afferent story lines or plots, all of which merge into one story.

Coupled with the deep insights of Freedman, and Miskimmon and his colleagues, this concrete practical advice may help us grasp how a strategic actor  constructs stories for their “markets, audiences and publics” or MAPs.

Although Heath and Coombs offer their advice to new writers of press releases engaging the media for publicity purposes, their advice is sound for strategic leaders and international actors as well:

Connect each new story with previous ones. You are wise to think of the activities of your organization  as constituting a narrative. Each newsworthy event or activity is merely an episode in the ongoing narrative of your organization.

Posted in: Crisis Management, Decision making, International Politics, Narrative Research, Story-to-Strategy, Strategic Communication, Strategic Leadership, Strategy Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Narrative Believability Trumps Probability in Decision Making

We may be better at telling the story behind a bet than the probable roll of the dice

We are not statisticians by nature, but storytellers.  Why don’t we make better use of that insight in our effort to predict and understand complex problems?

British economist John Kay presented the following problem in a recent Financial Times column When Storytelling Leads to Unhappy Endings:

Linda is single, outspoken and deeply engaged with social issues. Which of the following is more likely? That Linda is a bank manager or that Linda is a bank manager who is an active feminist?

If you chose the second answer you are in good company. Most of us do. Sadly, we’re wrong. Kay explains:

Many people say that the second option is more likely. Yet, the standard response goes, this cannot be. The rules of probability tell us the probability that both A and B are true cannot exceed the probability that either A or B is true. It is less likely that someone is a female Jamaican Olympic gold medalist than that a person is female, or that a person is Jamaican, or that a person is a gold medalist. Yet even people trained in probability make a mistake with the Linda problem.  Or is it a mistake? Little introspection is required to understand what is going on. Respondents do not interpret the question as one about probability. They think it is a question about believability.

Believability, as Kay explains further, is narrative’s emblem.  In the face of the messy, multi-faceted and open-ended situations that confront us, we humans tend to produce “simplifying narratives” that help make sense of events in a way we find believable, based on our personal, cultural and historical predispositions. Continue reading

Posted in: Crisis Management, Decision making, Narrative and Cognition, Narrative Research Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

“Stand your Ground” Laws Validate Stories of Lethal Force, Silence Others

Yale Law School professor Adam Cohen, advocating the repeal of the Stand Your Ground law that permitted George Zimmerman to claim he killed Trayvon Martin in self defense, wrote in Time Magazine last week that:

If Zimmerman does go to trial, there will no doubt be enormous debates over his guilt or innocence. It is difficult to sort out motives and right and wrong in cases of this sort — especially when one of the critical witnesses, young Mr. Martin, cannot testify about what happened.

There is a direct link between Stand Your Ground laws, which permit those with access to deadly force to use it if they feel threatened, and Martin’s inability to tell his story.

Spirit of JusticeSpirit of Justice, cropped from photograph: Two sculptures "Spirit of Justice," and "Majesty of Justice," Great Hall, 2nd floor, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.

It is a truism when talking about narrative and public life to assert that some stories are sanctioned, and others silenced. Sometimes it is difficult to identify the mechanism through which such sanction takes place, because it lies in community tradition or social discourse.  Stand Your Ground laws press into relief how law can shape which accounts will be viewed as legitimate before they are evaluated by judges and juries. Under the Stand your Ground premise, might makes right. Your ability to lethally harm someone is converted into the credible motivation for doing so, while the victim of a killing is doubly silenced, in court and in life.

When I consider the reported details of the case in the press–the accounts of Zimmerman and his father, the 911 call transcripts,  the reports of the neighbors and Martin’s girlfriend, who overheard the encounter by cell phone,  I hear a story of two young men who each experienced sensations of threat and fear in the presence of the other.  Continue reading

Posted in: Legal Issues, Narrative forms, Narrative Research, News and Journalism, Politics and Policy Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Definition of Strategic Narrative: an Evolving Concept in International Affairs

In an earlier post, I outlined ways in which the term strategic narrative is used in current practice,  in public relations—as an element of marketing—and in the academic field of international relations.  This post returns to the evolution of the term as an applied concept in foreign affairs.

According to International Relations professor Alister Miskimmon (who I asked by email), the first published use of the term “strategic narrative”  was by Lawrence Freedman, a professor of War Studies at King’s College, London.  In 2006, Freedman wrote a paper called The Transformation of Strategic Affairs.   Many of the insights in Freedman’s work stem from the Western experience of war in the post-9/11 years, and the discovery—the hard way, through experience—that the era of large scale land warfare may be decisively over. In its place, the future promises smaller wars, waged by insurgents as well as governments, in which human factors such as behavior, culture and communication play meaningful roles.

In this context, Freedman identifies “strategic narratives” as a kind of secret weapon of networked combatants fighting irregular wars.  In Freedman’s view, a story that connects people emotionally to an identity and a mission “helps dispersed groups to cohere and guides its strategy.  Individuals know the sort of action expected of them and the message to be conveyed.”

Thus, in Freedman’s definition, narrative is a function of strategy in the most traditional sense related to the science of war.  In that vein, he argues that: Continue reading

Posted in: International Politics, Middle East, Narrative Research, National Security, Politics and Policy, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Behavioral Economics Go to War

Review of Behavioural Conflict, Why Understanding People and their Motivations Will Prove Decisive in Future Conflict, by Andrew Mackey and Steve Tatham

I cannot think of any books about warfare’s future that come across as hard-hitting, full of actionable pragmatism, and deeply humane all at the same time.  But Behavioral Conflict: Why Understanding People and their Motivations will Prove Decisive in Future Conflict is all three.  The authors, both career members of the British military, Major General Andres Mackey (Ret) and Royal Navy Commander Steve Tatham (who I count as a friend, having met him in Ankara a few years ago), make their case by drawing on a combination of their own experience, case studies and close analysis of how communication actually factors in war.

Hard-hitting and pragmatic:  Mackey and Tatham are precise and lucid about what they mean by “behavior” and how to make use of it to gain advantage in conflict. They, and behavioral psychologist Lee Rowland, who adds a chapter on the science of influence, are not putting forth any of the following: A call for greater “cultural awareness,” a mushy program about how to change others’ attitudes, or a repeat of the last decade’s focus on consumer marketing as the key to public diplomacy.   They offer instead this thesis based on a simple chain of claims:

  • The world of human motivation and perception is inevitably complex.
  • It is more important to try to shape behavior than it is to change people’s attitudes.
  • Behavior shaping begins with a discrete grasp of the circumstances under which people already behave in ways that are desirable, and extends to efforts to replicate those or similar circumstances. Continue reading

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

The Form of National Myths

Storytelling pole of the Haida nation

I was reminded of the tremendous elasticity of narrative forms when I recently visited the Denver Art Museum’s amazing American Indian art collection for the first time, by the  Haida storytelling pole near the entrance of the collection. The Haida is a native tribe of the Northwest coast of the United States and Canada and, like other tribes of the coast, are known for the immense carved poles through which tribal myths are told.

The story told in this pole is about a man who was almost captured by otters when his canoe capsized.  The figures at the very top of the pole are watchmen.  Next lowest is the man who escaped the otters, holding an otter by the tail. The figure in the middle represents the cave where the otters live and at the very bottom is a cave spirit, who holds a stingray.

My own inclination was to try to “read” the pole in a linear direction, from top to bottom, to find in it the action part of the story, in which the man escapes the otters. But the real story may lie less in the pole itself than in the interaction between community members and the symbolic item, Continue reading

Posted in: Narrative Research, Popular Culture Tags: , , ,

Announcement: U.S. State Department Strategic Narratives Public Meeting

At the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, CA, November 29

From the State Department Announcement:

The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy will hold a public meeting on the topic of strategic narratives November 29, 2011, in Santa Monica, CA, in partnership with the RAND Corporation. The meeting will take place at the RAND offices at 1776 Main Street in Santa Monica, CA, in the Forum Auditorium. It will begin at 9:00 am and end at 3:00 p.m. with doors open for registration and continental breakfast at 8:30 a.m. The event will be webcast live and will emphasize open-forum question and response periods with the audience.

To attend, contact the RAND Corporation no later than November 21 by phone at (412)683-2300 ext 4906 or email to and provide your full name, citizenship (U.S. citizenship is not required to attend), and institutional/organizational affiliation. Continue reading

Posted in: Conferences, Narrative Research, National Security, Politics and Policy, Public Diplomacy, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Overconfident Narratives Skew Decision Making

In his new book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Princeton professor and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman describes how, as a psychologist serving in the Israeli army, he selected candidates for officer training based on their success in a series of leadership tests.  Despite his own and his colleagues confidence in their choices, “the evidence was overwhelming”: they were no good at predicting success at all.  Kahneman explains:

You may be surprised by our failure: it is natural to expect the same leadership ability to manifest itself in various situations. But the exaggerated expectation of consistency is a common error. We are prone to think that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is, because our memory automatically and continuously maintains a story about what is going on, and because the rules of memory tend to make that story as coherent as possible and to suppress alternatives. Fast thinking is not prone to doubt. Continue reading

Posted in: Crisis Management, Decision making, Narrative and Cognition, Narrative Research, Strategic Leadership, Uncategorized Tags: , , , , , ,

Afghanistan Narrative, Still Wrong, but Reparable

Earlier this month, Benjamin Hopkins and Magnus Marsden, authors of the forthcoming Fragments of the Afghan Frontier, argued strenuously in a New York Times Op Ed that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is as culturally inept as it was when we went to war a decade ago. The American obsession with viewing Afghanistan though the lens of tribal tradition is borrowed from 19th century Brits, whose understanding tribal mores was in large part composed of fanciful inventions of their own. Above all:

Afghanistan is not a country of primitive tribes cut off from the modern world. The singular focus on tribes, the Taliban, and ethnicity as the keys to understanding and resolving the conflict misses the nuances of the region’s past and present. Rather than fanatical tribesmen or poor victims in need of aid, many of these people are active and capable participants in a globalized economy.

The U.S. military addresses cultural issues, even in how to dress**

Why does this profound institutional failure persist? I read it and hear versions of the premise that Afghans don’t live in the same globalized world as Americans all the time in defense contexts. The fact that it does persist  should give us deep pause about how resources have been expended to create a more ‘culturally aware’ national security community. Continue reading

Posted in: Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Middle East, Narrative and Cognition, Narrative Research, National Security, Political Analysis, Politics and Policy, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Narrative in Complex Decision Making: an Interview with Mary Crannell

Mary Crannell is one of those people whose broad intelligence and enthusiasm are hard to contain, as I learned when we met recently through a shared acquaintance.  As the president of Idea Sciences, a decision-making support consultancy based in Alexandria, VA, Mary spends much of her  time thinking about what technologies and processes will help her customers—such as the IMF, NATO, QinetiQ, the US Army, the UK Army, Verizon and Herman Miller, to name a few—arrive at good decisions.  She is a frequent traveler to sites of conflict, as in a recent visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, where decision-making is an urgent, complex and ongoing task.

I was gratified when Mary agreed to share some of her thoughts on the role of narrative in decision-making generally, and in directing the American role in the world in productive directions, which is a concern many of her clients share.

Mary Crannell, President, Idea Sciences

AZ: How do you use narrative frameworks to help people make decisions?

MC: It is important to give people a way to define the vision of what they are trying to accomplish whether they are leading a state, a nation or an international organization. Is the system you are leading “on purpose?”  We start with a vision.  Continue reading

Posted in: Decision making, Information Systems, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Middle East, Narrative Research, National Security, Public Diplomacy, Strategic Leadership, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,