Narrative Initiative

Explanation and the “How” of a Narrative

We recently spoke with Julie Sweetland, Senior Advisor at FrameWorks Institute, about Unleashing the Power of How: An Explanation Declaration. Released in March as part of FrameWorks Institute’s 20th anniversary, the Explanation Declaration asks communicators to help people understand the “how” behind issues and see that how as a critical part of engaging and empowering people to take action.

Long odds and big obstacles are two ways to describe the challenges facing advocacy communicators.

People at the end of our communications are paddling their way through crowded pools of Facebook ads, YouTube celebrities and robocalls. Emails, texts, TV and radio are pumping opinions, facts and perspectives into our feeds, phones and news alerts. Making sense of this information stew requires time and trust that people often don’t have.

What if we leveled with people and explained what’s going on? What if communications, storytelling and narrative went deeper and presented the causes of social problems and the complexity behind our policy advocacy?

The Explanation Declaration explores communications strategies that go beyond attention and persuasion. Explanation, says Julie Sweetland of the FrameWorks Institute, can provide people with confidence and mastery when talking about a topic. Explanation is about granting people agency, not just details.

This may be critical in crowded communications environments oriented at spreading doubt, powerlessness and a sense of confusion.

By specifying what leads to what, and to what end — the process that connects causes to outcomes — communicators help the public understand the root causes of problems, recognize broader impacts, and see why certain solutions lead to meaningful change.

– Unleashing the Power of How: An Explanation Declaration
FrameWorks Institute

More information ≠ more power

The Explanation Declaration explores the idea that we share too few stories about how the world works. There’s little in the flood of information that empowers people to address complexity or solve problems. Confusion creates powerlessness. It’s not a good recipe for advancing positive narratives at a time when we need them.

The FrameWorks Institute team sees explanation as filling a gap in advocacy communications. “When we started,” says Sweetland while reflecting on the early work of FrameWorks Institute, “people were very focused on telling their own story about themselves and their work.”

A broader understanding of storytelling and what can be included in a story about policy has been established in the past decade. The role of narrative has also grown in advocacy communications.

“But this work still faces challenges,” Sweetland told us. We gloss over the roots of the shared narratives making up our stories. Stories can help people “make sense” of an issue but often fail to expose systems at work or dig into causation. In advocacy, stories can activate and engage. But, on its own, a story may not sustain advocacy and change over time.

“Explanation need not be lengthy or complicated,” Sweetland says. “You can explain the basics of climate change in 60 seconds.”

Advocacy communications is often compared to marketing or public relations. In fact, we ground a lot of our communications work these days in being fast, memorable and persuasive. We’re told not to go long, deep, or get intellectual.

This misses the power explanation gives people. “The point of explanation isn’t to show off knowledge,” says Sweetland. When you, the reader, listener or Facebook video viewer get invited into the roots of an issue you’re being entrusted with knowledge. You become part of the solution instead of being sold an idea. There’s a place for agitating people, Sweetland notes, but “agitate and educate” is more powerful in the long run.

Organizing for explanation

Conversations about narrative, populism and organizing often intersect around the idea “us versus them.” Populism relies on creating an “other” or outsider group of people. Organizing uses an us versus them to give people a team to organize around and an opponent to work against.

How does explanation work in the fast-moving and polarizing construct of populism? Think of explanation as a way of organizing around (or against) a system. “Them” doesn’t need to be a person or group of people. It can be a policy or judicial decision. Or an entire system.

The Explanation Declaration, says Sweetland, provides a framework progressives can use to better communicate – and engage people in – systemic policy change. FrameWorks Institute points to its work on a range of policies aimed at supporting more economically diverse neighborhoods. Whole neighborhoods are subject to disinvestment and segregation by design.

Sub-prime loans is one issue that the Explanation Declaration uses to illustrate how examples show a process or system that is unfairly built. With explanation, people can see that this “us vs. an unfair process” and not “them fighting one bad bank” or, worse, them fighting their bad choices.

Explanation invites people into a conversation about fairness, shared values and norms. Disinvestment, says Sweetland, is an example of an advocacy campaign that uses explanation as a path towards a deeper narrative of injustice.

Explanation and the future of propaganda

We also spoke to Sweetland about the role of explanation in the world of misinformation. Many leaders dismiss journalism (and research, science and, yes, advocacy) as fake, biased, or even harmful to the country. Is there room–and time–for explanation in this environment? Can explanation fit into narrative strategies addressing or operating amidst populism?

“Explain how propaganda works and do it continually,” says Sweetland. The use of explanation isn’t simply about facts or proving to people that the opponent is wrong. Invite people into a conversation about propaganda by explaining, again and again, how misinformation happens, how it’s used, how to find it, interpret it and make sense of it.

Successful narrative change is a collaborative process. One needs partners to research and create narratives. Collaborators also help drive narratives forward in multiple channels. Explanation helps communicate about mechanisms and systems. It broadens a narrative. For narrative practitioners, this could aid collaborative and coalition efforts.

Download the Explanation Declaration and look for more from FrameWorks Institute on the value and use of explanation in coming weeks.

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