How do we frame our message to go beyond the choir?

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How do we frame our message to go beyond the choir?

How many change makers feel like your message is only reaching the people who already agree with you and understand your issue? This is a common predicament for activists, organizers, and story-tellers. This discussion is about the difference between mobilizing our base and framing the problem for a broader audience.

  • What tactics have you used to reach a broader audience beyond your base?
  • What is the difference between messages that mobilize your base and those that reach new audiences?
  • What tools and resources have you used to help you frame your message for a broader audience?

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

-- Danielle Coates-Connor


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Generating context sensitive stories

I think the best way to do this is to find localized stories which may conform to your idea, and adapt your idea using the localized context. This process can however be very time consuming, for it would require an indepth socio-cultural understanding of a context, and a sensitivity towards their existing sentiments.

I remember i had to at one point generate a communication aimed at the Male Street Child (within Pakistani context), which would communicate the dangers of bartering sex for protection/food/shelter with an older man on the street. The media was to be delivered by health care providers how ever, within the physical space of street/temporary child shelters. And understanding the huge number of taboos concerning sexuality, children, and the communication of such by an older person who is not related to the child by blood, we had to use an alternative strategy. It was at this point i wrote/illustrated a storybook, using inspiration from real life situations and replacing them with seemingly benign identities .eg. street child with rabbit, street with jungle, older man with wolf and so on and so forth. Though i cannot say that it was an extremely successful venture, but it did however enable the health care providers to communicate the message to the children, without breaking any social taboos.

They health care providers knew that information already, we knew that information already, but the obstacle was telling it to the children...and framing it within a culturally sensitive framework. Storytelling did help us alot at that point in time. But it did require alot of work and research, especially how the children may react and interpret different aspects of the story itself, for instance initially there was a lion instead of a wolf, but we latter found that a lion was too much of a positive creature within this particular socio-economic context, and hence it would communicate that the Older Man is a hero/saviour/good guy! And it was then that we changed it to wolf.


Very interesting project, Ahsan; thanks for describing it and the amount of thought it required.

Re-writing traditional stories to include your narrative

Thanks, Ahsan! We have documented a somewhat similar example from Egypt that also pays attention to the context-sensitive nature of the stories:

Fairytales and stories are an essential element of popular culture and communicate social beliefs about gender roles. The Women’s Stories project of the Women and Memory Forum was started to give women an opportunity to challenge traditional texts, redefine their role in society, and develop writing skills by rewriting stories from their own perspective.

The Women's Stories project brought together women for creative-writing workshops (first in Egypt and then expanding to Palestine and the Sudan). During each gathering, the women analyzed an Arab folk story, such as one of the stories from 1001 Nights, and discussed its gender elements. Following the discussion, each participant would separately write an alternative version of the story. Then they would all re-convene to read to one another the resultant new, gender-sensitive and feminist stories.

By finding ways to publicize the women’s stories beyond the space of the workshop, WMF brought the issue of gender roles and gender representation to the attention of a greater public audience including very positive reactions from youth, young men and women, as well as media. Learn more...

What other examples are out there of using story books to share a new narrative, or literally re-writing traditional stories?

-- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Resonances and contradictions

Fascinating account, Ahsan. I love learning of how traditional stories or traditional story tactics (casting the characters as animals) is used. I'm particularly intrigued by your need to switch from lion to wolf. And, for sure, we have to respect the way that a particular group or culture codes animals as one thing or another. The lion/wolf choice is interesting to me in that it has some interesting historical resonances to it. Some of the most ancient images of lions in sculpture and relief (going back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia) is of lionesses. And we know now that lion social organization normally has a male supported by a pride of hunting females. That the male lion should hold such positive resonance in some cultures and in our modern world, doesn't necessarily reflect some kind of natural superiority of male lions compared to female. And, of course, this has everything to do with a patriarchal world that includes such acts as proudly calling sons "young lions." The popular or common sense coding of male lions as a positive symbol of virility, power, leadership hides other narratives that are important to be aware of as we appropriate or resist such uses. The wolf as a negatively coded predator also has a long and storied history - especially given for how long humans have had domesticated canines (over 6000 years, by some estimates). My wife is from an aboriginal nation on Canada's west coast (Ahousaht of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation) and her family is "wolf clan" which links me through marriage and her children (of whom two are my step-children and one my child) are also wolf clan. This makes me a tad sensitive to negative cultural codings of wolves (of which there are an abundance, of course). When we unpack these codes, we find often significantly disappeared stories that are not entirely beyond recuperation. Not that i am criticizing your choice. I would probably do the same in the case you describe. Again, thanks for sharing it.

for the greater good perhaps :)

Oh i completely understand where you are coming from! I love wolves! but yes, i think i had to make the switch for the greater good :)

But its interesting what you mention here, for this is a dilema which had faced me in the past. And that is simply the amount of information that one may require, or that how does one truly go about cultural sensitivity? Which can be all the more complicated when one is talking about a problem which may not only be geographically disconnected from one but also culturally and politically, which we see alot in our brave new globalized world now. Makes me rethink of the importance of anthropologists, cultural analysts, media specialists and at some level artists (purely for selfish reasons ofcourse) within the world of human rights. It is sooooo NOT simply a matter of knowing what one wants, knowing how to get it is the tricky part now!

Draw Analytical Connections


One of the commonest criticisms of the narrative methodology (especially in law) is its lack of normative or analytical force. That is, even as narratives have some descriptive contribution to make, they do not necessarily help us in 'cracking the legal problem'. 

It is then important to demonstrate the power of narrative methodology to be able to make distinct analytical contributions to the field in which it is being told. To give an example here, narrative methodology came to be pursued widely by Black feminists in the United States to explain their intersectional identities of being both Black and female. Their central strategy was to tell about the lives of Black women, because the qualitative difference in their position (as compared to Black men and white women) was hitherto ignored. This strategy has been pursued by intersectionalists since - example by Dalit women in India or lesbian women. 

It will be useful to think about ways to draw these analytical connections for explaining the usefulness of narratives in human rights. This will help not only in understanding violations (descriptive benefit) but also the normative content of rights as such. 


Battle of the Story

Thanks AhsanMascood. Sounds like you found the right character to reach your audience. Understanding audience is a cornerstone of winning the battle of the story.

CSS describes the battle of the story as:

  1. the political contest of defining meaning and framing a situation (or issue) for a popular audience
  2. a social change narrative with the goal of persuading people who aren’t necessarily already in agreement with the social change effort. 

Since the human brain uses stories to understand the world, all power relations have a narrative dimension. The act of assessing the interactions between narrative and relationships of power is what CSS calls narrative power analysis.

The key ingredients we use to conduct this analysis are basic elements of story, for our story, and for the opposition's story.

  • What is the conflict?
  • Who are the characters?
  • What images show (don't tell)?
  • What do we (or our opponents) foreshadow?
  • What are the underlying assumptions, or things you need to believe in order to believe this story is true?

Here is a worksheet we use to begin this exercise.

Do others have examples of needing to change the story and getting beyond the choir?

I've found the framework that CSS uses very useful

I've found the framework that CSS uses with their Battle of the Story exercise to be useful in re-framing stories and specifically by getting a chance to think about how the story is perceived from outside our own vantage point. Especially with the question: "what does someone already have to believe to accept this story as true?" Unless we answer that question well, our messages are crafted to the choir.

For example, in my work using story-based strategy around advocacy for people with previous felony convictions, when we break down the dominant narrative into its parts, we see that for many people the story has an explicit "good guys versus bad guys" narrative in which our leaders were the "bad guys" and just "belonged" in prison.

For us, it was important to re-start the story with main characters who are connected to family and community, and not start with their felony "rap sheet" (as many of them were prepared to do since many of the leaders we worked with had taken responsibility for their previous crimes and didn't attempt to conceal their crimes).

We had to look at reframing these stories from the very first words, and making sure that we didn't assume someone was already sympathetic to the person telling the story (since, after all, we were sympathetic and prepared not to judge them because they had previous felony convictions).

Many of the leaders, when asked to review their stories and consider that they were talking to people who were open to new thinking, but were not already sympathetic, had a-ha moments and then changed how they told their story about their incarceration.

Human universals

At Waging Nonviolence, we see our goal as in part trying to broaden the recognition of the great drama and adventure in organizing for nonviolent struggle. This isn't always easy. Organizers tend to know it, but others don't. And there are tremendous barriers of jargon and political education preventing non-organizers from getting it.

I think we've been most successful when we try to connect these stories to universal elements of human experience. For example, we're currently working on a book about activism and motherhood, and we're hoping that through the common experience of motherhood, the stories will reach people who had never before thought of themselves as potential activists and make activism seem less foreign.

RE: human universals

Hey Nathan, 

That sounds like a really cool project! Could you say more about some of the assumptions you've uncovered about what it means to be or not be an "activist"? What do you think are the key ingredients to reframing the activist story to include more mothers? Is there a conflict at play? Who are the characters in this story, besides the mothers? Who is the opposition? This seems like a very rich example!


who is an activist?

When I say "activist" here, I think what I mean is a person who feels empowered to take part in political action in a participatory way, who sees her/himself as a potential or actual protagonist in the fundamental conflicts of society, rather than an onlooker, commentator, or victim. A character in the story, that is to say.

Our approach is simply to tell the stories of the news in a way that makes activists and organizers the stars of the story they deserve to be. Rather than focusing on those who hold particular offices at the top, we see change growing out through the work of people from below, and we focus on those. I think that simply by telling those stories, and doing so in a relatable way, so that readers can imagine themselves as interchangable with the people we tell stories about. People do this naturally when they hear stories, whether of political dramas or action heroes or romantic comedies. The trouble is that too often we simply fail to tell the stories of the grassroots activists who are, in many respects, the true protagonists of history.

Preaching beyond the choir

In our communications work one of the most important questions we ask is "Who are you talking to?"
When we design a graphic or a website first and foremost, we need to know who are we trying to move to action. This sets the tone of the design, the first impression that people will get, the book cover to be judged.

A graphic for the choir is easy: raised fists, crowds of people in protest, a militant slogan "Resist imperialism!"

And if we are moving away from our communities, to change hearts and minds, to persuade them to come to our side... A poster cannot stop the war or end genocide or corporate globalization. Organizing and movement building works. But it can resonate in a different and deeper way than words. A well designed visual story can catch attention amongst policy makers or journalists rising above the generic press releases and word documents. A photo can pull at someone in an indescribable way that draws them in. It transcends language barriers. Using design as a metaphor can tell the story in a different way to pull the audience into the story and make them take notice and motivate them for action. For example, this report on refugees in Benin, displaced by Shell Oil.

Share examples of campaigns that connected design to audience

Thank you, Nadia, for highlighting the power of design in reaching beyond the choir. The Shell Oil visual is very powerful and I'm curious to know who the specific audience is for that design? It would be great to learn of some examples of campaigns that have succeeded in connecting design to the mobilizing their audience. Thanks!

-- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

Nigerian refugee from Shell Oil report

The report was about the Nigerian refugees in Benin, who had to flee Nigeria for protesting Shell OIl operations. There were about 900 people located in UN refugee camps in Benin. The report was distributed to the government of Benin, as well as media and the UN, to put pressure on the govenerment to relocate the Nigerians in Benin, instead of letting them languish. The distribution and tactic was successful in getting enough attention to freak out the Benin government and all the people were relocated safely.

I wish you could hold that report in your hand - the metaphor was the passport for safely crossing borders. It was actually the size and had the same feel of a passport!

beyond the choir

I'm making a couple of observations based on the work I do with Big hART (and arts and social change org in Australia) and in the research I've been doing this year around "impact space" re social change film outreach and impact. (some of those reflections at my blog)

The first thought is the value in using different platforms and forums and venues and spaces that the choir traditoinally use - ie maybe not a bohemian / grungey warehouse for a benefit gig, maybe a more upmartket venue, or pubilshing content in non-activist media etc. Big hART do a lot of work to get our theatre shows in to high end arts and cultural festivals - with a deliberate choice to use the status of these events to target elite audiences with stories and participants from the margins. Obviously there are a whole lot of issues that come up about status, class and access, but I think that it is useful to think about the spaces that the audiences you want to reach use and try and get your content to those spaces rather than expect them to come to your ususual avenues of screening, distribution etc.

The second aspect is that the choir itself is critically for getting beyond this first group of people. We're interconnected and the choir has family, friends, colleagues and networks beyond this circle of people - invite your already on side constituents to become your champions to get your content out to broader audiences. Films like Bully and Invisible War and Gasland have done this really well.

And lastly I agree with designaction - don't make content for the choir - you've got them, they are onside already, think about the other audiences you want to reach when putting together your narratives.

a couple points for the sake

a couple points for the sake of sparking more discussion - 

*sometimes we assume the choir is already singing the same tune, when actually choir members are singing different parts of songs at different times.  it takes regular practice to keep a choir singing in harmony - with many groups I work with their base and allies are always an important primary audience to engage through strategic communications, to continue the ground-up work of expanding the "choir" especially across regions, building alignment and common understanding around goals, solutions and collective action

*that said if all we did was practice with the choir we'd never get to the real point - showtime!  in terms of reaching new audiences I really appreciate Ahsan's story about the intensive research and cultural understanding it took to engage and truly communicate with - not at - the young people he spoke of.  I think deeply knowing your audiences is key.  The other thing is being willing to go beyond comfort zones - not selling out on values, identifying shared values - but then going beyond comfortable outlets and venues as was mentioned above - instead of the grungy warehouse maybe you need to go to an upscale venue to reach your target audience.  

an example from the immigration reform campaign I'm currently working on with We Belong Together - dial-up research done by the campaign has shown that white non-college educated women over the age of 60 who live in the south are a group of people who can be persuaded to support immigration reform based on values of equality, strong families and communities, and fairness towards women who have the courage to move their families for better opportunity.  These are shared values we don't mind appealing to at all.  

To engage with them we asked where do these women get their information from?  Research gave us our answers to this question, and now undocumented women leaders are telling their stories of family separation, workplace exploitation and the need for immigration reform now to otherwise unlikely outlets like "Garden and Gun".

great points

Hi Jen

I love your metaphors for the choir and carrying a harmony - you are truly a musician!

I totally agree about moving beyond your comfort zones, and also being open to the diversity of experiences (the instruments), understanding and sharing each other's experiences and realizing there can be separate movements within the entire symphony. Overall, there is a comprehensive and united piece that serves to tell a larger story and create a bigger impact.