Aspirational Narrative: Communicating with maximum motivating power

“The mind...appears to have a special aptitude for the construction and interpretation of stories about active agents who have personalities, habits and abilities.” – Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Narrative helps you communicate with maximum motivating power, because our brains are wired to understand the world through stories. People have been using narrative to teach and lead since humans first had the capacity for language.

As children, we learn our language, values and how the world works through fables, parables and other types of stories. But stories aren’t just tales you tell your kids at bedtime: We use them all the time, in lots of different forms.

Think of business case studies as stories—that’s how Harvard Business School teaches its students. In fact, storytelling is a hot topic among leaders in business and philanthropy, because of a new appreciation for the power of narrative to instruct and inspire.

Storytelling and narrative are talked about in different ways. At Hattaway, we take a very systematic approach, using a simple but powerful framework that’s easily adapted for many purposes: the “narrative structure.”

From Homer to Shakespeare to Hollywood, the most basic narrative structure involves a protagonist trying to reach a meaningful goal, who has to overcome obstacles along the way. One variation on this basic structure adds a helper figure who aids the protagonist in overcoming obstacles. Think Yoda to Luke Skywalker, or the Fairy Godmother to Cinderella.

alt

As our narrative structure shows, the technique is to put your audience in the role of the protagonist. The goals are their aspirations in life. Then you define the problem they face in reaching those goals. The solution to the problem comes from your organization, program, policy proposal or whatever else you offer that helps people reach their goals. Finally, you need a call to action that mobilizes people to help the cause.

Psychological research shows that this structure packs maximum motivating power. It 1) puts your audience—and their hopes and values—front-and-center in the message; 2) positions the problem you’re tackling as an obstacle to people’s aspirations, which makes it personally relevant; and 3) shows how the solutions you offer help people achieve their goals. That’s why we call this approach “aspirational narrative.”

For years, leaders have been told to motivate people with the “power of positive thinking.” But studies show that people actually spend less energy trying to reach a goal if they picture only the rosy outcome. The best way to avoid that dynamic is to offer a vision of a desired future, explain the challenges that must be tackled to achieve the vision, and show how those challenges can be overcome.

We used this simple narrative structure to frame the national debate over the cause of the 2009 U.S. financial crisis:

People: Our protagonists were responsible, hardworking Americans who lost their homes and life savings. (Most Americans will relate to “hardworking” people, and sympathize with their loss.)

Goals: Their goal was to own a home and achieve the American Dream. (Most Americans share these goals, so the narrative is relevant to their own aspirations in life.)

Problem: Fast-talking mortgage brokers tricked people into high-priced mortgages they would have trouble paying off, and Wall Street speculators hid that risk from investors who bought portfolios of mortgages. (Putting people in the picture made it easier to understand the problem and put the focus on the actors whose behavior needed to be regulated.)

Solution: Stronger consumer protections and effective regulations will enable people to buy homes with confidence—and create a more stable financial system that can supply capital to grow the economy. (The message about the solution focuses on benefits to individuals and to society at large.)

The ideas in this narrative structure formed a one-minute message about the crisis, which was used by dozens of organizations that lobbied successfully for passage of financial reform legislation. You can apply this basic structure to any topic and harness the power of narrative to make your message meaningful and communicate with maximum motivating power.