Social Change Campaign Strategy: The Importance of Storytelling

In virtually every corner of the globe, regular people are attempting to change the world for the better. Ready to roll up their sleeves, these activists and leaders are the would-be drivers of some of the most important social change campaigns. But changing the world isn’t easy, and running a successful campaign requires so much more than will—it requires organization and strategy.

Re:Imagining Change (PM Press, 2017), a guidebook by Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning (both experts in social-change-movement strategy), provides the toolkit these future leaders need in order to make waves through organizing and storytelling. The following excerpt about the importance of storytelling is from the book’s first chapter, “Why Story.”

The Narrative Animal

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.
—Zora Neale Hurston

Story has been central to the human experience for as long as we have been human. Evolutionary biologists increasingly believe that our capacity for narrative is what helped to make us human. As Lisa Cron writes in Wired for Story, “Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.” There is growing consensus in the scientific community that the neurological roots of both storytelling and our enjoyment of stories is tied to our social cognition and the way individuals connect to form groups. It is this expanded capacity for narrative that makes humans truly unique in the animal kingdom.

Humans are hardwired for narrative. Brain researchers have discovered that hearing a powerful story about an experience will stimulate the same neurological region as having the actual experience. A 2006 study found that when participants read words with strong smell associations like “coffee” and “perfume” their olfactory cortexes light up as if they were experiencing the real scents. When a story carries us into another world (what narrative theorists call “transportation”) that experience is literally real at the level of our brain chemistry.

Narrative is so deeply embedded that often we see it even when it’s not actually there. In one foundational 1944 experiment, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel showed subjects an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square, and asked what was happening. Overwhelmingly, the subjects did not describe the literal events of shapes moving around on the screen, but instead their responses revealed how they mapped a narrative onto the shapes in order to tell a story about what they observed. People would describe the film as the social interactions of three human-like characters who possess personalities, emotions, and intentions. The big circle was a “bully” who was “chasing” the triangles, the square was a “house,” the events were a “fight.” Numerous subsequent studies have reiterated how humans, as social creatures, project stories and narrative qualities onto almost everything we perceive.

Humans are the narrative animal constructing our social reality through our ability to create, interpret, and contest the stories around us. We remember our lived experiences by converting them to stories and integrating them into our personal and collective web of narrative. We think, dream, imagine, and believe through the filter of narrative.

This is what led narrative theorist Walter Fischer to suggest that rather than scientifically classify ourselves as Homo sapiens, which roughly means “knowing person,” we should consider our species Homo narrans, “storytelling person.” In fact, these two concepts—knowing and storytelling—have always been deeply linked in the human experience. The word narrative itself derives from the Proto-Indo-European root gnō– meaning “to know” because to know something is to know the story about it.

Hacking at the Roots

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.
—folk poem, 17th-century England, author unknown

In July 1846 the philosopher and author Henry David Thoreau was confronted with a choice: either pay his taxes to support America’s expansionist war against Mexico or go to jail. He took a stand of conscience—against imperialism abroad and slavery at home—and chose imprisonment. His single night in jail inspired his essay “Resistance to Civil Government” advocating for civil disobedience in the face of unjust government. His writing would inform Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and generations of people of conscience.

Thoreau famously lamented that most activists spend their efforts fighting the symptoms of contemporary problems rather than confronting the roots. Concerned that his abolitionist and antiwar values weren’t reflected in the political discourse of his time, he wrote: “There are thousands hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

Thoreau’s metaphor of branches versus roots continues to frame a common question: Why isn’t there more outrage about the causes of injustice? Why isn’t more energy going into confronting the roots of our problems rather than just the symptoms?

One answer is that the types of injustice Thoreau decried are often invisible, even as they are hidden in plain sight. These are structural evils that have been consciously made invisible within the day-to-day workings of institutions, concealed by oppressive cultural norms, or the intentionally limited terms of political debate. Taken in total as a “system” the institutional relationships of power that constitute modern society are often opaque. They become hidden by the dominant stories of the culture that justify the status quo of power relations and define “normal.” These stories become so routine that most people in positions of privilege (for whom the system is working) don’t think to question them. In this way unquestioned mythologies (as we’ll discuss in Chapter II, mythologies are the most powerful form of narrative) emerge to bolster historic power structures while concealing the roots of systemic problems.

For social change practitioners to hack at the root, we must build the capacity to identify, analyze, and intervene not only in the institutional power structures, but also in the stories that are preventing the changes we know are needed. Through agitation, successful social movements change more than policy—we reimagine the story of what is possible in our society. Particularly now, for those of us who feel both the urgency and the opportunity of this unique historic moment, this book argues that our movements must prioritize narrative as a lens to shape our strategies. This is the arena of story-based strategy.

The Era of Outdated Stories

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
—William Faulkner

Five centuries of European colonial expansion and organized white supremacy have wiped out countless cultures, devastated ecosystems, and left us with a legacy of racism, economic disparity, militarism, and global inequity. Over 200 years of resource extraction, industrialization, and fossil fuel–driven economic growth have pushed our planet’s life-support systems to their breaking point.

Over time, the greed, racism, and violence of this history has become hardwired into many of the institutions and operating assumptions that define the global system: from government policies, to the influence of multinational corporations, to international financial and trade regimes, to the collective sense of what is politically possible. Underlying these overlapping systems is the logic of the past: rationalizing, justifying, normalizing. The mythologies of the conquistador, the slave master, and the Indian-killing “pioneer” live on in the economist who sees looted ecosystems merely as entries on a corporate balance sheet; the politician who exploits fear and racism to build their own power; or the corporate CEO who maximizes profits by paying his workers poverty wages.

When we look at our current world of intersecting social and ecological crisis through this lens, we can see we are living in an era of outdated stories. This is a time when many of our dominant political and economic institutions are shaped by destructive stories rooted in the violence and exploitation that has accumulated over hundreds of years. These stories were never true but through concentrated power they were normalized and many people were forced to accept them, but now their grip on common sense is loosening.

Giant oil, coal, and gas corporations (and their allies in governments) are still telling us we need every last bit of fossil fuel, even if it means blowing up mountaintops, poisoning our kids, and destabilizing our climate. That’s an outdated story.

Giant corporations like McDonald’s and Walmart claim, despite profits that dwarf the GDP of many nations, they can’t afford to pay their workers a living wage. That’s an outdated story.

Politicians repeat old racist lies: that people murdered by the police deserved it and that Black people leading the fight for freedom, dignity, and racial justice are thugs. That’s an outdated story.

And, of course, the onslaught of pervasive and ever more personalized advertising tells us that happiness and progress means consume more, more, more, regardless of the price tag to people and planet. That’s an outdated story.

Powerful, ruthless interests push these outdated stories, but that doesn’t mean that they are unchangeable. In fact, with their obvious hypocrisy and contradictions they often can’t withstand the power of public scrutiny. The story-based strategy approach helps us see them as critical vulnerabilities (what we will later call points of intervention) in our current unjust system.

As the grip of outdated stories on mass consciousness weakens, space for new stories opens. The historic narratives are being challenged every day by the transformative organizing that is happening in communities around the world. These outdated stories are challenged by an inspiring new generation of civil rights leaders emerging from the Movement for Black Lives. They are challenged by workers organizing for a living wage, the right to form a union, and countless other efforts to make workplaces safe, dignified, and just. They are challenged by actions around the world to keep fossil fuels in the ground and redirect investments toward clean, renewable, decentralized energy solutions.

More and more people are helping our global society outgrow these stories that have been used to limit human freedom and justify the destruction of the planet. Resistance to these toxic stories of the past is sparking new alliances, and new movements are charting paths toward alternative possibilities and better futures. By drawing attention to how power operates through narrative and offering some basic approaches to contest for power in the narrative realm, this book aspires to support momentum toward a brighter future.

Movement as Narrative

A social movement tells a new “story.”
—Marshall Ganz

It is easy to see the results of social change once organized constituencies have forced changes to the existing power structures: striking workers win a pay increase, a corrupt politician gets voted out of office, a community mobilization shifts police department policy. The process of winning those victories is, however, often less visible.

Social change efforts happen in many different arenas, but regardless of the type of initiative, there is a shared arena of struggle that unites them all: the fight for public understanding. This often invisible arena of struggle encompasses the intangible realm of stories, ideas, and assumptions that frame and define the situations, relationships, or institutions we are working to change.

There are lots of tools for measuring public opinion that can be important resources for any campaign. But story-based strategists don’t just respond to public opinion, they shape it. To succeed, we must develop strategies to reframe the debate and then commit to the time and resources needed to change the story and win public support for social change efforts.

For instance, look at the shift in U.S. public opinion on LGBTQ rights, and particularly on the issue of marriage equality. Decades of organizing, pushing back against violent homophobia, and campaigning across political, economic, and cultural arenas eventually led to ongoing changes in attitudes. Along the way reactionary forces responded by amending state constitutions in 30 U.S states to explicitly deny the rights of same-sex couples. This realm of the courts, and particularly constitutional law, backed by the full authority of the state, is an entrenched, seemingly immutable form of power.

While the movement continued various legal strategies, the larger fight was already far progressed in many different arenas as a broader, multifaceted force. High-profile campaigns challenged the U.S. military’s homophobic “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and turned hate crimes and bullying into national issues. Continuing a decades-long trend of growing visibility, more and more people came out publically as LGBTQ, including celebrities, professional athletes, and prominent business people. Meanwhile LGBTQ characters, rights, and the issue of marriage equality itself became more visible themes in popular songs, movies, and television.

Finally, in June 2015 the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples have a right to marry, thereby overruling all the various state and federal laws that legalized discrimination. Although this aspect of the victory was achieved in the judicial arena, it would be a serious mistake to believe that it was only smart lawyers that won these changes. As Evan Wolfson, longtime leader in the fight for marriage equality and founder of Freedom to Marry, put it: “We persuaded the country and the courts followed.”

The LGBTQ movement and the marriage equality fight showed what countless social movements have demonstrated: making progress in shifting the narrative drives structural change in other arenas as well. When culture moves, power moves. When the story changes, new possibilities emerge.

Historically, the power of stories and storytelling has always been at the center of social change efforts. Movements have won public support with powerful stories like Rosa Parks’ refusal to change seats, the AIDS quilt carpeting the National Mall in Washington, or courageous undocumented youth dressed in college caps and gowns marching to demand immigration reform. A single widely viewed image can carry a new story and shift the emotional landscape of an issue, leading to dramatic changes in public opinion and policy: an image of a Syrian refugee child traumatized by war; a polar bear stranded in a sea of melting ice; people from all walks of life holding up their hands to draw attention to police shootings of unarmed Black people.

But alongside these large, public narratives that inspire mass support, story also is at the heart of the day-to-day, person-to-person work of making social change. Organizers and movement builders rely on storytelling to build relationships, unite constituencies, and mobilize people. As people come together and share their stories, they identify common problems and create a narrative of how things could be better. These stories motivate actions, and the stories of those actions are retold to inspire, hone strategy, and recruit people to take even more actions. Eventually, as the story spreads and more people see their own experiences and aspirations reflected within it, the movement grows.

Shared narrative is a defining feature of a social movement—connecting people across space and time in a shared sense of identity and purpose. This common understanding helps participants feel the power of a whole that is greater than the sum of all its diverse, individual parts.

But building the collective power to make changes in society takes more than just telling good stories. The other side of the equation is that movements have to change the existing stories that are limiting the popular imagination of what’s possible (what we will discuss in Section 2.7 as the idea of “hegemony”). The story-based strategy approach is an invitation to view social change work through the lens of storytelling and understand how power is tied up in narrative.

From Improvement to Innovation

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
—Albert Einstein

Re:Imagining Change is an introduction to the story-based strategy methodology— an approach to social change that has emerged from the experiments and innovations of a diverse community of practitioners affiliated with the Center for Story-based Strategy over the past 15 years.

This approach emerged from the pressing question of how to innovate social change strategies in response to the movement building and messaging demands of the globalized information age. The heartbeat of movement building—deep relationships; critically analyzing power; taking strategic action; and reflecting to inform future effort—remains constant, but how do these practices evolve for the shifting landscape of 21st-century struggle? What does community mobilization look like amidst the accelerating pace of changing media technologies? How can voices for justice compete in the algorithm-driven, multiplatform, clickbait media environment of 24-hour infotainment?

Storytelling is a timeless art and has always been at the core of social change work, but in contemporary society the power of narrative has become even more central to maintaining social control. The historic narratives that have legitimized inequality and exploitation for generations live on in more subtle applications with coded appeals to carefully segmented audiences. And they have been supplemented with the latest sophisticated techniques of corporate public relations, perception management, and information warfare. How can grassroots organizations and popular movements for change level this playing field of contested narratives?

This collective inquiry into the shifting terrain of narrative, movement building, and social change would eventually yield the story-based methodology outlined in this book. The initial impetus emerged from two powerful political moments in recent U.S. history that reverberated around the world. The first was the mass mobilization against the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 1999 Ministerial Conference in Seattle, which showcased the power of shared narrative to transcend single-issue silos and align diverse sectors around more visionary goals. The second moment was the double tragedy of September 11, 2001. The attacks were a tragedy of horrifying destruction and loss of life, made doubly tragic through their exploitation by the U.S. government to justify fearmongering, wars of aggression, and domestic repression.

The organizing and mass nonviolent direct action against the WTO in Seattle created a powerful clash of worldviews. The undemocratic vision of a commodified, corporate-controlled future was pitted against tens of thousands of people uniting to demand justice and declare, “Another World Is Possible.” The spectacle of the actions and the drama of state repression accelerated the wave of cross-sector organizing across the U.S. These emerging political networks—referring to themselves as the “global justice” movement—joined the global resistance (albeit a bit late) to neoliberal ideology and the corporate “free trade” agenda.

It was a political moment of new alliances, expanding political imagination, and media-ready spectacular action that earned the nascent movement its proverbial 15 minutes of fame from a curious global media establishment. Movement spokespeople (including several future CSS founders) had unique opportunities to experiment with articulating systemic critiques and transformative visions in the corporate controlled, for-profit media. But unlike blockading a corporate HQ or organizing a community, there was no activist tool kit for contesting dominant narratives, sound bite by sound bite, in a corporate-controlled media that was more interested in demonizing protest than debating worldview. Advocates of change needed better frameworks to navigate the shifting terrain of media representation, spectacle, and narrative.

This period was abruptly bookended by the tragedy of the attacks on September 11, 2001. The U.S. government response brought its own bitter lessons in weaponizing narrative to poison public opinion with fear and fragment communities along historic divisions. There were powerful alternative currents: millions pushed back against racism and state terror, challenged the assumptions of U.S. militarism, and championed reconciliation over retribution. Yet the Bush administration’s propaganda machine systematically justified rollbacks of civil liberties while reasserting overt U.S. empire building and selling an illegal war based on lies.

For many who had assumed there was a connection between the factual truth of a narrative and its power to persuade or rationalize, it was a disconcerting time. It was also another unavoidable indicator of how desperately our movements needed better tools to understand narrative power. CSS emerged in 2002 as a strategy project exploring narrative’s role in movement building, experimenting with culture-shifting interventions, and building the capacity of grassroots activists to “change the story.” Over the course of the following decade, as CSS trained thousands of organizers and partnered with hundreds of grassroots organizations and alliances around the country, these experiments evolved into what came to be called story-based strategy.

Innovation doesn’t just mean improving upon what already exists. Innovation requires us to rethink underlying assumptions and find the courage to reimagine what could be. To honor this insight, the title of this book carries a double meaning to combine two related but distinct imperatives. “Re” is the Latin for “in the matter of ” and has been popularized (through bureaucratic convention and mass e-mail addiction) to mean “regarding,” or more formally, “with reference to.” Its two letters in the title are meant to draw our attention to the issue at hand. In the case of this book and the broader approach it documents, the issue is imagining change, a call to recognize and embrace techniques that prioritize imagination as a strategic engine for building a better tomorrow.

The title should also be taken in another sense of Re—the call to reconsider, to reexamine how we go about working for change. Given this unique time of mounting crisis and accelerating change, advocates for social and ecological justice need to innovate how we go about making change. Exploring narrative as a key arena of struggle provides new opportunities to understand what has made our existing victories successful and to experiment with more transformative interventions.

The Story-based Strategy Approach

Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.
—Salman Rushdie

Story-based strategy links social movement building with an analysis of narrative power that places storytelling at the center of social change. It means, first and foremost, looking at social change strategy through the lens of narrative.

Every issue already has a web of existing stories and cultural assumptions that frame public understanding. Story-based strategy provides a process to understand the current narrative around an issue and identify opportunities to change it through strategic intervention. The approach goes beyond traditional messaging and pushes us to analyze the role of narrative in maintaining the entrenched relationships of power and privilege that define the status quo.

Re:Imagining Change outlines some of the analytical tools and practical techniques that have been traditionally used to infuse campaigns with transformative storytelling. This book provides tools to craft more effective and holistic social change strategies with the power to intervene and shape prevailing cultural narratives. It is a call to build our collective capacity to frame the critical debates of our times and direct the public imagination toward the solutions we need.

The frameworks outlined in the pages to follow have emerged both from contemporary experiments and from examining historic social change efforts through the lens of narrative power. While the approach specifically responds to the unique and changing dynamics of narrative power in our 21st-century context, it is also deeply rooted in the time-tested methods of organizing and movement building. In fact, it is difficult to find any movement victory that doesn’t contain aspects of story-based strategy.

One of the goals of this book is to offer terminology and frameworks to understand the what, how, and why of narrative’s role in social change. Documentation is the first step toward replication, collective assessment and innovation. Although some of the book’s language may be new, most of the techniques explored are not, having emerged from traditional movement practice in one form or another.

As this is a book about strategy, a word with many loaded connotations, it’s worth reflecting on that term: strategy derives from the Greek word for the commander of an army, strategos, and roughly means “the art of the generals.” One of the problems with the term and its origins in the traditions of militarism, war, and violence is that it suggests exclusivity, specialization, and hierarchy. The general is on the hilltop, above the battlefield looking down from a privileged position of detachment and sweeping perspective.

But in the context of social change work where the struggle is often not just in physical space but also embedded in identities, narratives, and perceptions, there is no one hilltop, no single universalized perspective. Instead, successful movements need to cultivate a culture of strategy that can replace the lone ancient general with multiple diverse perspectives, emerging from lived experiences and adapting to changing conditions. Strategic thinking about narrative and power cannot be the exclusive realm of specialists and experts. Particularly now in the era of networked society where social media connectivity is facilitating a new generation of open source campaigning and leaderful movements, understanding narrative is a critical orientation for all change-makers. This book and the story-based strategy approach it describes are intended to contribute to that larger goal of making the powerful world of narrative, framing, and story accessible to organizers and activists.


Narratives and stories frequently appear to be similar, and the terms are often used interchangeably. The content and scale of stories is as varied as human experience—from sacred tales that carry wisdom revered by billions, to ephemeral celebrity gossip, to what happened at the office today—but they are all discrete and bounded accounts of events with a clear beginning, middle, and end. One helpful definition of narrative is a coherent “system of stories.”15 Narratives are stories that are bigger: often more open-ended and less bounded in a linear sequence while containing lots of smaller interrelated stories that are emblematic of the larger narrative. Individual stories that fit within the logic of the symbolic system can easily be added to the narrative while others fade away over time, but the narrative persists. For instance, the American Dream is best understood as a narrative because it connects many different stories. Stories referencing the Declaration of Independence, or buying a first house, or parents aspiring to give their children a better life could all be part of the larger American Dream narrative. The story-based strategy approach is relevant to stories and narratives of all sizes.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Re:Imagining Change (2nd edition) by Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning, published by PM Press, 2017.

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