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Using Narrative to Craft More Meaningful Messages

This post is the third in a series on the science and art of strategic communications. The first offered a simple tool for setting strategic objectives, and the second introduced an important theory from psychology. This post explores the power of narrative in message development. 

Guest Post:  Doug Hattaway

Storytelling is all the rage in business and philanthropy. It should be: narrative is a powerful tool to inform, inspire and engage people.

There are a number of ways to use narrative in strategic communications. One is to tell stories about specific people and situations, which can help to put a human face on abstract issues. That’s what we usually mean by “storytelling.”

Human-interest stories are great for creating emotional connection and encouraging your audience to care about a cause. But there’s a downside to relying on stories about individuals to illustrate complex issues: The “big picture” can get lost.

People need to hear those stories within a framework that helps them interpret their meaning. They need to understand the larger context in order make judgments that lead to changes in attitudes and behavior.

You can dial up the persuasive power of stories by presenting them within an overarching narrative that creates context and enhances the meaning of the anecdotes. In literature, psychology and other fields, this is known as a “meta-narrative.”

A Simple, Powerful Narrative Structure

Psychological studies show that the best way to motivate people 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. That’s exactly what a narrative structure allows us to do.

The most basic narrative structure involves a protagonist seeking to achieve a meaningful goal, who must overcome obstacles to achieve it. In one variation of this classic structure, a helper figure aids the protagonist. (Think Yoda to Luke Skywalker, or the Fairy Godmother to Cinderella.)

We use this structure to develop messages about the PEOPLE involved in a cause, the PROBLEM they face in realizing their GOALS, and the SOLUTIONS offered by our client to overcome the problem.

This structure allows us to communicate with maximum motivating power. It puts the audience–and their hopes and values–front-and-center in the message. It positions the problem as an obstacle to people’s aspirations, which makes it personally relevant. And it shows how the solutions offered by our client help people achieve their goals.

This approach goes a long way in helping people care about a cause–and intuitively understand the problems and solutions.

Narrative Helps Achieve Impact

In 2009, when the nation was reeling from the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression, a major foundation asked us to develop a narrative about what happened. Media content analysis and policymaker interviews found that commentators and policymakers blamed consumers for causing the crisis, which diverted focus from the real cause and blocked meaningful reform.

We used this simple narrative structure to reframe the debate:


Responsible, hardworking Americans who lost their homes and life savings


Own a home and achieve the American Dream


Fast-talking mortgage brokers, Wall Street speculators—and a system that failed to protect consumers


Stronger consumer protections, effective regulations and greater transparency

We fleshed out this basic structure into a one-minute message about the financial crisis, and backed it up with stories and data. This provided the core content for an in-depth Message Manual and toolkit used by a coalition of advocacy organizations that helped win the passage of landmark financial reform legislation.

On our site, you can download a simple tool with a set of guiding questions to help you use the power of narrative to craft meaningful messages for your organizations.

Doug Hattaway is president of Hattaway Communications, a strategic communications firm that adapts tools from business, politics, psychology, linguistics and other fields to help visionary leaders and organizations achieve ambitious goals.



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