Countering Disaffection with Hopeful Narratives

Twelve years to avert climate change catastrophe. Far-right groups gaining ground everywhere. Atrocities in Syria and Myanmar. Regressive laws in Brunei. Everywhere we turn, the situation is dire — people understandably want to tune out and hole up.

Unfortunately, that’s not an option. People, organisations and governments must urgently mobilise to take action if we are to have any chance of a livable future. When young activist Greta Thunberg decided to make a difference instead of wallow in despair about climate change, she sparked hope worldwide by blazing a way forward.

We need to give people a reason to believe, and sometimes that comes from unlikely places.

The power of a narrative

The more hopeless things seem, the more people run to figures like Trump, who offer a return to some perfect bygone era that likely never existed. While this reactionary impulse is incredibly dangerous, it’s also understandable — narratives have helped us make sense of the world since the beginning of time, and the narratives provided by people like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump both explain current events (poorly) and offer a (false) path to prosperity.

For all of the talk of fear-mongering during the EU referendum vote in the UK, was there really a coherent, positive, alternative vision for people to grab onto? It’s easy to stoke fear when there is nothing else being said.

Instead of ceding contentious topics like immigration to the far-right, governments and NGOs should be making the case for multiculturalism over time, with a consistent, strategic narrative. It wouldn’t have to be academic — it could even be fun, like Operation Libero’s successful viral campaigns in Switzerland.

Talking to the right people

Approaching topics like equality and immigration with renewed optimism will require us to abandon many of our preconceptions about storytelling — and about our audience. In the 2017 general election in the UK, Labour outperformed expectations, due in large part to their focus on young people, despite the commonly held view that young voters don’t tend to turn out. Rather than write off this demographic, they spoke to young people and gave them reasons to believe.

Many organisations today are holding onto similar “truisms” that need to be debunked — especially when it comes to their supporters. For example, many charities, especially in the West, focus all of their fundraising effort on their imagined audience — older, liberal and wealthy. This is, however, a self-fulfilling prophecy; if your campaigns ignore younger potential donors, younger donors will never have the chance to prove their value to you.

Even though Amnesty International had been standing behind Colin Kaepernick months earlier, the Nike ad campaign captured the attention and support of young people. Perhaps Amnesty hadn’t focused enough effort on making young people aware of their stance. It’s time for NGOs to rethink their audiences. The people we label as “disaffected” often just need to be engaged, rather than written off.

Rethinking the story

NGOs also need to re-examine the narratives they’re crafting. We recently worked with a human rights organisation to engage people online around the role human rights play in Britain. Their target audience believes in the principle of human rights, but has serious concerns that human rights laws have generally gone too far. We developed a narrative around the universal empowerment that human rights legislation offers, helping our audience empathise with vulnerable populations. After engaging with our narrative of empowerment, people who were conflicted about these issues were 47% more likely to be interested in human rights — a massive win through some simple online messaging, rather than ignoring this audience.

Optimistic messaging is possible: Thomas Coombes, our friend at Amnesty International, has worked with Open Global Rights to produce a ‘A Guide to Hope-based Communications,’ which emphasises the need to be clear on what you stand for, not just what you oppose. Journalism has a role to play, too — we’re seeing more media outlets that focus on both solutions and hope, such as Positive News and Guardian Upside.

However, the good news often gets lost in the shuffle. When the majority of the day’s headlines read like dystopian fiction, we need to give people hope. We need to be clear about values, use narratives to provide solutions, and reframe tired debates.

For any organisation working towards openness, inclusivity, progressive change and making the world a better place, you should lead with your values, be open-minded about audiences you may not be talking to today, and give people reasons to believe that change is not only possible but happening all around us.


Want to change your organisation’s storytelling? Let’s talk about it.

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