audience of the public

How I learned that ‘narrative change’ can bring about social change

By Kate Stanley 27 September 2021 3 minute read

This guest blog by Kate Stanley, Executive Director of FrameWorks UK, discusses how charities can influence public discourse and therefore influence policy. Kate will be speaking at our upcoming annual conference in October, for the opportunity hear more from Kate and to put your questions to her, book your ticket to NPC Ignites.

Narrative sceptic

Back in about 2000, I went to work as a researcher at the policy think tank, IPPR. Matthew Taylor was the Director. He made cracking speeches: rallying the troops to work harder, be better, achieve more. In one of these speeches, Matthew talked over and over about the importance of creating new narratives to win hearts and minds, in the pursuit of a more equal society. I probably rolled my eyes once or twice. ‘What is it?’, he asked. I said I thought this talk of ‘narrative change’ was pretentious. Gulp.

Roll forward 20-odd years and I lead an organisation with the strapline: ‘Change the story. Change the world.’ At FrameWorks UK, our experience tells us that the stories we share about social issues—what we say and how we say it—matter. We know that we need to tell new stories if we want to bring about radical changes in how people think, feel and act.

Why the about-turn in my thinking? As a novice wonk at IPPR, I was still in the grip of the idea that if you had the right data your case for social change would win the day. But over time, I came to realise that Matthew did not deserve the eye rolls. I realised that my data did not speak for itself. Instead, it was crucial to dress my evidence in narrative—to frame it—so that people truly hear what I was trying to say.

As Anais Nin once said: ‘We see the world as we are, not as it is’. As people who want to bring about progressive social change, we need to understand how people think about the world and tell our stories in ways that will tap into the most productive ways of thinking that people hold in mind.

Creating progressive social change requires us to have both the data and the narrative.

Changing the story about health inequalities

One clear example of an issue where data will never be enough is health inequalities. At FrameWorks, we have a programme of work with partners like the Health Foundation and Impact on Urban Health concerned with how we frame health inequalities in public discourse in order to drive policy change.

In particular, we’ve been working with Impact on Urban Health on how to talk about childhood obesity: first by uncovering deeply held beliefs on the issue and exploring which beliefs were helping or hindering change; and then through undertaking qualitative and quantitative research to identify narratives that could shift thinking and bring more helpful mindsets to the foreground. Do take a look at this communications toolkit to learn more.

Our research has shown that when you ask people what causes obesity, the first things that come to mind are poor individual choices and a lack of willpower. And when you ask about possible solutions, many feel the only way to create change is through improved education on food and nutrition.

However, many people can also see that inequality matters. They see that if you’re on a low income, it can be harder to buy and cook enough nutritious food for the whole family or that if you’re a shift worker, the food that’s within reach at unsociable hours may not be the healthiest. But this deeper understanding isn’t at the front of most people’s minds, and in the main, people default to thinking that ultimately anyone can be healthy if they want to be.

A new narrative which stresses that your surroundings help to shape you has the power to pull the recessive, more productive set of beliefs to the fore and create support for policy change. One of the most important aspects of this new story is to lead with health. When we lead our communications by talking about what this issue is fundamentally about—in this case, boosting health—people are more willing to listen to what we have to say.

Our research shows that when we start by talking explicitly about weight or obesity, there is very little support for policy changes. But framing the conversation around health avoids activating blame and judgement. And when we talk about the potential of policies and interventions to improve health—rather than just tackle poor health—we inspire support for solutions. And this then creates the space for policymakers to bring forward change.

Based on this research, we’ve been working with the campaigners Bite Back 2030, using some new frames of communication. They’ve been making the case for changing the food that surrounds kids and it’s started to work. Just this summer, new legislation has been announced to ban pre-9pm advertising of junk food.

New frames, new narratives, can create change on a host of issues—and at scale. New frames can drive people’s attention to systems and to context, and show why an issue matters, creating space for new conversations and subsequently policy change. You’ll get no more eye rolling from me when it comes to the importance of narrative. Sorry Matthew.

How can charities help bring about social change? In this blog, Kate Stanley, Executive Director of FrameWorks UK, discusses how charities can influence public discourse and policy: Click To Tweet