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Political Storytelling: The Structure of Effective Political Narratives

Following the US presidential election of 2016 there has been increased interest amongst political scientists in the concept of political narratives and how storytelling influences how people understand and make sense of the world. Political narrative is both a theoretical concept and also a device used by political strategists to influence how people view their environment, their community and relationships between groups. (Graef et al, 2018).

In this post I argue that for a political narrative to be powerful and persuasive it should:

  • Reflect themes and narratives the audience is already familiar with
  • Connect the past and the present with an imagined future
  • Align with the audience’s perceptions of reality
  • Be capable of being understood, discussed and retold in everyday language
  • Enable the audience to identify with the narrator or the story
  • Confirm rather than negate the audience’s sense of collective and individual identity
  • Support the overall narrative arc by combining multiple stories that are mutually reinforcing
  • Be capable of being conveyed as a concise narrative

What is Narrative?

According to Polkinghorne (1988) narrative is “the primary form by which human experience is made meaningful.” Narratives are the way we understand reality, as the stories we tell about things construct our understanding of those things. The value of stories is in helping people to make sense of the world and their place in it. Stories help us all to understand who we are, who others are and how we relate to them and the world.

Narrative is arguably the primary form of commonsensical knowledge. Political narratives give people commonsensical access to complex political knowledge by providing access to knowledge in a simplified form. “People’s political common sense is shaped by their experience but it is also shaped by stories they read and hear on TV, stories told by friends and acquaintances, stories that substitute memory for history, stories that make the experience of others seem as if it is their own, and stories whose truth is relatively unimportant to their value.” (Polletta et al). A political narrative has power when it moves out into the community to become common knowledge. These narratives can become what Gramsci described as common sense. A form of knowledge that people arrive at not through critical reflection or study of data, but which they encounter as something existing and self-evident. For example, politics as a conflict between left and right. The reality is something much more complex but we can make sense of politics using a left versus right narrative. Jamieson argues that narrative gives us a symbolic or pseudo resolution of something that in reality is hard to resolve.

Narrative also allows us to make sense of a series of complex events and interactions. To understand an event we place it in a narrative which links the event with previous and subsequent events in some form of coherent sequence. The narrative helps explain how we can understand why an event happened such as the fall of the ‘red wall’. Such a narrative is retrospective giving meaning to events from the perspective of how they turned out. The meaning making of the narrative starts with the end point and can project a sense of what may happen in the future. The meaning comes from the rationale of the narrative as the story is revealed which is often a moral or a theme. This moral or theme guides the selection of events and information for inclusion. This is not a transparent process. A story doesn’t make explicit why it has selected certain events or left out others. The process of selection means that narratives are not neutral, they communicate a particular perspective of what happened, they seek to persuade an audience through the process of narration.

Key Narrative Elements

“A narrative is the representation of at least two real or fictive events or situations in time sequence, neither of which presupposes or entails the other” (Prince, 1982).

The traditional concept of narrative is that it must have three essential elements namely events, sequence and plot (Maines, 1993). In a narrative events are selected and configured into a plot which structures them into a meaningful sequence. (Davis, ) In this way narratives create a coherent story out of discrete events that gives meaning to the whole (Griffin, 1993). Thus narratives perform a powerful function, they are a way to make meaning out of events and human actions (Polkinghorne, 1988). The value of narratives is that they “create coherent stories out of the complex and messy reality of human life” (Graef, 218).

According to Shenhav (2015) the key elements of narratives are:
  • story - what is being told
  • text - the mode of the communication and representation of the story
  • narration - the act or process including who the narrators are and the co-creation process that takes place
  • multiplicity - stories are told in many different ways and through different media and narrators. This process of repetition and variation shapes social narratives
We can break down the narrative concept into :
  • “events, characters, and background.” This element includes all of the events covered by the narrative, the main players in it, and the geographical, social, and institutional space within
  • “events in sequence.” This element refers to the events along a temporal continuum.
  • causality.” This element includes the attribution of cause and effect, which exist in most political narratives.

Narratives and Social Practice

Stories are also social practices. By definition they involve the narrator and an audience that interprets what they are hearing. The audience receives the stories. This process is not a direct transmission of a message through a story but a creative act by the listener who interprets what has been said. This interpretation influences the retelling of stories by people to new audiences. Narratives have to connect with the audience but are also open to interpretation where the audience makes sense of the story. A process where the audience may fill in the details, maybe they recognise a character or sequence of events. Iser (1972) argues it is only through omissions that a story gains dynamism with the audience, it avoids detailing everything and leaves space for the audience to gill in the gaps. Thus the audience is engaged and participates in the co-creation of the story. The narrator seeks to provoke an audience response. The narrator intends the audience “to share his wonder, amusement, terror, or admiration of the event. Ultimately, it would seem, what he is after is an interpretation of the problematic event, an assignment of meaning and value supported by the consensus of himself and his hearers” (Pratt , 1977 from Davis 2014).

The most important defining feature of a narrative is that it is necessarily the product of a particular perspective. No individual or political actor is able to faithfully represent the “reality” or “truth” of complex situations. A narrator selects events that they consider important to create a coherent story. It is simply not possible in a short narrative to accurately portray all events and the linked consequences of those events in a complex and interconnected world. Thus narratives are not true in this sense, even though they may aim to provide an explanation that helps people to make sense of the world. Narratives do though have to resonate with people’s perceptions of reality or risk being rejected. Audiences make critical assessments of narratives based on their perceived coherence and fidelity. Does the story hang together as a whole, does it resonate with their experience and does it reflect something that could be reality. To be persuasive narratives must “appeal to what audiences think they know, what they value, what they regard as appropriate and promising” (Davis, 2014). Narratives must refer to the same framework that their constituents see as the “political reality,” even if this is not an objective reality.

The complex nature of reality means stories will always be a heuristic, a shorthand way of explaining something in a way that can be understood in everyday discussion. Therefore they are more likely to resonate with audiences if they align with narratives they are familiar with and their broad perceptions of reality. Thus political narratives may be powerful even if they may not reflect reality as long as they align with the audience’s perceived reality. According to Mayer persuasive storytellers draw on themes that are familiar to their audience such as historical, religious or ideological themes, and on audience perceptions of reality, to create narratives that resonate with their listeners. (Mayer, 2014). When it comes to political narratives Donald Tusk, the former President of the European Union, observes that “perception can be more important than fact” (Johnson et al, 2020)

Powerful narratives connect the past with the present but they also contain narratives, stories about the future. By their very nature these future narratives do not exist they are imagined. We all have imagined narratives, the stories we tell ourselves about the future whether it is about our future children, careers, or retirement. The importance of imagined narratives cannot be understated. Benedict Anderson developed the concept of imagined communities. To Anderson a nation "is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion." Thus people perceive they are part of a community and feel “a deep, horizontal comradeship.” Imagined communities are not just nations “all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined.” (Anderson, ). The traditional industrial working class might equally be seen as an imagined community which no longer exists, at least not in the way it did previously. An imagined community where there is deep comradeship with other members that individuals will have never met but to which they feel enormous loyalty and commitment. To Anderson imagined communities were made possible by the use of the vernacular, the language of everyday speech. Imagined political narratives about the future also need to be understood, discussed and retold in everyday language. It can be argued that simpler narratives are more likely to resonate as they can be grasped quickly, discussed and easily shared.

So far the research shows us that narratives are heuristics, they are not neutral, they may not reflect reality but they are more likely to be more powerful if they align with themes the audience is familiar with and their perceptions of reality. Audiences also have to be able to identify with the narrator or the story.

Stories and Identity

It has been argued that identities are actually constituted by stories. Narratives may create a sense of collective identity. The repeated telling of stories reinforces and sustains a collective memory and allegiance. In ‘red wall’ seats there was a historical and deeply felt narrative about the collective identity of industrial working families and how they were Labour communities and Labour people. These were rooted in tales from the early twentieth of how the Labour movement both the Labour Party and the trade unions protected and represented industrial workers and their families. The interpretation and retelling of such stories shape a community’s collective memory and identity.

These social narratives configure our perceptions of belonging and identity “by shaping the relationship between individuals and the collective” (Graef et al,, 2018). As individuals we represent our own sense of identity to others through the stories we tell about ourselves and our communities. We locate ourselves in relation to others, we may identify as part of a community or as separate from it but it is defined in terms of the relationship. We have to locate ourselves in social narratives. We use these narratives to understand our own identity, they provide a coherent sense of identity by giving meaning to the series of events in our lives. It is also the case that through stories people’s sense of personal experience may encompass experiences that are not actually their own, they may be experiences suffered by others in their perceived community or experienced by say their parents or grandparents.

In helping us make sense of the world, narratives also help create and reinforce our own identities and our place in this world. “Approaching the social world as a narrative world means to acknowledge that we live in a storied reality …. by organizing and synthesizing multiple and scattered events in time and space, human beings “come to know, understand and make sense of the world” around them, and constitute their social identities ….narratives are tools to understand, negotiate, and make sense of situations we encounter.” (Graef et al, 2018).

Storytelling is a social activity which involves narrators and audiences, it is not a static process as stories are reshaped and co-created through listening and retelling. In this way social narratives are co-constructed through dialogue, interpersonal interactions, and the perceptions of those who surround us. Thus social narratives are fluid in that they are “composed of discourses” and have the ability to change over time.

The relationship between narrative and identity is important. If a story is to be persuasive and readily accepted by an audience it must confirm not negate how the audience thinks about themselves, about their collective and individual identities.
Narratives and Behaviour

Narratives are powerful in that they not only shape our understanding of the world and our identities, they can also influence our behaviour. There is much debate about the causal effects of narratives.In his recent book Narrative Economics, Shiller argues that narratives can persuade people and cause changes in behaviour that result in economic events. He argues that the power of narratives to influence behaviour is much broader and deeper than contemporary economics allows for. He also argues that this is not a one-way process and that events can also change narratives. Thus there is an ongoing interaction in Schiller’s view between events and narratives.

As people understand the world through stories they can be more powerful in persuading people than statistics or cost benefit analysis. Cialdini (2017) says: “People don’t counter-argue stories… If you want to be successful in a post-fact world, you do it by presenting accounts, narratives, stories and images and metaphors”.

Mayer argues that stories are powerful spurs to political action as well as economic action. Stories in Mayer’s view can cause behavioural change amongst groups of people. “It is no accident that stories are so often involved in group mobilization. Shared stories are humanity’s essential tool for overcoming the obstacles to collective action, because they help people forge common interests in a collective goal” (Mayer, 2014). Thus the shared nature of stories can lead to changes in group behaviour.

Powerful narratives pull the audience onto the stage, they make people aware that their choices will determine whether the collective drama will end in triumph or tragedy. The audience have the opportunity to become heroes or villains in the unfolding story. (Mayer, 2014) “Powerful story wielders compel each individual to confront the question, “What did you do when history called?” They make participation in collective action the dramatic imperative, a fundamental test of character, a necessary expression of identity.” (Mayer, 2014). In this way narratives can appeal to a sense of identity.

Narratives can be used by social movements to frame grievances and mobilise support. They recognise the importance of discourse in the framing process and building of collective identities. “Collective action frames”. Social movements seek to attract others by aligning their movement frames with personal experiences, beliefs and interests of people. Seek to foster a link between personal identity and collective identity.

Types of narrative 

There are many different forms of narrative including personal narratives, family narratives, community narratives, media narratives and political narratives. Political narratives actively seek to shape public narratives. What is of particular interest here is how political narratives resonate and get reflected in the public narratives. It can be argued that media narratives also seek to shape public narratives though many in the media would argue they seek to reflect public narratives.

Much of the scholarly investigation into political narrative has used textual analysis as a means of understanding how the discourse is constructed with a focus on the use of language. For example, there have been numerous works exploring how the New Labour discourse was constructed, how certain words and phrases were preferred such as social justice rather than equality. While political narratives and media narratives can be identified and analysed in this way, it is a much more complex task to identify and analyse the public narratives that were at play at a particular period in history.

Public narratives

Public narratives are the narratives that people share publicly, typically with more than one other person. Each person has their own public narrative, it is the story they share. It is a story they share with others in their own words, their own use of everyday language. The story may be shared in a discussion in a social setting such as over a drink in a bar or equally in a focus group or in response to a question from an interviewer. There will be many different public narratives but within the public sphere some narratives will come to dominate. These narratives, the ones that become familiar and influential, are the narratives repeated the most often. These are the narratives that resonate with people. See my post on public narratives.

Media narratives 

Media narratives matter as they can frame issues and set the political agenda. The political bias of newspapers for example can lead them to focus on some stories rather than other stories, to promote information which supports their political view and to ignore arguments that run counter to their point of view. These narratives may not directly determine public narratives but they clearly have a role in framing the debate. A great deal of discussion in the media, even in social media, is in relation to issues highlighted by mainstream media content.

There are many different types of media and media narratives. These include national newspapers, national broadcasters and local newspapers and broadcasters. Research has found that national narratives are often quite different from local narratives. Local newspapers for example give a relatively high degree of coverage to local politicians and local issues.

Competing Political Narratives

Authors such as Philip Pullman have been criticised for promoting their ideology in story form. The same criticism could be levelled at political narratives as ideology in story form. In the political arena a narrative is not simply a sense-making practice but rather a strategic tool for legitimizing particular political views or actions. These political narratives “do not just spring into being; they are created in the course of political action” (Shenhav, 2003). This is consistent with Misher’s view that “we do not find stories; we make stories” (Elliott Mishler, 1995). They are not something lying around to be uncovered but rather they are created to shape our understanding of the world and directly connected to questions of social and political power.

There is narrative competition amongst political actors to shape and re-imagine the world and their place in the world. Political narratives are not neutral, they emerge from a particular perspective on the world and how it should be. “Social and political change is connected to actors’ struggle to formulate and tell their stories and, perhaps even more importantly, to have them heard.”(Greaf, 2018).

“We can define a political narrative as one that emerges from a formal political forum, such as a parliament, a cabinet, party meetings or political demonstrations, or as narrative produced by politicians and public officials in the course of their duties. Another possible approach is to note the contents of the narrative or the conclusions that may be drawn from it. If these contain themes that are considered “political,” such as power relations and collective decision-making or compromise, the narrative might be defined as political, even if it was generated outside official political frameworks.”

Political narratives provide value to people by helping them make sense of complex political events, they act as a heuristic, rather than necessarily uncovering the real truth of the political situation. (Polletta and Callahan, 2017). The dominant role of narratives in political discourse is also based on the centrality of narrative in the formulation and maintenance of worldviews. essence of narrative as an effective means of simplifying complex situations.

Political narratives shape and influence understandings of political reality. “In the political context, narrative forms of thought and expression, which are based on stringing events together into chains, carry another advantage: they are consistent with the political logic of trying to shape the present in light of lessons learned from the past.” (Shenhav, 2006). This is linked to shaping our understanding of history and the idea of deep stories. For example, in America it has been argued the appeal of modern conservatism is due to a ‘‘deep story’’ that many Americans believe describe their lives. A story where hardworking citizens struggle and are penalised by high government taxes. (Polletta et al, 2017).

Concise Political Narratives

Ezra Klein argues that one of the biggest divides in politics is between the informed and the uninformed (Klein, 2020). The rise in digital media means it has never been as easy to become politically informed. However, the abundance of choice and access has also been accompanied by the ability to opt out of political news. Previously with linear media such as the radio or TV, the audience might hear or watch news between sports or entertainment programmes. With on demand media such as the internet, Netflix, Spotify or podcasts the audience can decide to not listen to political news. The key factor which drives political knowledge is not access but interest, and many people are simply not interested. Obama’s former campaign manager Jim Messina famously argued that the average person spends just four minutes a week thinking about politics (Mance, 2017). It follows that one of the key challenges for those developing political narratives is creating a concise narrative. People need to get the essence of the full narrative very quickly and equally be able to repeat and share that narrative concisely, which is why campaigns seek to create slogans that summarise their narrative.

‘‘Make America Great Again’’ is a classic political narrative that tells a story. In very few words, it appeals to a particular perspective on history, that America was once successful, that it has declined and needs to rise again. This has echoes of the “take back control” narrative of the Leave campaign in the 2016 European referendum. It also appeals to a particular view of history and of an imagined future. It assumes there was a time when citizens had more control, that there is a moral imperative for taking this back and that leaving the EU is the way to do this. It creates an imagined future where there is more control. These political narratives carry a moral stance and purpose. There is no need to expand on the moral of the story, it is implicit in the narrative. Thus it is right to make America great again or to take back control.

In 2019 ‘Get Brexit Done’ was a concise narrative and resonated with many people, not simply Leave voters. Conservative strategists say the phrase emerged from focus groups and was the language voters used themselves. The phrase connected the past, the vote to leave the European Union with a perception of the present, namely that Brexit was being frustrated by Parliament and there was a deadlock causing ongoing delays. It also created an imagined future where Brexit would be done quickly if the Conservatives had a majority. It was a concise and easily understood narrative even if the reality was far more complex, it also resonated with what many people perceived to be the reality and their desire to ‘get on with things’.

Multiple Narratives

While powerful political narratives have an overall narrative arc which can be represented in a concise form, it is also important to recognise that effective narratives also have many multiple strands or stories that each reinforce the overall arc. A powerful political narrative is like a rope, it has many strands or stories that combine together to give it strength. A good narrative plays to an overall arc that people recognise and the persuasive power lies in combining multiple compelling stories that resonate by leveraging trends and existing perceptions of reality. “Donald Trump did not win the election because he told a single story that knitted together Americans’ fears, hopes, and anxieties in a compelling way. Rather, the stories he told, along with the arguments he made, slogans he floated, and facts he claimed all drew on and reinforced already existing stories of cultural loss” (Polletta etal , 2017).

There is rarely a single narrative that changes things but rather a confluence of narratives. An overarching narrative has to be supported by many stories that are mutually reinforcing and which resonate with existing trends and perceptions. These stories often use phrases or concepts that act as heuristics e.g. in the case of Trump these might include the liberal media, fake news, crooked Hilary, drain the swamp, countries have taken advantage of us. These individual stories all support the overall narrative arc and the need to ‘make America great again’.

New Narratives

New narratives can be created but they are unlikely to be influential unless they chime with people’s perceptions of reality or contextual trends. New data can help create new narratives, for example in economics the narratives changed when data became available on GDP or inflation. This new data could be used to support narratives about the importance of controlling public spending or controlling inflation. In his book on economic narratives Shilling argues that new popular narratives can go viral and can change society by changing behaviours. One of the big drivers of new political narratives is polling data, which plays into journalistic tendencies to report on politics as if it was a horse race i.e. who is ahead, who is gaining ground, who is going to win. These new narratives can influence voting behaviour, particularly at a constituency level.

The media plays an important role in facilitating new political narratives and reinforcing existing narratives. There are always multiple stories but the media select stories to fit with particular narratives. Social media also facilitates the distribution of new narratives. Following the 2016 US presidential election there has been an increased focus on the role of social media in facilitating political narratives, including the concept of ‘fake news’ where articles that are false are circulated on platforms such as Facebook. In an increasingly interconnected world with mass use of social media it is easier for narratives to spread but it doesn’t explain why particular narratives go viral.


Political narratives provide people with commonsensical access to political knowledge. They select and configure events to create a coherent and understandable interpretation of wide ranging and complex events. Narratives are not neutral, they are intimately connected with questions of power and of legitimising political viewpoints. There is intense narrative competition that seeks to shape politics and to persuade an audience of a particular perspective. Political narratives can include emotional appeals and be more powerful in persuading people to change their behaviour than presenting them with statistics or cost benefit analysis. However, narratives are not simply transmitted to the audience, they are interpreted by the audience in a creative process that includes the retelling of these stories. Importantly, political narratives do not need to be true to persuade others of their narrative but they must align with themes the audience is familiar with and their perceptions of reality.

From the research we can hypothesise that for a political narrative to be powerful and persuasive it should:
  • Reflect themes and narratives the audience is already familiar with
  • Connect the past and the present with an imagined future
  • Align with the audience’s perceptions of reality
  • Be capable of being understood, discussed and retold in everyday language
  • Enable the audience to identify with the narrator or the story
  • Confirm rather than negate the audience’s sense of collective and individual identity
  • Support the overall narrative arc by combining multiple stories that are mutually reinforcing
  • Be capable of being conveyed as a concise narrative