Harnessing Narrative Persuasion for Good

Kirk Cheyfitz
42 min readMay 22, 2023


Bridging the gap between academic study and impact storytelling for political and social change.

I spent a revelatory week this winter attending narrative studies grad school in Groningen, an ancient, moat-encircled Dutch town whose large, prestigious university has been attracting students from all over The Netherlands, Europe and much of the known world since its founding in 1614.

I signed up for The Netherlands Winter School on Narrative to engage with the academic field of narratology as it’s taught in the world’s universities. I was hoping to locate some significant arguments and agreements between scholar-theorists and work-a-day storytelling practitioners, who, like me, create stories to impact people’s beliefs and behavior.

The vast majority of academic theorists and practical narrative workers are mutually ignorant of each other’s work. I’d begun thinking that has to change. I had no clear idea then about why academics and practitioners should collaborate. But writing this piece, I’ve come to believe that such collaboration is the path to creating an artistically rich and scientifically rigorous new discipline that harnesses the persuasive power of narrative as fully as possible to change our society for the better.

The Winter School on Narrative seemed a perfect place to start dismantling my own ignorance and, perhaps, meet some open-minded scholars whose ignorance I could help to dismantle. It’s an annual collaboration among three major Dutch universities that attracts an international flock of lecturers and participants, most of them from Europe and the U.S. The Winter School, now in its eighth year, is five intense days of lectures, presentations and group discussions, all in English. This year, the theme was “The Limits of Narrative” — a many-faceted idea I’d been wondering about anyway. The annual event stands out in academia by openly inviting storytelling “professionals” in addition to its core community of PhD students and other scholars. The possibility of collaboration was in the air.

What I discovered in Groningen far exceeded my expectations, for better and worse.

On the what-practitioners-can-learn-from-academics side, for example, I was introduced to the most widely accepted definitions of narratives and stories. I realized how much the field of narrative change would benefit from clear, widely accepted definitions, understood by everybody. I also found a new, powerful theoretical framework called “undernarration” that offers the promise of better explaining and, thus, better countering destructive narratives like conspiracy theories and disinformation.

On the what-academics-need-to-learn-from-practitioners side, I discovered “story-critical scholarship,” a relatively recent academic niche that is based at least partly on generalizations, assumptions and inadequate research into how narrative work for positive social change is pursued by practitioners. I’ve certainly not read all story-critical scholarship, but some of the scholars appear to disdain all storytelling-for-change — what practitioners call “impact storytelling” and scholars term “instrumental narrative.”

The story-critical group sees danger and manipulation in virtually all storytelling specifically intended to change people’s beliefs and behaviors. They situate this danger as part of a recent “storytelling boom,” dismissing a raft of scholarship that dates instrumental storytelling back to the origins of modern humanity, 35 to 50 millennia ago. Egregiously, they indict an ill-defined group they call “story consultants” for allegedly lacking ethics, knowing nothing about how narrative works and rarely or never subjecting the impact of their storytelling to the scrutiny of scientific measurement. The scholars re-visit in a contemporary context some important ethical and intellectual questions about stories that have been under examination for a very long time. They seem well intentioned. They also seem unaware that their broadly over-generalized indictment of narrative practitioners is not supported by fact.

Consider the archetypal case of knowledge denial in 1633 when the Catholic church nullified Galileo’s competing knowledge of the universe by calling it “heresy.”

There’s a large body of social science scholarship about the ways in which our society’s hierarchical structures and powerful institutions produce and control what we call “knowledge.” The body of work examining how these same power structures manufacture and sustain ignorance in various ways is much smaller, but equally important. “Ignorance has been a marginal and neglected topic in the social sciences,” Michael Smithson wrote in his groundbreaking book on the topic. (Smithson 1989) By 2015, the literature on ignorance had its own handbook, which described the field as “growing” in both diversity and the attention it attracts. (Gross and McGoey 2015).

Ignorance has proven enormously useful in maintaining the status quo of society’s power structures. All kinds of siloed, self-protective institutions — religious, political, professional, educational and cultural — vigorously ignore, deny, classify as secret and denounce knowledge all the time. Sometimes the denial is based on the race, ethnicity, origin, religion, training or occupation of the knowledge’s holder. Often, knowledge is denied because it might compete with, undermine or modify the niche of knowing that an institution believes it must control in order to maintain its position of power.

Consider the archetypal case of knowledge denial in 1633 when the Catholic church nullified Galileo’s competing knowledge of the universe by calling it “heresy.” This was anything but an isolated incident, of course. Powerful people and institutions cancel knowledge or enforce ignorance for self-serving reasons every day. Writing this essay, I began to see narrative — especially in its role as powerful persuader — as an area of knowledge constantly afflicted by the social production of ignorance. I am writing this for the two main audiences implicated in producing narrative ignorance.

First, I wrote this for myself and my U.S. colleagues, practitioners in impact storytelling and allied fields — organizers and communicators in social justice and progressive politics, narrative and cultural strategists, data scientists, qualitative researchers, solutions journalists, writers and artists, foundation leaders and staff, communicators in truly progressive and prosocial corporations, and others working for a more equitable and democratic world. I’m hoping members of this audience will read this essay even if they avoid much of what’s produced by academia. Ignoring gifted scholars and the expansive, multi-disciplinary literature of narrative studies is neither smart nor helpful. Neither is ignoring the definitions and language developed by narrative scholars, who use a widely accepted set of terms which are clear and consistent with common definitions. Narrative change work can be greatly improved by using terms that are widely understood, and by gaining a grasp of scholars’ concerns and of sound theories and their implications.

This article is also for academics in the many disciplines that touch narrative studies — narratology, history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, communications, management, marketing, semiotics, comparative literature, philosophy, cognitive science, neuroscience, the arts (literature, drama, film, etc.) and more. Disdaining, ignoring and overgeneralizing about narrative practitioners is poor scholarship. It rejects useful knowledge. Many narrative practitioners are working with large social-change organizations, foundations, major political campaigns, and corporate marketers, all of whom invest heavily in developing scientifically valid research to understand narrative persuasion. These organizations regularly fund large-scale audience research that most academics in narrative studies have either not considered or cannot afford. Academic narratology can benefit materially from the research protocols that practitioners have refined and the results of large-scale experiments, qualitative research and quantitative content testing.

“Whenever new knowledge appears, something old will have been rejected, and the process of rejection is itself a social process.”

There’s a lot to be gained, in short, by building bridges between theory and practice; between and within academia and social change work. This essay is meant to provide a brick or two for the construction of such bridges. Simply put, scholars and narrative workers can help each other, not just for their own benefit but for the benefit of the work and the world.

As I say above, I am a “narrative worker.” I’ve worked as a writer, a journalist, a content marketer, digital storyteller and, now, a narrative strategist. I’ve been focused for a few decades now on how narratives can be shaped and delivered to convey meaning, to touch people’s hearts and change their minds; to persuade them, in one way and another, that a better world is possible and that they have a role to play in making that world real. I’m interested in how to rewrite the deeply harmful narratives that constitute much of the world’s cultures and shape our societies. Since 2015, when I swore off working for corporate clients, I have been engaged exclusively on narrative projects for social change with grassroots organizations, nonprofits, foundations and progressive political campaigns.

One important caveat: There is, arguably, an infinite variety of narratives — novels, poetry, legal briefs, physics textbooks, cave paintings, mosaics, song lyrics and so on and on. All these narrative kinds contain values and arguments that, intentionally or not, influence society, as the communications scholar Walter R. Fisher argues so powerfully in his major book Human Communication as Narration. (Fisher 1987) This essay may apply to all narratives, but is specifically focused on narratives whose creation and telling are primarily motivated by the intent to make the world a better place for the vast, vast majority of all people. The narratives I’m writing about work by persuading specific audiences to change their emotions and beliefs; to change, in effect, what they think they know and how they feel about it. The intended result is to move people to take certain actions to change their world and the way it works.

Necessarily, this is also about the instrumental narratives deployed throughout history to keep the powerful few in power, to keep the many divided in order to limit their freedom and agency, and to maintain the world as a domain for the privileged, no matter the cost in blood and sustainability. Mary Douglas, who greatly influenced studies of the production of knowledge and ignorance, as well as the mechanisms of forgetting and remembering knowledge, once explained, “Whenever new knowledge appears, something old will have been rejected, and the process of rejection is itself a social process.” (Douglas 1986) This single sentence tells us why established institutions seeking to defend their power will tend to defend the old narratives and reject newer ones.

What follows are four insights — all potentially very useful in narrative change work — that surfaced during and after my week in academia. These takeaways are described in four semi-independent short essays — the first four sections in the TOC below. Following that are an epilogue on ignorance, the references (for further reading) and a couple appendices. These sections are presented in a certain logical order, but they can be read separately and in any order, especially if you’re someone who appreciates TL;DR.

Section 1:


Ironically, narrative change work has no clear or generally accepted definition of “narrative.” The field of narrative change, myself included, has tended to embrace and spread the idea that a narrative is a shared plotline, pattern or idea connecting many “stories.” (Frameworks 2021) In other words, a narrative is not a story. This insistence that narratives and stories are not the same has created endless confusion because it contradicts the definitions used by everyday people, by scholars and by the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary (the OED). Narrative and story are used almost universally to mean roughly the same thing. It is important to make peace with this fact.

Narratologists argue endlessly over fundamental terms. Some maintain “story” refers to content while “narrative” is about the “discourse” that delivers the content. Others question whether the narrative is what the narrator says or the audience perceives or both. Some definitions are quite different without being mutually exclusive. Still, the academic world has widely accepted a working description of narrative that coincides in all important ways with the popular uses of both “narrative” and “story.” Narrative work in the U.S. will be much better understood — and, I believe, will progress faster — if narrative workers adopt the mainstream definitions used by narratologists as well as everyday folks.

In Groningen, the definition of narrative most often cited as a reasonable standard is from the 2009 book Basic Elements of Narrative. Written by the American scholar David Herman, a leading theorist who taught in the U.S. and UK, the book’s text is preceded by a page listing “The Elements” that Herman says “characterize…a prototypical narrative.” Here (in bold) are Herman’s titles for his four narrative elements (Herman 2009), followed by my brief summaries:

(i) “Situatedness” — Representing something rooted in a particular place, context or “occasion for telling;”

(ii) “Event sequencing” — Representing time moving in a structured way so events take place in a sequence;

(iii) “Worldmaking/world disruption” — Showing change happening in a “storyworld” where people (or beings like people) are involved “whether that world is presented as actual or fictional, realistic or fantastic, remembered or dreamed, etc.;” and

(iv) “What it’s like” — Conveying what it feels like for beings in a storyworld to “experience…living through this storyworld-in-flux.” (The concept of “what it’s like” to experience something is so singular and central to humanity that philosophers have a Latin word for it: qualia. How cool is that?)

As I’ve now learned, there’s usually not a lot of difference between a narrative and a story. Gerald Prince, a preeminent narratology scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, defines narrative in his A Dictionary of Narratology as the “representation” of one or more real or fictional events told by at least one person to at least one other person. (Prince 2020) Prince once offered a shorter and far more difficult to understand definition of narrative, but was careful to point out that it had the “virtue” of “not conflicting with widely held views about the nature of narratives.” (Prince 2008) One of those views is that story and narrative mean approximately the same thing.

A recent article by two University of California sociologists begins by referring to “personal stories or narratives,” adding parenthetically, “we use the terms interchangeably.” (Polletta and Redman 2020) In The Cambridge Companion to Narrative, edited by Herman, the independent narrative scholar Marie-Laure Ryan refers to “narrative and its partial synonym, story.” (Ryan 2007) The contemporary meaning of narrative in the OED online is, “An account of a series of events, facts, etc., given in order and with the establishing of connections between them; a narration, a story, an account.” I disagree with “given in order.” Maybe “given in an order” would be better. But the OED agrees that narrative and story are pretty damn close.

It simply makes no sense to fight with everyone else’s understanding of a word, especially for a narrative practitioner who claims to be working on behalf of the people to build a better world. Nothing is less democratic, less egalitarian, less progressive or less useful than talking in jargon. This is something that practitioners accuse academics of doing. It’s a refusal to share. It excludes people from the conversation, walls off knowledge and spreads ignorance.

The human brain and mind, in effect, were both the evolutionary cause of humanity’s cultural changes and the object of these same changes.

What does make sense is to remember that the goal of narrative change work is to change human culture by changing narratives. The complex way this works becomes clearer in light of a key theory in cognitive evolution — the study of how evolutionary forces produced the modern human mind. What evolved to make modern humans “was primarily a generalized [cognitive] capacity for cultural innovation,” writes Merlin Donald, the Canadian cognitive neuroscientist. (Donald 1991) Donald says the growth of prehistoric humans’ social groups required more complex cultures that depended on more memory in the brains of early pre-humans. This caused evolution to favor bigger brains with more memory capacity, which, in turn, enabled bigger societies and more complex cultures.

The physical structure of the human brain and the workings of the mind, in effect, were both the evolutionary cause of humanity’s cultural changes and the object of these same changes. This constantly iterating, cyclical idea is important and a bit illusive. So, to emphasize this theory’s description of what happened: as human culture changed, it caused the human brain to change, which caused the culture to change, which caused the brain to change, which caused…. That’s the idea.

It is no coincidence, then, that this chain of brain-culture evolution also drove and was driven by the emergence of instrumental storytelling (discussed in Section 4 below), which has been a primary tool to shape and change culture in every modern human society across the globe. (Lewis-Williams 2002, Barthes and Duisit 1975, Fisher 1987, el al.) So if we sketch the complete cycle of cognitive-cultural change, we must add narrative as a third element that is both agent and object of cultural-cognitive change. We are working within this cycle when we work on narrative change. And the clearest way to see narrative’s role in this cycle is to use the definition that Herman and others propose, essentially equating stories and narratives.

Section 2


At the Winter School, Jan Alber, a professor of narrative and American studies at RWTH Aachen, Germany’s largest public university, talked about the longstanding theory that some stories have more of what makes a narrative a narrative — that is, more of or better versions of the basic elements of narrative (described in the previous section). This variable quality of being-a-narrative is called “narrativity.”

Narrative practitioners tend to dismiss theory as impractical. Many would agree there is nothing more impractical than an abstract theory about an abstract quality of narrative-ness called narrativity. Yet, narratologists believe a proper theory of narrativity holds the answers to most of the most important questions about stories. The 2008 textbook Theorizing Narrativity contains a list of these important questions, including, “Why is a narrative a narrative?” and “What makes a narrative more or less narrative?” (Pier and Garcia Landa 2008) Not to mention the question narrative workers should ask: “What’s the persuasive impact on audiences of increasing or decreasing levels of narrativity?”

This all may sound both circular and useless — So what if narratives possess narrativity? — but the idea that there are levels or degrees of narrativity, just as there are levels of loudness or brightness, is not merely intriguing, it’s potentially very useful for narrative practitioners.

My colleagues and I consistently have hypothesized that “real stories” are more effective at persuasion than any other kind of communication; certainly better than hashtags and memes. Testing narratives against other forms of communication has confirmed this repeatedly. Stories perform better at persuasion than non-stories. But we did not seriously pursue questions like “What’s a real story?” And it hadn’t occurred to me to ask a question like, “Are there levels of story-ness that change a story’s impact on people?”

“Nothing is as practical as a good theory.”

Academic researchers are trying to understand how and why narrative persuasion works. Narrative change practitioners don’t often ask why or how stories persuade. Instead, the practitioners ask “practical” questions, “What works? Which stories actually change people’s minds?”

This leads to testing stories — usually very short ones in online tests. Meaningful results require testing at least two properties of a story: engagement and persuasion. Engagement is critical because if no one will pay attention to a story, there’s no chance for persuasion. If a story engages the audience, it is still necessary to identify whether it persuades people to change their ideas in prosocial ways. Practitioners generally make no systematic effort to fit test results into a comprehensive theory of why or how a story “works.” But every once in a while, these practical test results strongly point to what could be elements of a grand theory explaining how and why narrative persuasion persuades.

This past year, in two totally unrelated projects, persuasion testing on Facebook produced one very interesting finding. Testing for both projects was conducted by Harmony Labs, a respected, nonprofit national media research firm. We created dozens of different narrative Facebook posts for testing. Harmony then showed the posts to thousands of people and surveyed them afterwards about the beliefs we were trying to encourage. Finally, the answers of people who were exposed to our supposedly persuasive stories were compared to answers from a similar control group that saw “placebo” content — similar Facebook posts that had nothing to do with the attitudes we were attempting to change.

One project focused on persuading people to take action in support of nuclear disarmament; the other on dismantling systemic racism in healthcare. In both cases, Harmony tested two versions of a large number of posts. One version featured a single image — a photo or illustration; the other version was identical except it added a second image. The two-image versions, called diptychs, showed more persuasive power than the single-image versions. This phenomenon was first documented in a 2022 project called “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” for the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and confirmed in a national project on healthcare equity by Harmony Labs and Story Strategy Group, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The project is documented in two reports from Harmony, “Storytelling for Health Equity” and “Health Equity Narratives: Content Testing & Strategy Validation.” (Harmony Labs 2023)

In a general way, we predicted diptychs would produce “stronger stories” than single images because they imply change or movement through time. It did not occur to us at the time that “event sequencing” is one of the basic narrative elements. If we had known and considered Herman’s elements, we might have understood more precisely that the additional image was potentially increasing narrativity by adding or enhancing the basic narrative element of temporality. With this understanding, our testing could have explicitly suggested other tests to determine the persuasive impact of altering or adding other basic narrative elements. For example, we might have decided to test the impact of adding more “what it feels like” to our narrative.

Combining practice with theory, in other words, could have enhanced our understanding of what had happened in our testing while also providing data that might have enriched and improved the theory. Having a sound theory to follow (based on prior data, for example) could have given us additional things to test that might have led us quickly to even greater understanding of how to boost a story’s persuasive impact. The resulting tests could have improved our theory. And so on. But if theory and practice remain forever ignorant of one another, these opportunities are lost.

Kurt Lewin, the pathbreaking progressive psychologist known for work on social and organizational change, famously said, “Nothing is as practical as a good theory.” (Greenwood and Levin 1998)

Section 3


Midway through the week in Groningen, the professor in charge of the Winter School boosted the energy level in our antique lecture room with a talk titled, “What The F**k Is Going On?”. The topic was “Conspiracy Theorizing As A Narrative Mode.”

Professor Sjoerd-Jeroen Moenandar (follow the link to pronounce his name correctly) says the narrative mode of conspiracy theories is “undernarration.” One way undernarration works is to leave holes in a story that create uncertainty and, sometimes, profound uneasiness or fear, opening space for audiences to invent material to fill in the nagging, frightful blanks.

Undernarration is not a theory exclusively about “evil” narratives or false ones. Narrative in and of itself is widely believed to be neither good nor bad; its morality is determined by the motives of those who tell the stories. Among the many scholars contributing to this neutral, common-sensical view was Kenneth Burke, whose philosophy of “dramatism” described human thought as the dialog of a dramatic narrative which reveals the actors’ motives, for good or ill. “These forms of thought can be embodied profoundly or trivially, truthfully or falsely,” Burke wrote, (Burke 1945)

But the title of Moenandar’s presentation reminded me immediately of one of Donald Trump’s favorite and most morally reprehensible narratives. A little over a year before he became president, Trump appeared on screens everywhere to recite this story, referring to himself as if he were someone else:

“Donald J. Trump is calling for a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on! [Pause] We have no choice. We have no choice.” (Johnson 2015)

At the time, speculation about the unexplained persuasive power of “Trump’s narrative” was just becoming popular. During his presidency, I wrote that Trump’s declaration of his own ignorance and fear helped to identify him with his followers’ deep stories of being afraid and powerless because unknown and powerful figures were intentionally keeping them in the dark and conspiring against them. (Cheyfitz 2020) I still believe that narrating powerlessness and playing victim is Trump’s superpower. As Moenandar continued his lecture, I was persuaded that undernarration is not only the theory that best explains how narrative is shaped to create beliefs that are not really believable, it’s also the theory that can best prescribe how to counter such strategies.

Moenandar’s theory of undernarrated conspiracy thinking is based on recent path-breaking work by Penn’s Professor Prince. In a soon-to-be-published paper which he shared with me, Prince describes several ways to undernarrate. He focuses primarily on narratives that are “not narrated in sufficient detail.” Moenandar, on the other hand, focuses on another form described by Prince — narratives that are not narrative enough; that are, in Prince’s words, “insufficiently configured and shaped by narrative means.” Moenandar believes there is likely only a “fuzzy” distinction between a narrative that lacks enough detail and one that lacks, we might say, enough narrativity. I agree.

Most importantly to practitioners, I think, Moenandar explicitly describes the kind of undernarration he is talking about as “a narrative act, which is committed for a certain purpose.” For people in narrative change work, this is an extremely clarifying way to think about the bulk of the narratives we work with, both the ones we see as harmful that need to be overcome and those we create to replace the harmful stories. It is also probably important to suggest that undernarration works, in part and for good or evil, by providing space for the audience to co-create their own narratives in alignment with incomplete (undernarrated) prompts provided by others.

…the “main purpose” of such religious texts “is not to inform, but to evoke.” I lean toward believing this is also true… of most political texts in the U.S. and many other countries.

“It is striking that the category of the undernarrated has been discussed at most length in studies on biblical narrative,” Moenandar writes in an unfinished paper that he shared with me. “The reality that is represented in Biblical narrative, remains unexpressed — it can only be hinted at,” he writes, adding, “This is, of course, typical for religious texts in general.” He concludes that the “main purpose” of such religious texts “is not to inform, but to evoke.” I lean toward believing this is also true, again for better and worse, of most political texts in the U.S. and many other countries.

For narrative workers, undernarration provides a framework for understanding all kinds of harmful narratives, from the extreme of QAnon’s objectively nonsensical Pizzagate narrative (German 2016) to more mainstream false narratives, such as “America provides its people with the best healthcare in the world” or “immigrants are sneaking across the border to replace real Americans’’ and so on.

How precisely does a theory of undernarration lead to more effective counter-narratives or to a narrative approach that can rewrite and replace the harmful, undernarrated stories that exert so much power over the shape of our culture? Honestly, I’m not sure. But I see similar structures in both the undernarrated stories I would judge harmful and the ones that might be created to counter them. I believe understanding the workings of these stories is an important step.

So far, neither scholars nor practitioners claim to understand how or why narratives persuade. A recent survey of scholarly papers on narrative persuasion concludes that “…it remains difficult to make a definitive statement about narrative’s ability to alter preexisting beliefs. In fact, as we will show, research findings are outright contradictory.” (Polletta and Redman 2020) On the other hand, the group of practitioners I work with have the beginnings of a description of narrative persuasion’s “basic elements,” which turn out to be consistent with some of the academic thinking.

Describing what’s been learned so far about the elements of narrative persuasion is the work of another lengthy essay. Yet, despite the contradictory state of both theoretical and practical knowledge about narrative persuasion’s workings, we know enough to see that one way to deal with undernarration is seemingly straightforward, if extremely difficult — fill in the blanks of the harmful, undernarrated stories like the one headlined “Make America Great Again.”

This definitely does not mean spewing lots of facts. Every result from content testing and qualitative interviewing, along with the preponderance of findings from neuroscience and psychology, underscore that facts and rational arguments do not persuade effectively; even so-called “rational decisions” are heavily influenced by unconscious feelings and the deep stories that generate them.

The academic debate over the relative importance of so-called facts and so-called emotions in persuasion has proceeded for more than a century. In the 1970s, when many academics were prepared to give up on ever understanding how persuasion works, a highly influential theory — the Elaboration Likelihood Model — argued that there are “just two relatively distinct routes to persuasion.” On one route, persuasion results “from a person’s careful and thoughtful consideration of the true merits of the information presented…;” on the other route, an almost-automatic emotional response changes hearts and minds “without necessitating scrutiny of the true merits of the information presented.” (Petty and Cacioppo, 1986) Marketing science adds an important hint — that facts become significantly persuasive only for someone who already has a deep emotional stake in the idea or the product that is being advocated. Which brings us back to the persuasive supremacy of emotions.

Practitioners of narrative persuasion for social change have avoided facts and relied on emotions, perhaps to a fault. One colleague who read the first draft of this essay wrote, “The notion that you can fill, and possibly redirect, undernarration with values or with humanity is intriguing.” I think that’s exactly right. In addition, we may want to test what happens when we first produce an emotional attachment to an idea and then deploy facts strategically (as anecdotes?) to counter harmful undernarration. Narrative change work, in short, may involve stories that teach the audience after engaging and involving them emotionally.

In their forthcoming papers, Prince and Moenandar agree that very little work has been done on undernarration and they call for much more research and experimentation. This could be one starting point for collaboration between academic theorists and working practitioners.

Section 4


Here’s a summary of a disturbing story I was told at Groningen and have read more about since:

A “storytelling boom” is sweeping the world, driven by “story consultants” who are “attempting to make a profit and gain visibility with storytelling.” These consultants claim they can change people’s opinions with “instrumental narratives” — stories intended to change the way people think and behave in order to achieve a specific goal. They oversimplify social and political issues and misuse people’s personal stories, making it seem that a single personal story can represent the experiences of many who are impacted by complicated social issues. They know and care little or nothing about how narrative works. They only explain how storytelling persuades people by citing vague ideas like “our allegedly universal need for narratives.” They use simple-minded “campfire rhetoric” to explain storytelling’s origins and “cultural role through the ages.” They rarely or never measure the impact of the stories they disseminate. The consultants’ stories are uncritically embraced by unsuspecting audiences, especially on social media, where they spread dangerously far and fast. It’s urgent for everyone to understand: “This wholehearted embrace of storytelling is something that ought to be challenged by narratologists.”

This story summarizes a lecture given at Groningen by Maria Mäkelä, a Finnish professor of literary studies and narrative. Subsequent reading of her’s and other like-minded scholars’ work indicates it’s also fairly representative of the intellectual threads connecting dozens of papers and books written by academics across Europe, the UK and the U.S. This is the core story of a phenomenon called “story-critical scholarship,” which teaches that non-academic “storytelling experts” are misusing narrative and represent a growing danger to society.

The quotes in my summary above are from a paper written by Mäkelä and Hanna Meretoja, another Finnish professor. (Mäkelä and Meretoja 2022) This paper introduced a special issue of the American journal Poetics Today, a quarterly that Duke University Press has been publishing for more than 43 years. The entire summer 2022 issue was edited by Mäkelä and Meretoja, and devoted to story-critical scholarship. Both the introductory paper and the issue are titled “Critical Approaches to the Storytelling Boom.” (Click to download the paper for free.)

There are important elements of truth in any story about the almost infinite ways in which narratives, especially stories told to achieve political or social goals, can go terribly wrong — morally, ethically, factually, artistically. It is also axiomatic that any given narrative can have very different impacts on different audiences. Story-critical scholarship captures some of the possible disasters. But it’s hardly news, of course. It has been clear for a very long time that storytelling lacks and desperately needs a code of ethics. As even a non-thinking generative AI knows (I checked with ChatGPT-4), commentaries on the evil effects of storytelling go back at least two-plus millennia to Plato’s warnings about poets manipulating people’s emotions in the fourth century BCE. (Plato n.d.) Plato’s alarm over the power and potential dangerousness of storytelling is echoed today by cries for book bannings and burnings.

I won’t be repeating the parts of story-critical scholarship that I agree with. This is partly because I think such issues have been and continue to be covered elsewhere. What I believe is being neglected and requires more attention is that the good this branch of scholarship may do has to be weighed against its serious problems — a great deal of over-generalizing coupled with a lack of research and a general failure to properly put arguments in historical context. Specifically, I want to challenge two ideas:

  • The fundamental assertion on which story-critical scholarship rests — that we are in the midst of a “storytelling boom.” This may be appealing in a pop-culture kind of way, but I’ve not seen any story-critical paper support this assertion by citing facts, nor have I ever seen such facts in any study; and
  • Having chosen “storytelling consultants” as their targets, the story-critical scholars and many of their allies consistently repeat a factually wrong, inadequately researched picture of who today’s narrative practitioners are, how they work, what constitutes their base of narrative knowledge and what research and measurement methodologies they employ, particularly on social-change projects with major nonprofits and foundations.

This is a matter of practical importance to narrative practitioners, if only because a foundation grantmaker who funds narrative projects may read a story-critical journal article and raise questions about it. More important to me is the evidence these articles provide of how ignorance spreads when academic theorists and storytelling practitioners rarely or never give each other the time of day.

Let’s start with the idea we’re in a “storytelling boom.”

Narrative is “present at all times, in all places, in all societies; indeed narrative starts with the very history of mankind…”

The mid-1970s and ’80s saw a raft of scholarship that defined narrative as a primary and uniquely human form of communication dating back to the prehistoric moment when modern humans first appeared. David Lewis-Williams, the South African paleo-archaeologist, makes a convincing case that a specific kind of group leader he calls a “shaman” directed the communal creation of the paintings on European cave walls some 35,000 years ago. Lewis-Williams’ findings were first published in the 1970s. His first book, The Mind in the Cave, came out in 2002. Using modern and ancient sources, Lewis-Williams argues convincingly that stories told by the shamans and associated with the cave paintings were instrumental narratives that, among other things, established the storyteller’s special knowledge of the spirit world. This knowledge was rewarded with certain social advantages, Lewis-Williams maintains, initiating social hierarchy. (Lewis-Williams 2002)

There is considerable controversy over Lewis-Williams’ description of the social advantages gained and the nature of the resulting hierarchy. But there is broad agreement that stories were told by prehistoric peoples from the very beginnings of modern humanity and many were told specifically to influence and shape the beliefs and behaviors of group members — to establish group relationships with each other and the living world, to create ethics, to instill accepted knowledge, to define a socially accepted way of behaving. Instrumental narrative, in short, has always been a foundational feature of human culture.

Roland Barthes, the legendary French literary theorist, wrote that narrative is “present at all times, in all places, in all societies; indeed narrative starts with the very history of mankind; there is not, there has never been anywhere, any people without narrative.” (Barthes and Duisit 1975)

Two decades later, Walter R. Fisher, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, wrote, “…I propose a reconceptualization of humankind as homo narrans….” (Fisher 1987) He meant for that scientific name to replace the current designation of the most modern subspecies of humanity, homo sapiens sapiens. Fisher’s renaming of our subspecies replaces wisdom with storytelling as modern humans’ defining feature. Fisher says early in the book that stories are inherently persuasive because they embody an innately understood logic of “‘good reasons’ — values or value-laden warrants for believing or acting in certain ways.” Experienced this way, narratives “are constitutive of people, community, and the world,” Fisher wrote.

More recently, Michael Slater, Social and Behavioral Sciences Distinguished Professor at Ohio State’s communications school, wrote, “The use of storytelling to influence behavior is at least as old as Aesop and is deeply ingrained in Western as well as non-Western cultures….” (Slater 2008) This confirmation of the antiquity and ubiquity of instrumental narrative was part of a chapter he contributed to Narrative Impact, a contemporary compilation of research by both academics and practitioners to gauge the practical power of storytelling in positively impacting social problems by changing audiences’ behavior. (Green, Strange and Brock 2002)

The existence of all this knowledge forces the question of how and why it was either ignored by or thought irrelevant to the purposes of the story-critical scholars. If multiple scholars in multiple disciplines over multiple decades were even directionally correct that storytelling has dominated human communication since the advent of modern humans; if narrative was always present everywhere humans were found; if, from the beginning, many stories were instrumental — created with the specific intent to influence the minds and behaviors of others; then it is difficult or impossible to believe we have a “boom” or “explosion” in storytelling now. It’s very hard to argue that narratives’ influence over society has exploded or boomed when such influence always was present and always was overwhelmingly influential.

We actually appear to be experiencing an expansion — or even an explosion — in awareness of narrative. This expanded awareness is likely due to a real explosion in technologies that allow more people to spread more stories to larger audiences. But there is no hard evidence of any change in the volume of instrumental storytelling (except to the extent there are more people on Earth every day) or in the use of narratives to impact culture, or on the cumulative impact of storytelling on culture. Anyone is free, of course, to disagree with this, but no one — particularly an academic researcher — is free to overlook the long history of instrumental storytelling when advancing a case for the dangers of an allegedly new narrative phenomenon that is said to be distorting society more or with greater impact now than in the past.

Next, let’s consider the villains of the story-critical narrative: the “storytelling consultants” who are framed as culpable participants in the boom, explosion or turn to storytelling. Earlier in this piece, you saw them described as people interested in money and notoriety who know nothing and care less about how narrative persuasion works and, almost universally, either don’t know how or never dare to measure their stories’ impacts. Where did this portrait come from?

Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling, written by Sujatha Fernandes, an Indian-American-Australian writer and sociologist who teaches in Sydney and New York, is an influential source of story-critical thought. (Fernandes 2017)

Fernandes describes a “turn” to personal storytelling in the last 50 years. She argues it has de-emphasized stories of class struggles against systemic social injustice, instead favoring individual stories that ignore complex social problems to promote negotiated, consensus politics. Such “personal” storytelling leaves prevailing power structures unnarrated and untouched. “Telling your story was used as a form of individual healing that avoided questions of structural violence and a broader critique of power relations,” she writes.

Nearly all of the story-critical scholars’ assertions about the work, beliefs and practices of “storytelling consultants” are not sourced at all.

Whether or not you agree with Fernandes’s arguments, she is among the first to introduce the vaguely defined term “consultants” into the history of narrative. She charges, “The contemporary approach to storytelling by political strategists and consultants is one that privileges feeling and emotions, tying them to an amorphous notion of values that discounts a critique of macro structures and political analysis.”

I happen to disagree with Fernandes, seeing her lens as narrowly focused, often ignoring information that is at odds with her thesis. While her charge of oversimplifying social problems is undoubtedly true of some political narratives, it is not true of many others. Still, Fernandes states it as an unqualified generalization.

Seemingly led, at least in part, by Fernandes’s generalization, the term “storytelling consultant” or “consultant” (or, in a few cases, “expert”) has been widely used in story-critical scholarship as a broad, general, pejorative identifier of any non-academic doing narrative or narrative-change work and getting paid for it.

I have not found an instance where the term is defined or quantified. I’ve not seen it qualified by any limiting adjectives, like “some” or “right-wing versus progressive,” for example. Mäkelä and Meretoja do suggest these bad actors include people “such as professional business storytellers and self-help coaches.” No one, as far as I can tell, suggests whom the term does not include. When I asked Mäkelä if she really believed her presentation at Groningen properly described all non-academics doing storytelling work, she volunteered, “I generalize so much.”

Mäkelä is not alone. To some extent, she is joined by Francesca Polletta, a very well known scholar of narrative and social movements at the University of California — Irvine. A 2020 paper that is cited above (Polletta and Redman 2020) makes the apparently dismissive assertion that “storytelling consultants” explain the persuasive power of stories with “little more than” statements “that human beings are ‘storytelling animals’ or are ‘hardwired for stories.’”

A subsequent paper (Polletta, DoCarmo, Ward and Callahan 2021) raises potentially interesting questions about the effects of conflating the needs of storytellers and their audiences. But it seems to confuse “foundations’ enthusiasm for storytelling as a way of publicizing their grantmaking” with the use of storytelling to influence mass audiences’ feelings and thoughts about social problems. Importantly, it expresses surprise that “foundations’ usual concern with measures of tangible impact” are ignored in storytelling projects. The authors lay out a series of critically important things that, they assert, are not mentioned in reports or materials describing narrative-change projects. These missing items that “one” would “expect” or “imagine” to see in such reports include:

  • “evidence of stories’ persuasive power”;
  • “advice on how to tell stories to different audiences”; and
  • “guidance on how advocacy organizations might tell stories that demonstrate impact”.

The authors conclude, “Yet neither experts, activists, nor foundations talked about stories in these ways. Little time or money was spent on measuring stories’ effectiveness.”

My problem is that these broad assertions are simply not true in many or most cases, and not representative of narrative practitioners and their practice across the board, particularly when substantial foundations or private funders are involved.

The gap between the description and reality is not surprising since nearly all of the story-critical scholars’ assertions about the work, beliefs and practices of “storytelling consultants” are not sourced at all. Most of the papers I’ve read that include these descriptions do not reveal how the research, if any, into narrative practitioners and their practices was done. There is no mention of an approach or protocol to ensure research subjects, if any, were representative of the range of approaches to narrative change work.. The most recent paper led by Polletta is a notable if lonely exception, explaining that its statements about consultants are based on interviews with “62 people in the field of professional activism who work on issues ranging from homelessness to sex trafficking and who, as part of their work, collect, coach, and communicate the stories of people affected by the issue.” From a table showing the categories of organizations the interviewees work for, it appears that most were activists and 26 worked for communications firms. The authors report that interviewees were either self-selected after being contacted by one foundation’s health initiative or were known to the authors’ professional contacts. This method of recruitment is not a way to arrive at a representative group within a fairly large and diverse field and, in fact, based on the paper’s findings, the 62 were not representative of the range of approaches known to be in use in narrative work for nonprofits and foundations.

What makes me think the story-critical scholars are not describing the field of narrative practice accurately or fully? As part of my work since 2017 and with increasing attention for the last three years, I have been informally tracking the projects pursued and reported on by nonprofit social-change groups and foundations which are using narrative for social change. I’ve read the reports and spoken with people who conducted projects, big and small. In addition, I have co-written and/or reviewed drafts of several “landscaping” reports that survey the emerging field of narrative work for social change. The most recent of these, produced with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Potts, Lowell and Manne 2022), attests to the plethora of such documents by commenting that “one of the key, if meta, observations of this report…[is]…there are just too darn many reports in the world.”

The report, “Spotlight on Impact Storytelling” (Potts, Lowell and Manne 2022) ranges across the field of storytelling for social change, covering issues that include terminology, content distribution, education and training, research and measurement, sharing and co-creating strategy, and more. The report, while far from definitive, names the significant “methodologies and frameworks” employed to guide research and content creation in the field, lists 10 different “toolkits, guides and creative briefs” currently in circulation, looks at “innovations in audience research,” names shortcomings and directions for improvement, and names and provides links to the websites of dozens of individuals and organizations working in the field, nonprofits and for-profits. (By way of full disclosure, I work regularly with the authors of this report. I was a reader and commenter on early drafts. I am mentioned, as is the research methodology I use and recommend.)

The research protocol I use began at my commercial content agency more than 18 years ago. It’s called the Story Platform Process. I founded and ran the agency, Story Worldwide, for a decade before selling my interest in 2015. It provided advertising and marketing services to global clients, pioneering and emphasizing digital storytelling while also providing more traditional formats, including print products and TV spots. This process has seen frequent use in narrative work for social change. The process is documented in published articles including this “Quick Guide to Narrative Strategy & the Story Platform Process.” It’s been refined and improved by countless collaborators in many projects around the world with commercial and nonprofit clients.

Academics and practitioners can learn from each other if they would only make a minimal effort to do so… [and] recognize that some of the knowledge developed by practitioners is knowledge.

In Appendix 2 at the end of this essay, I list and provide links to several major projects that used the Story Platform Process. Each consumed at least several months. Two lasted more than a year each. Teams of six to more than two dozen people worked on each, including narrative experts, data scientists, social scientists, writers, artists, communications staff, organization and foundation staff, race equity specialists and more. Invariably, the work also engaged dozens of organizers and volunteers in many communities across the country — the people who labor day in and out on every social justice issue imaginable.

A great deal of this work involved concentrated efforts to improve measurement of a story’s impact. This has been and continues to be a very tough job with narrative and there is no current measurement approach that does not have problems and failings. Most measurement approaches used by scholars and practitioners, for example, utterly fail to evaluate the artistic quality of the stories tested. Only rarely is there an attempt to measure a story’s quality — how really well crafted and engaging or below-average, poorly written, preachy or banal it is. We also need to measure long-term effects, not just immediate ones. Measurement needs a lot of improvement. This means measurement will require considerable investment, since it requires quantitative and qualitative research, which can be very expensive.

Setting aside questions about the validity and effectiveness of measurement approaches, however, all the projects linked to in Appendix 2 used an audience segmentation approach to make sure different audiences could be addressed differently, and all projects scientifically tested content for persuasive effectiveness with different audience segments.

Overall, the partners and clients who backed these projects invested large amounts of money in research and measurement: creating and executing measurement protocols, testing content in a variety of ways, conducting deep psychological qualitative research to discover the unconscious feelings and thinking of representative samples of audiences, fielding quantitative surveys, observing audience behavior online, and more.

I could go on, but my object is not to refute the story-critical scholars point by point. I do believe I’ve established the public availability of information that calls into question some of the generalizations made about narrative practice. But my main point is that academics and practitioners can learn from each other if they would only make a minimal effort to do so. One step would be for scholars to recognize that some of the knowledge developed by practitioners is knowledge.

There is deep irony in my having written this entire instrumental narrative to influence beliefs and behaviors of others, some of whom are constructing their own instrumental narratives about the misuse of all instrumental narratives except their own. Given this irony, I need to say, without irony, that I wrote this paper out of hope for the future more than frustration with the present. I believe we have all proven — academics and practitioners — that understanding narrative is important. If we are to change our disastrously governed and torturously unjust world into a better place, we need the best possible understanding of how to use narrative persuasion to change people’s beliefs and behaviors.

My work on narrative has deepened my appreciation of the ways in which the narratives that constitute our society were constructed to isolate each of us in order to limit human knowledge and freedom, which, in turn, limits happiness. My goal is to help transform those limiting narratives into new stories that support the goals of sustainably maximizing human happiness and maintaining the well-being of every living thing. To do that, we need a revolution in the way we think, of course, and that, as Fisher, Barthes and many, many others have argued, will require a revolution in the narratives that constitute our culture.

Section 5


I’m grateful to Steve Rayner, the late Professor of Science and Civilization at Oxford University’s Martin School. I never knew him, but a 2012 article he wrote in the journal Economy and Society has been an inspiration. Titled “Uncomfortable knowledge: the social construction of ignorance in science and environmental policy discourses,” Rayner’s paper explores the core barrier facing all multidisciplinary efforts. Rayner shows how ignorance is produced at the edges of disciplines, where knowledge from one discipline or culture meets related knowledge from another. In such clashes, the validity of different kinds of knowledge is denied. Dominant groups of knowledge-makers decide that other forms of knowledge aren’t knowledge at all. The result is that all knowledge is fragmentary and incomplete; complete knowledge — or, at least, more nearly complete knowledge — would depend on collaboration and negotiation. It remains out of reach.

Very few fields of human knowledge involve more disciplines than narrative studies, and this means narrative knowledge is split by countless barriers and borders that intentionally keep more unknowns unknown. Rayner shows how socially-constructed ignorance is stopping us from understanding narrative persuasion. This is from the abstract of his article:

“To make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world. The process of doing so means that much of what is known about the world needs to be excluded from those versions, and in particular that knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is ‘uncomfortable knowledge’.”

Taken as a whole, this essay of mine has been about embracing different and sometimes contradictory forms of knowledge to synthesize a more complete knowledge of narrative persuasion. It’s about theorists and practitioners in many disciplines really paying attention to each other — recognizing and reckoning with each other’s knowledge. It’s about those with power in a culture — willingly or under extreme duress — seeing the wisdom of other cultures and understanding how much more there is to the world than their narrow knowledge alone can comprehend. Ultimately, it’s about welcoming the uncomfortable knowledge that will result from giving up ignorance to see how much we can learn if we learn together.

Section 6


Barthes, R., and Duisit, L. 1975. “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative.” New Literary History 6 (2): 237–72. https://doi.org/10.2307/468419.

Burke, K. 1945. A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Cheyfitz, K. 2020. “Donald Trump Says He’s Powerless. His Base Is Validated.” Political Narratives: The Blog, May 13, 2020. https://politicalnarrative.us/narrative/2020/5/13/gj66748k0hg2wsck8lrruz8xx2de14.

Clement, S. and Mellnik, T. 2019. “Young people actually rocked the vote in 2018, new Census Bureau data finds.” Washington Post, April 23, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/04/23/young-people-actually-rocked-vote-new-census-data-find/

Donald, Merlin. 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press.

Douglas, M. 1986. How Institutions Think. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Fisher, W.R. 1987. Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Foucault, M. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London and New York: Routledge.

Frameworks. 2021. “The Features of Narratives: A Model of Narrative Form for Social Change Efforts.” Frameworks Institute, September 27, 2021. https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83939659999

German, L. 2016. “Pizzagate, the Fake News Conspiracy Theory That Led a Gunman to DC’s Comet Ping Pong, Explained.” Vox, December 8, 2016. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/12/5/13842258/pizzagate-comet-ping-pong-fake-news.

Green, M., Strange, J.J., and Brock, T., eds. 2002. Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Greenwood, D.J., and Levin, M. 1998. Introduction to Action Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Gross, M., and McGoey, L., eds. 2015. Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies. New York: Routledge.

Harmony Labs. 2023. “Storytelling for Health Equity.” Harmony Labs Medium publication, January 18, 2023. https://medium.com/harmony-labs/storytelling-for-health-equity-fb17a857da2c And “Health Equity Narratives: Content Testing & Strategy Validation.” Harmony Labs’ Narrative Observatory, January 2023. https://narrativeobservatory.org/strategy-validation

Herman, D. 2009. Basic Elements of Narrative. Chichester, UK, and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Johnson, J. 2015. “Trump Calls for ‘Total and Complete Shutdown of Muslims Entering the United States’.” Washington Post, December 7, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/12/07/donald-trump-calls-for-total-and-complete-shutdown-of-muslims-entering-the-united-states/.

Lewis-Williams, D. 2002. The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Mäkelä, M., and Meretoja, H. 2022. “Critical Approaches to the Storytelling Boom.” Poetics Today 43 (2): 191–218. https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-9642567.

Petty, Richard E., and John T. Cacioppo. 1986. “The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 19:124–125, edited by Leonard Berkowitz. Orlando, San Diego, New York, Austin, London, Montreal, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto: Academic Press, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Pier, J., and Garcia Landa, J.A., eds. 2008. Theorizing Narrativity. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Plato. n.d. The Republic. Books III and X. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Project Gutenberg. Updated September 11, 2021. Accessed April 11, 2023. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm#link2H_4_0013.

Polletta, F., DoCarmo, T., Ward, K.M., and Callahan, J. 2021. “Personal Storytelling in Professionalized Social Movements.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 26 (1): 65–86. https://doi.org/10.17813/1086-671X-26-1-65.

Polletta, F., and Redman, N. 2020. “When Do Stories Change Our Minds? Narrative Persuasion About Social Problems.” Sociology Compass 14:e12778. https://doi.org/10.1111/soc4.12778.

Potts, E., Lowell, D., and Manne, L. 2022. “Spotlight on Impact Storytelling: Mapping and Recommendations for the Narrative and Cultural Strategies Ecosystem.” Liz Manne Strategy. https://www.lizmanne.com/what-we-do/spotlight-on-impact-storytelling.

Prince, G. 2008. “Narrativehood, Narrativeness, Narrativity, Narratability.” In Theorizing Narrativity, edited by John Pier and José Angel Garcia Landa, 19–27. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Prince, G. [1987] 2020. A Dictionary of Narratology, Revised Edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press; Ann Arbor: Distributed by Proquest.

Proctor, R.N., and Schiebinger, L., eds. 2008. Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ryan, M. 2007. “Toward a Definition of Narrative.” In The Cambridge Companion to Narrative, edited by David Herman, 22–38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI:10.1017/CCOL0521856965.002. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/abs/cambridge-companion-to-narrative/toward-a-definition-of-narrative/6C37F3A9ADFFEB22F705F0F0B6D0565F.

Slater, M.D. 2002. “Entertainment Education and the Persuasive Impact of Narratives.” In Narrative Impact, edited by Melanie C. Green, et al, 157–181. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Smithson, M. 1989. Ignorance and Uncertainty: Emerging Paradigms. New York: Springer New York.



Below are some of the people with whom I have been fortunate to collaborate, in many cases for years. Collectively and individually, we have been working in diverse ways to make the world a better place for everyone, including by advancing narrative research and practice, improving the measurement of storytelling’s impacts and producing meaningful results for social justice. Each has helped refine and improve a rigorous set of research protocols for narrative change work within a sound theoretical picture of how narrative persuasion works. I’m indebted to all of them. Needless to say, I’m solely responsible for all opinions in this article and for any mistakes or errors that may be found.



The account I offer of impact storytelling and narrative change work, particularly for large and sophisticated nonprofits and foundations, is based on my own experiences working on major projects and advising or just talking with others who are doing the same sort of work. Here are links to some of the extensive documentation that exists describing research methods and results of some significant projects that I contributed to:

Story at Scale, 2020.

Story at Scale’s Executive Summary describes the project as a “year-long collaboration of researchers, data scientists, artists, advocates, and organizers to develop and test a new cultural strategy to advance gender justice. Using big data and a collaborative, creative process, the project delivered audience research and a narrative foundation to guide artists and campaigners in telling stories that reflect the world we seek: a joy-filled life in a gender-just future.” This project was funded by the Culture Change Fund, a consortium of some dozen foundations housed at the Women’s Foundation of California. Its long time frame, large multidisciplinary team, rigorous approach to audience research and content testing, and, ultimately, its results were extremely influential in establishing accepted approaches for the field.

A World Without Nuclear Arms, 2021.

This national project was commissioned by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the leading independent think tank on national security issues in Washington D.C. The mission was to create and test a core narrative and creative executions to overcome apathy and increase activism for worldwide nuclear disarmament. This project advanced narrative strategy across the board by documenting how stories of a better future are a key element of narrative persuasion for social change.

Butterfly Lab For Immigrant Narrative Strategy, 2020–23

Race Forward directed this multi-year narrative research and cultural organizing project to significantly expand public support and investment in a pro-immigrant future. Worthy Strategy Group and Kirk Cheyfitz/POLITICAL NARRATIVE were part of the team commissioned to conduct qualitative research and advise the Lab on narrative strategy.

Storytellers’ Guide to Changing the World 2.0, 2020 and 2022

Culture Surge, a coalition of diverse social-impact groups partnering organizers and artists to create culture-changing work, originally commissioned the Storytellers’ Guide in mid-2020 and, responding to demand, directed a new “2.0” edition in 2022. Erin Potts, a leader in cultural organizing, and Kirk Cheyfitz wrote both versions. The mission of both documents was to survey significant narrative persuasion projects for social change and synthesize the results into a set of plain-language recommendations for impactful storytelling. The Guide’s intended audience is grassroots organizers and artists who want to create and disseminate stories in support of movements for positive change. One way to read the Guide is as an informal theory of the elements of narrative persuasion.

“Audiences for Health Equity Narratives in U.S. Media” 2022–23

This is Harmony Labs’ final report on the Health Equity Narrative Project (“HEN” for short), a major national project supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. HEN was designed and led by Harmony and Story Strategy Group. The mission was to conduct a narrative research project aimed at using storytelling to help dismantle structural racism in U.S. healthcare systems. This report illustrates an important approach to content testing methodology using Harmony’s values-based audience segmentation. Another account of the project, “First-Aid for Healthcare’s Narrative Emergency,” commissioned and first published by Harmony, describes the research protocol and the structured analysis that produced the content that was found in testing to be most effective at engaging and persuading audiences in all segments.

Midwest Culture Lab, 2018

This national project was led by the Alliance for Youth Organizing in collaboration with a coalition of nonprofit grassroots youth organizations — Chicago Votes, Ohio Student Association, and We The People (Michigan). The goal was to increase the civic and political participation of young people, particularly youth of color in the Midwest, by integrating locally-rooted cultural organizing and story-driven content strategy with grassroots, youth organizing. The Midwest Culture Lab Story Platform Report influenced the strategy and communications tactics of numerous large organizations focused on getting out the youth vote. This included the largest — NextGen America. A significant shift to the kind of storytelling recommended by the Midwest Culture Lab coincided with and presumably contributed to a near-doubling of voting in the 2018 midterms among 18-to-29-year-olds — from 20 percent in 2014 to 36 percent. It marked a “a 100-year high in … midterm congressional elections.” (Clement and Melnik, 2019)



Kirk Cheyfitz

Author, storyteller, narrative strategist for progressive causes & candidates. Pioneer in content marketing, impact storytelling, & narrative strategy.