Narrative primer for understanding the power of narrative as the core tool of influence.

Paul Cobaugh
Feb 27, 2018 · 7 min read

27 February 2018

Paul Cobaugh, VP at Narrative

Basic narrative terminology

Narrative is in my opinion, one of those “buzz-words” so often used but not well understood. As that narratives are now being weaponized by the likes of Russia, violent extremists and others, it is long overdue that we acquire a better understanding of: what narrative is, how it works and more importantly, its role in offensive and defensive campaigns, or as we at Narrative Strategies prefer, “Operational Narrative”.

This relatively short paper will attempt to succinctly describe/ inform on the basic following topics:

· What is narrative

· The “big three” elements of narrative

· Weaponized narrative

· Operational narrative/ comprehensive narrative strategy

o Family of narratives

What is narrative?

Narrative is as natural to human beings as breathing. We are meaning-seeking animals and our primary means of meaning-making is narrative. Narrative is the way we create, transmit, and in some cases, negotiate meaning. Without narrative, life would be experienced as an unconnected and overwhelming series of random events. We organize, prioritize, and order our experiences through narratives that we usually inherit. What’s more, we understand not only the world around us, but also ourselves, through the narratives we live by; our personal narratives inform our personal identities, our tribal/familial narratives inform our tribal/familial identities, and our national narratives inform our national identity.

“Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality, along with other parts, like dispositional traits, goals, and values,” writes Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, along with Erika Manczak, in a chapter for the APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology.

An example, familiar to most regarding these attributes, are the two epic narrative poems of Homer; The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both works are replete with examples of how Homer portrayed the identities of individuals and groups and gave meaning to those identities. These iconic works, still powerful millennia later well demonstrate the durability of identities presented in a well-constructed narrative.

The “big three” elements of narrative: 1. Identity 2. meaning not truth 3. structure


The whole point of employing a tool such as narrative is that it is a powerful communication tool that triggers predictable behavior. As any marketing professional knows, “knowing your target audience” is crucial. Without such analysis all marketing of products and ideas would be either ineffective or radically less effective. What most don’t realize is that TAA (target audience analysis) is demographic and data driven. Demographics and data, while part of identity is quite far from the whole of identity. Precision understanding of an audience requires understanding the identity of those targeted, not merely the demographics such as age, race, religion, buying preferences etc.

When most successful, the identity of the narrator becomes bonded with that of the target audience, hence making it extremely difficult to counter regardless of facts. This accounts for the current phenomena of “fake news” enthusiasts being incapable of accepting truth over the narrative of the narrator they’ve bonded with.

“Identity: Narratives both transmit identity and co-create identity. For example; a strategic narrative when employed with supporting lesser narratives will trigger the identity layers (as many as possible) of the target audience in order to create an “us” between the messenger and the TA, or a “them” attached to the opposition.”

Dr. Ajit Maan, President, Narrative Strategies

Meaning, not truth

Narratives do not necessarily tell the truth, they give meaning to a succession of events, facts (real or otherwise). That does not necessarily imply that narratives involve patent dishonesty although they may. It does though mean that when narrative is presented based on the art and science of narrative it does not allow the audience to derive their own meaning. The narrator (s) control this.

As an example: As an American and a Texan, the story of the Alamo is another very good example of meaning, not facts as expressed through narrative. Presented from the American side, the fight at the Alamo for Texan independence from Mexico was a soul-stirring story recounting the meaning of fighting for freedom against an oppressive government. The 1960s movie starring John Wayne is the narrative that most Americans identify with although historical analysis reveals many glaring discrepancies with the movie. The same story told from the Mexican perspective was one of a courageous Mexican army marching several thousand kilometers to put down a rebellion of disrespectful and ungracious insurgents. Both versions of the same story and with common facts give divergent meanings to the identities of both American and Mexican audiences. Such is the power of a persuasive narrative.


Form/Content: When most of us think of a narrative we think about what the narrative is about — the theme or the content. Equally important though is structure or form. What the story is about is content and how the story is told, the structure. Both form and structure are culturally dependent.

Generally speaking, western stories follow a different path than non-western. For example, a western styled narrative will generally be relatively linear with a beginning, middle (conflict) and end or resolution. This is not necessarily the form non-western literature takes. It is fairly common outside the west for story-telling to take a meandering path as well as be epic in nature. Meaning and multiple conflicts or evolutions will occur throughout the telling with characters displaying identity traits common among the elements of society most likely to hear, read or watch the story. Also, common will be that the challenges or conflict encountered will be those most common to the intended audience. This allows the narrator to express meaning in how those challenges are met, resolved (or not) and all within the framework of identities common among intended audiences.

In addition to the style of the narrative is the method of narration/ dissemination. Where an epic poem (type of narrative) can be delivered by a narrator or cultural story-teller in many parts of the world, in Western culture, narrative forms can be as simple as a tweet or short online post that gets straight to the point. Culture, hence identity matters.

“Weaponized narrative”

The term “Weaponized Narrative” (WN) has come into relative prominence in the wake of Russian efforts against the West. WN is a piece of an overarching narrative strategy. WN, a specialized type of narrative is designed to fill the cognitive space that specifically targets the weaknesses/ vulnerabilities of an adversary by establishing “meaning, not facts” which triggers behavior, sustains the status quo and crowds out competing narratives. Once established, simply countering such a narrative is very difficult without a compelling narrative of your own.

In the case of Russian meddling in the US and other Western nations, the Ru narrative or as discussed later, “family of narratives” were designed to trigger predictable behavior in the identity of separate and opposing elements of Western society as well as “sell” Russian legitimacy for their acts of aggression in places like Ukraine and Syria.

Weaponized narrative is powerful because it targets predictable behavior by way of emotional responses, most often fear. This subset of WN can often be described as “conflict narrative”.

Operational narrative/ comprehensive narrative strategy

Operational narrative or a comprehensive narrative strategy is a complete package of both offensive and defensive narratives coordinated to both degrade adversarial audiences and to build resilience within friendly audiences. When thinking about a complete narrative strategy, a good analogy is a sport such as football that includes both offensive and defensive strategy and more importantly, a game plan which encompasses both.

As with any sporting event, the team must play both offensive and defense, execute a game plan and play at a superior level if your team is to win. Not employing any of these elements most often results in a loss for your team. In the case of Russia vs. many Western nations, this has been and still is to some extent the case. Simply put, Russia is deploying a powerful offensive or weaponized narrative strategy with impunity and largely unopposed. Their vulnerability though is that they are not playing much defense except by insulating their populace from a Western narrative by restrictive measures.

“Family of narratives”

FoN (family of narratives) is a far more complex but requisite construct. I will try and simplify as much as possible and again use Russian information warfare as the example.

Russia does not only deploy a WN that says Ru is good, honest and strong while contrasting the West as weak, divided and a threat to themselves and others. In order to “sell” this idea they use a great many sub-narratives such as designed to:

· Highlight divisive issues in Western society such as:

o Migration

o Nationalism

o Racial issues

o Economic disparity

o Hypocrisy

o Etc.…

· Russian strength and legitimate rights such as:

o Russian involvement in Ukraine is based on a distorted right to assert protection of Russians at risk from a corrupt Ukrainian gov.

o Russia is the good and loyal friend of Syria wishing only to destroy terrorists and support the rightful regime/ government

o NATO is encroaching on Russia’s western border and is a threat

o Etc.

These sub narratives are what are best described as a family of narratives. All speak to different identities of different audiences, all portray meaning, not truth and all are delivered in a form/ structure most suited to triggering predictable behavior in each audience. All support their over-arching narrative and attendant themes and most importantly, each “family member” supports the family narrative as a whole.


Hopefully, the preceding basic explanations regarding narrative are of value to those concerned about the overwhelming role of influence impacting everything from national security at the top all the way down through local politics.

Influence is a primary weapon in today’s conflicts. Adversaries such as Russia, N. Korea, extremists etc. all aggressively employ influence in pursuit of their objects and against Allied objectives. In my professional opinion, if and when we begin actually competing in the field of influence, the power of narrative must be at the core of our efforts.


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