Telling the story of strategy?

smartMeme's Re:imagining Change

Simmering away in the background for the last 12-18 months has been a 3-way conversation between facilitators from Rhizome, Seeds for Change and Turning The Tide. As you’ll have seen from other posts in this strategy dialogue all have encountered enough issues with facilitating strategy for activists that they’ve been looking at new approaches. One such has been the story-based approach from the smartMeme collective in the USA .

Here’s a brief intro to what it’s all about, and a brief critique to explain why we’ve felt the need to customise the approach for a UK context.

Are you sitting comfortably?
In Re:imagining Change, smartMeme argue that the medium of stories gives us a new model for strategy. They talk in terms of Narrative Power Analysis, an analysis which runs something ike this:

We’re brought up on stories – everything from the creation myths of our religions to the existence of Santa Claus. We hear stories every time we turn on the news or read a newspaper – “the war on terror is keeping us safe”, for example. Just the phrase ‘war on terror’ evokes a whole cast of characters from the caves of Tora Bora, the streets of Kabul, Burnley and Wooton Bassett, the burning towers of New York, and the cells of Guantanamo Bay, along with all the cultures (and clashes of cultures) that come with them.

A story-based approach to campaign strategy homes in on the stories that people have heard so often that they’ve accepted and even internalised. These smartMeme call control myths – stories we’re so familiar with that we even propagate them through our own actions, lifestyles and conversation. Which of us, in our culture, doesn’t play a role in spreading the story of the need for consumerism, for example, even if it’s ethical consumerism?

The art of story-based strategy is to subvert these stories and create new endings that bring about the changes we want to see in the world. And because stories are engaging, story based strategy can also be more engaging.

Challenging assumptions
Buying into the prevailing control myths, by definition, means that we’re making assumptions such as: “I’m at danger from terrosrism”, or “the government wouldn’t lie to me”. Often we activists assume that if we could just shout loud enough about an issue and give people the facts they are lacking, they would join our cause. But people are conditioned to ignore information that doesn’t fit into their existing understanding the world –  the control myths that they’ve bought into.

The story-based approach says we’re much more effective as campaigners when we forget about bombarding people with facts and figures and find ways to challenge their control myth assumptions. The “facts” alone are not enough to persuade them. Their assumptions and pre-existing attitudes stop the facts making sense, so we need to meet them where they are at, join them in their story, and then subvert the ending.

The tool that smartMemes use to analyse control myths and find tactics to subvert them is called the Battle of the Story

The Battle of the Story
The Battle of the Story is a set of steps that help activists get inside the heads of those we campaign against and find the most useful points in their story to intervene and rewrite the ending. for example, we commonly take action at physical points in the story – at the factory gate, the annual general meeting, the supermarket or the government office. smartMeme advocate taking action at the point at which the assumptions are being made – what they call the Points of Intervention. This may well be the same physical location, but our action will be different. Will blocking the factory gate challenge control myths? If not we find new tactics…

smartMemes advocate the use of the meme: an image, action or phrase that can act as the capsule for our message a way of getting our message into the minds of those we campaign against in such a way that it opens those minds to a new ending to the story. They use case studies of banner hangs, billboard subverts, and dramatic action-stunts to illustrate the concept of the meme. An example would be the WTO/Democracy banner hang before the 1999 WT talks, which, they argue, reframed the talks and made new endings possible…

a meme?

A critique
OK so that’s a whistle-stop tour of quite a complex theory. We’ve been playing with it for a while, have trialled it at last year’s Peace News summer gathering, and used other facilitators to test out the exercises. And that’s led to the development of the following critique

On the plus side the theory shows:

  • the potential for a more creative and engaging analysis of the context in which we’re campaigning and which we want to change – a step away from dryer approaches to strategic thinking
  • the potential to get into our ‘opponents’ head in a more useful and constructive way
  • the potential to challenge us to use tactics that effectively take on the assumptions of the powerholders and help make change happen.

On the downside there are still problems we’re ironing out:

  • UK campaigners have been wary of the ‘meme’ – their response so far is that it feels like a PR exercise rather than a more meaningful action. The smartMeme approach has the feel of a very media-savvy technique which not all activists are comfortable with. To be fair we’ve tested it out with activists who tend to be wary of mainstream corporate media. For activists who believe in the power of that media, the response may be the opposite
  • the language and case studies used in Re:imagining Change are very US-focused and non-US facilitators might need to take the time to find alternative, and more culturally appropriate examples
  • the tools that smartMeme suggest don’t seem to live up to the creativity of the theory as a whole. For example key stages of the thinking process such as the Battle of the Story are offered as rather dry worksheets, and facilitators might need to liven the exercises up a bit
  • the language of traditional strategic thinking has always been full of jargon. With the smartMeme approach there’s a danger of replacing one set of jargon with another

In summary, the Battle of the Story is a useful process (though it may need streamlining), and the concept of Points of Intervention articulates a useful alternative for finding a focus for our actions. Memes? At the moment we can take them or leave them but that might change as our understanding of the process matures!

Parts of this post were first written for Making Waves, the magazine of Turning the Tide