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Hacking Narratives

12 minute read
Deb Lavoy avatar

The Oxford English Dictionary chose the word of the year for 2016 — “post-truth.” 

This is, in effect, an announcement that we have entered the narrative era. A time when beliefs can be liberated from facts. An end, perhaps, to the Age of Reason and a rebirth of the mythical age. 

We’ve arrived at a place where how you present an idea has more impact than its objective merit, an age where communication talents may be the most crucial skill of all. 

There are some beautiful things about the narrative era. We have TED and its multitudinous progeny. We have John Green’s Crash Course. We have Hamilton. We have Malala. We have Elon Musk telling us bedtime stories of clean energy and life on Mars. We had Steve Jobs spinning tales of the future and making tech look cool. We had John Stewart who spoke truth to apathy. 

We live in a complex world. A good education a hundred years ago meant some arithmetic, literature and French. Maybe a touch of botany, chemistry or astronomy. 

Now the world’s body of knowledge is so broad and deep, that no one person can study it all. The global, connected world presents us with hundreds of urgent and pressing issues of politics, identity, climate, technology, art and religion. Our cities, schools and work. Food. 

Narratives Slay Apathy

Millions of issue threads and snippets of information permeate our world. It becomes white noise. Information overload. 

Apathy is a completely normal response to it. There is too much to care about. I can’t care about it all. I can’t understand it all.

Narrative combats apathy. Narrative focuses. It is a path to understanding and empathy with an idea. 

In the last decade, we’ve seen narrative become the dominant instrument of learning, business, technology and politics. It’s always been here, but it hasn’t always been so profoundly important, so dominant.

If you want people to care about your idea (or product, or policy, or whatever), you need a powerful narrative. A much more diluted version of this is why marketing was invented in the first place. In the narrative era, the post-truth time, it is essential for ideas to live beyond a few devotees.

Narratives Inform Beliefs

Narrative is the most naturally and universally consumed substance in the universe. It is the wavelength of meaning. Why do people believe what they do? How is it that when faced with the same facts, two people will walk away with completely different interpretations of what they mean and their implications? 

You interpret the world around you based on the narratives in your head. Some narratives are big ones. Like the religion you grew up with or the notion that the earth revolves around the sun. Gravity keeps us grounded. Time travels in one direction. 

These core beliefs underlie our ability to function in the world with our limited mammalian brains. 

Then there are smaller narratives. These narratives frame how we think about food, beauty, politics, world events, community events, school and work. What we know about a person. What we think about the economy. 

These smaller narratives influence (but do not determine) what we believe. Our narratives explain to us whether and why the glass is half full or half empty. They guide us to be grateful or worried.

Why Hack a Narrative? Two Reasons:

1. You want to persuade people to see the world the way you do

If you are in business or government or politics or development work or academia or science or engineering, you will need to help people appreciate your work. You’ll want to do this so that they will support it, buy it, talk about it or contribute to it.

2. You want to be smarter than an eighth-grader

Research shows that middle-schoolers are unable to distinguish real news from fake. You want to be discerning in which narratives you choose to adopt.

To thrive in this world you need to be both a builder of great narratives as well as a very smart consumer of them. So you need to know what makes them tick.

Some narratives are generally harmless. Others not so much. “Oreos are cool!” is pretty harmless. “Technology is cool!” could have unintended consequences. “Science is valid!” seems pretty important. 

Choose your narratives intentionally. Ask what their intentions are. Look for proof, then validate the proof. Don't allow repetition to lull you into believing things that need further examination.

We Need to Be Wise in the Ways of Narrative Warfare

Last night I saw “Wicked” at the Kennedy Center. This play is not new. In it we see the Wicked Witch of the West cast as the noble hero. We see how she was labeled “wicked,” and how it stuck. 

We have seen narratives as powerful shapers of history. How rebels become founding fathers. How nationalism becomes something very dark. 

We, as a society, desperately need narratives. We need them to drive commerce. But we also need them to drive civil society. And governments. What, after all, is democracy if not a shared, not-quite-global, no longer ascendant narrative?

What Makes a Narrative Persuasive?

1. It connects to core fears or aspirations

If you are building a narrative, this means you need to think about three things. First, what is the very essence of why you matter? Second, who are you talking to? Third, what are their core aspirations and anxieties? 

Nike did this brilliantly with the chubby little jogging boy. We are all a little afraid, a little less than our ideal, and we all want to find the courage to get out there and “Just Do It.”

I spoke to a lawyer in the non-proliferation business the other night. He said he wants “to ensure no nuclear bombs explode.” 

A noble goal. But not one that’s necessarily relevant to the person he’s selling to, so to speak. Power, on the other hand, is interesting to that buyer. Non-proliferation can be framed as the key to US power abroad. Still true, but now in the buyer's language.

If you’re on the listening end of such narratives, if you hear something that moves you, you need to ask two questions. The first is the intention of the narrative source. Why do they want to influence you and in what way? The second is “Does it make sense?”

2. It 'makes sense'

A narrative includes not just an aspiration, but a sense of how you get there from here. If you want to be a fit hero, you need to exercise habitually. If you want to sell collaboration software, you need to know the key to collaboration. If you want to sell chocolate you need to explain why yours is better than theirs. If you are selling a political agenda, you must explain how you intend to make the world a better place. 

An aspiration without some explanation is just a slogan. Slogans can be very powerful, but they don’t stand up to scrutiny by themselves.

If it makes sense, then you have to ask exactly what is being asked or offered.

3. It presents an offer

If you’re looking to influence people, you need to consider what you’re trying to influence them to do. Quit smoking? Buy pizza? Buy a new software platform? Subscribe to your magazine? 

I cannot tell you how many clients I see who when asked what, exactly, they sell, stutter and stumble for a few minutes. 

That is as common as it is unacceptable. It might be useful to review this if you’re a narrative builder. If you’re the audience, again question the intention and ask if this is actually what you need or want. 

4. There’s proof

If you’re a narrative builder, you need to give people confidence that what you’re saying is valid. That people should trust you. That means you need whatever proof points you can find. Maybe you have data. Maybe you have testimonials. Maybe you have the recommendation of a renowned person. 

If you’re the audience, look at those proof points. Make sure they are as valid as the source says. Ensure that they are reputable and do not have motivations that are not aligned with your own. Listen. 

Almost every one of us — myself included — has seen some fake news recently. I’ve gotten some from college professors. You can’t be too careful. Be skeptical. Be smarter than an eighth-grader. 

Learning Opportunities

Not sure about the source? Find out what others say about the source. Google can help or hurt here. FactCheck.org — a source of unbiased political fact checking has this advice that works in nearly every realm, including politics.

5. It is shareable

This one is critically important for narrative builders. You may have refined your narrative into words that resonate with people. You have made it make sense. You’ve constructed a concrete action (vote, buy, donate, believe). You have some proof points. 

Now comes the most important step. Shareability. 

It means this: If I see it and like it, I should be able to explain it to anyone and everyone else I talk to. Ideas cannot spread if they cannot be conveyed. 

Here’s what happens when they aren’t. You talk to me about your new startup. I think it’s exciting. When I talk to my fellow investors or potential clients, all I can say is that you’ve “got something” and it may have potential. Unlike the case where “she’s actually found a way to make college applications easy, and you need this app for your kid.” Or whatever real or imagined value you’re slinging. 

If your message is shareable, instead of sending my colleagues to your website because I clearly don't understand your product, I’m spreading the actual message. A much more potent action. 

Think of it this way: if I tell three people that I think you’re exciting, it's possible one or more will look you up — maybe. But if I tell three people about your idea, you’ve already won.

Simple words spread. Music spreads, humor spreads. Social media links spread. If you want your ideas and your influence to spread, they must be shareable. 

6. Continual repetition

People do not abandon long-held beliefs in a moment. No matter how clever your line is, you’ll need to work harder than that. 

Repetition is key. Repetition with variations is even better. When you hear it in different words, in different places and from different people, you start to get used to the message. This is the third point of content marketing (the first is to show up in search results, the second is to build a credible reputation for expertise).

You build familiarity. And then suddenly it slips into your consciousness. That is, unless you have a very, very strong anti-narrative, or a sharply tuned ability to discern and analyze a narrative for it’s substantive value.

So How Do We Hack Narratives?

Rand corporation just published an article on the black hat version of narrative hacking. The article, entitled "The Russian 'Firehose of Falsehood' Propaganda Model," basically says modern Russian propaganda has three potent ingredients: entertainment, lies and repetition. 

How can we be the “white hat” narrative builders? Dana Boyd talks about “Attention Hacking,” and it’s brilliant. But we need to do more than garner attention, we need to win hearts and minds. How do we do it? 

Truth, beauty and repetition. 

1. Truth

Commit to promoting things that are based in reality and create value for people. Start by listening hard to what people are already thinking and saying. You need to understand how your audience interprets messages. What does the relevant vocabulary mean to them? What are their anxieties and aspirations?

What are they accustomed to seeing and hearing? How can you tweak that just enough to startle them into attention but not so much that they laugh it off or ignore it? 

Once you understand that as deeply as possible, you can start to build messages that aren’t just expressing what is important to you, but optimizing how they will be interpreted by your audience.

Then examine your own truth. What do you have that you need to share? How can you present it so that it will reach their ears? 

This is the hard part. It takes time, effort and courage to uncover and organize your core meaning (you may need a narrative hierarchy framework).

2. Beauty

Presentation matters a lot. Make it beautiful, interesting, engaging. Impossible to ignore. You need someone who’s great with words and someone who’s great with visuals. You can’t afford not to do this. 

Part of building beauty is building a bridge from what’s in their hearts and minds, and what’s in yours. What do they need to hear, see, understand to get from where they are to where you want them to be?

3. Repeat (and build on)

Every day. There is no definitive argument that will sway people. It is an aggregation, a swell of familiarity, of small movements, of confirming signals from a variety of sources, especially their peers.

Every thing you put on your blog, your site, your social accounts, your ads will contribute to a larger, more credible, more impactful narrative. Keep it cohesive. Keep it linked.

When All Is Said

If you’re in marketing, you are a narrative builder. We are both the shapers of narratives and their consumers. We decide. How will we enable people to thrive in a narrative world? How will we enable government, business and media? 

The best is yet to come.

About the author

Deb Lavoy

Deb Lavoy is the founder and CEO of Narrative Builders — a consultancy that helps organizations build narratives that convey the power of their business, product or idea. She has been in the business of online, social and digital business for more than two decades.

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