In September, DFF held a three-day workshop exploring how digital rights activists can use different forms of communication as a tool to bolster and complement digital rights litigation. In this new series of blog posts, our trainers revisit some topics and discussions from that workshop and share their recommendations with our readers.
If you work on strategic litigation campaigns, maybe you’ve heard this before:
“How do I turn this legal argument into a good story?”
“How do I make people understand this is a good policy?”
“How do I get people to engage with this issue and not put them to sleep?”
There are some assumptions at work here. We assume that we need to lead with the rational argument – the policy, the law, the factual matrix – and sprinkle on a story afterwards, like glitter to make it shine. We also assume that people consider the facts logically, reflect on them, then make a decision, even though we also know that’s not how it works.
If our audience is the court, legislators, or policy-makers, focusing on the logical appeal to reason makes sense. But if our goal is to build broad social support for a new idea, to persuade others that the way things are is not the way they need to be, sticking to this approach of “getting our message out”, come what may, risks alienating the very people we need to win our case and realise the dream in our vision.
Storytelling is about listening
There’s another way to begin. George Saunders said “two people, mutually respectful, leaning in, one speaking so as to compel, the other listening, willing to be charmed” is “a hopeful mode of human interaction.”
Storytelling in campaigning is not glitter, and it’s not a mechanical trade of facts in exchange for action. It’s an act of co-creation, one that begins with listening deeply to the co-creators (we sometimes refer to them as “audiences”), and then using what we hear to make conscious choices about what we include in building our story, and how we tell that story so others will want to join us.
As has been said at Greenpeace, there are “no passengers, only crew” in the work of changing the world. We assume that people who care aren’t content with sitting in the stands. They want to get down onto the pitch and join the unfolding drama.
Who are your co-creators, and what do they need or want from you in order to play a role in supporting the work? Your research will surface more specifics on this question in your context. But all stories have listeners, and any listener is looking for you to answer a few key questions:
“Who are you?”
“What’s this about?”
In other words, “why should I care?”
If we’ve done a decent job, they might ask, “what’s going to happen next?” or “what can I do to help?”
Storytelling is about making strategic choices
How might you begin to build your story, and then tell it well?
You can begin by answering those questions. Storytelling is about making conscious decisions about what your story is about. You can begin with mapping a handful of story elements: vision, values, role, narrative landscape, framing and characters.
1. “Who are you?”
Your vision, values, and the role you’ll play
First, as campaigners, we have to be able to imagine and paint in vivid detail the more beautiful world we say is possible. As Ursula K. Le Guin says, “The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary”.
As campaigners, many of us can paint the broken world in our sleep. But what freedom dream sparkles at the edges of our imaginations?
We need to know what our core values are – the moral place we act from – so we can express it in all we do and say. What values lie deep in the well that motivates our actions? Maybe it’s justice, courage, equality, truth. Your values will manifest in your voice, language, tone, and behaviour.
What can we uniquely contribute to that vision we painted?
We need to know what our role will be in the wider movement for change. What can we uniquely contribute to that vision we painted? Maybe you will use your strengths to shine a light on privacy issues, draft model legislation, help people wrench back control of their data, or demystify how algorithms work.
2. “What’s this about?” and “Who’s involved”?
Map the narrative landscape
The narrative landscape is a contested space. In the “court of public opinion”, as anyone who has scrolled through Twitter or stumbled into a comments section learns, there are no adjudicators of fact, no obligations to argue in good faith, and no ethical duty to be honest, courteous, or independent. The same entrenched broken narratives can persist over years, but new narratives emerge all the time.
In the “court of public opinion” … there are no adjudicators of fact, no obligations to argue in good faith, and no ethical duty to be honest, courteous, or independent
Understanding the context in which these narratives appear is important: who’s telling them? Whom do they serve? Why are they influential with your audiences, or not?
Map the broken narratives that would make it difficult to “win” without addressing them skillfully (“Big Tech delivers more good than bad”), and the new narratives about your vision and solutions that you want to plant and grow. Note the frames in use (more on that below).
Test, observe, refine, test. Keep an eye on if or how narratives shift over your campaign, or with each case that goes to court in your country or region.
3. “What’s this about, what’s really at stake here?”
At its simplest, a frame is a way of looking at a problem. By choosing a frame, we’re asking our audience to see the problem in a certain way–we set up what’s at stake. So, framing and re-framing is fundamentally about power. Our choices in framing sets up the solutions we seek and who is responsible for taking action.
George Lakoff proposed three levels of framing: deep frames that connect with big values like justice, community, freedom, and responsibility. These cut across issue-level frames, like state surveillance or digital rights. Without anchoring in values, issue frames stay at the level of the problem area. And surface level frames are even narrower. They communicate the facts only, or a policy ask, like “no data-sharing from governments to private companies via COVID-19 tracing apps”.
…we are tempted to lead with just the surface frame, but we need a mix of all three levels of frames working together to set up “what’s really at stake here”
Sometimes, we are tempted to lead with just the surface frame, but we need a mix of all three levels of frames working together to set up “what’s really at stake here.” Is it about the policy or need for new law, or is that your proposed solution is about what is really at stake: children’s safety, or preventing further discrimination against marginalised communities?
4. “Who’s involved?”
Characters: Protagonists and Antagonists
In any story, the protagonist is the emotional core of the story. Think of your favorite protagonists: in the storyworld, you want them to get what they want. It is the desire of the protagonist clashing with the desire of the antagonist that creates drama and drives the story forward. They also set up the stakes, the clashing values and worldviews of where we are headed and where we could go instead.
In strategic litigation campaigns, your protagonist and antagonist may be given: plaintiff and defendant or petitioner and respondent. But you can also centre your story at different moments on other protagonists or characters who are impacted by the problem. As storytellers themselves, they can help your audiences connect with what’s at stake from other points of view.
But you can also centre your story at different moments on other protagonists or characters who are impacted by the problem
You might also think about where you’ll “meet” your audience, or what channels make sense – whether it’s Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook – and the storytelling elements that suit that medium, such as language, tone, visuals, and other storytellers.
Storytelling is art and craft
This is just a beginning for using elements of story to build your moral argument and tell it well. Remember that storytelling is both art and craft: people are mysterious. We work with imperfect knowledge in rapidly shifting narrative terrain. There’s no recipe that guarantees success every time.
Rebecca Solnit gently chides us when she says “so many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because perfection is not only the enemy of the good, it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.” The myth of perfection, or a narrow vision of what “winning” looks like may blind us to what else is unfolding.
Wins in court are short term, but the real wins are in shifting culture, and that work takes time and involves all of us. The long arc of that story is long, not linear, often turbulent, yet full of surprise and possibility.
But that is the plot in which we have chosen to be characters. As storytelling lawyers and campaigners, we would do well to remember what Ben Okri said: “Laws do not bind our perceptions. There are as many worlds as there are lives.” To illuminate those worlds and those lives with story is where we can begin.
Amrekha Sharma is a senior engagement advisor at Greenpeace International and law graduate, working on climate justice and human rights.