By Daniel Stanley, Creative Director at Cohere Partners
It’s fair to say over the last few years ‘narrative’ has become one of those words that gets used ever more frequently, but often without people defining exactly what they mean by it.
At Cohere over the last few years we have used narrative most commonly to refer to the work we do with organisations to define an effective core way of describing their work, or a specific project.
What makes this distinct from more surface level areas like copywriting or even storytelling (not my favourite term), is that rather than just looking to craft a specific form of words or killer line for one particular scenario, we aim to develop a central governing articulation of why the organisation exists and does what it does. This can then serve as a lasting reference point and guide for the organisation’s work and how it should communicate that across multiple contexts.
We find this approach has more lasting utility, as when done well, it can make it relatively easy to create new language and outputs for different scenarios and audiences on an ongoing basis, that will all work consistently together to do the same job.
As most of our work is with organisations with a clear social mission, these projects often involve finding a distinctive way to talk about the unique contribution the organisations make to achieving that wider goal, which frequently then requires us to rethink the way that big social issue is talked about – to reframe it.
The more we’ve done this sort of work, the more we’ve seen the potential value there could be in working to change these wider narratives in our culture – to shift not only how individual organisations speak about them, but the structures behind public understanding of critical issues, that affect many organisations.
This diagram from the Narrative Initiative illustrates how narratives translate between our deeper values and worldview, and which stories and events are discussed and how
Organisational narratives can contribute to this change – but to really understand these deeper patterns – how they are embedded, how they maintain and justify themselves, and their strengths and weaknesses – requires specific attention and analysis.
This is no easy task – it requires asking a whole set of different questions and challenges that aren’t typically a major part of looking at the narrative of an organisation, from understanding who does and doesn’t have a role and voice in the current societal narratives (and who should), to a much longer term view, developing, testing and refining approaches iteratively in practice, as culture shifts and develops.
And that’s where the Future Narratives Lab comes in.
This summer Cohere got the amazing opportunity to work with Shared Assets – a unique ‘think and do tank’ that reimagines what we can do with land in the UK. What made this project special was the brief was not only to help them rethink the messaging and narrative for their own organisation, but it also included an investment in understanding how the wider narrative of land in the UK could be changed – something they had realised was a crucial obstacle to achieving deeper change.
We decided this was a great opportunity to invest in building out a new spin-out from Cohere – a non-profit organisation that could focus on the task of analysing and changing the big societal and cultural narratives that are at play in many of the major social challenges we face.
The aim is to build on the work of the emerging field of narrative change, but bring our own angle to it. So as with Cohere, we’ve set up the Lab with the structure of a flexible network of associates, each bringing their own unique perspective and approach to the work.
You can see our initial set of associates here – the intention is to bring expertise from different fields relevant to narrative change, but not necessarily a prominent part of it so far. And we hope to add to this list – if you are interested in becoming an associate, please do get in touch.
We’re also intending to bring other characteristics from Cohere to the lab, including our desire to challenge conventions, and tackle big challenges head on. We’ve tried to reflect this in our list of principles, listed below and expanded on further on the site:
- Be ambitious and confront tensions
- Show, don’t (just) tell
- Agnostic on theory & method
- Push the boundaries
- Narrative as an invitation to create together
- Narratives as alive and incomplete
In practice, you can see the results of our first project in our report ‘Power in Place: understanding our land narrative’ which was launched in November, and explores the existing cultural narratives around land in the UK.
This serves as the foundation for the next stage of work – ‘Emerging Land Voices’ a project funded by the National Lottery which Cohere is undertaking with Shared Assets and Land In Our Names, gathering the stories of people from marginalised communities who have been reimagining land during the pandemic, and weaving them into the beginnings of a new narrative whole. Do get in touch if you are interested in being involved in this.
The Lab is now also looking at the focus for our next projects, including preliminary investigations supported by Cohere into the narratives of ethical finance, and how we think about our relationship with our data. More to share on those soon.