Narrative Strategy: Creating the Target Audience

It has been difficult to shake the linear communications model that many of us were taught. The underlying assumption of the linear model – that the goal of effective communication is to get a message securely from sender to receiver, uncompromised and undistorted – has had a lasting and detrimental effect on our ability to influence a target audience.

The most glaring problem with the linear communication model is that it treats the target audience as passive receptors of information – as though the ears and eyes are portals through which information can be dumped into the brain. The misguided linear model has much to do with failed efforts in current time, as many in strategic communications and influence operations are still operating within it. And this has everything to do with what has (erroneously) been called “failed messaging efforts.”

This is one of the many reasons we need to get clear about what narratives are and how they operate.

Once cultural narratives are internalized, they are like meaning maps in our heads. So, in order to get the target audience to process/interpret information the way I want them to, I need to be familiar with TA’s meaning map. In other words, the meaning assigned to incoming information will be determined by how it fits into the narrative the TA has internalized. If I share your meaning map/your narrative, it is not difficult to predict how you will process incoming information. However, if you and I do not share the same cultural narrative (keeping in mind micro cultures within broader cultures), then I need to get very familiar with your narrative in order to design and present a story that you will process the way I want you to process it. It is a story that is consistent with the narrative you live by, determine meaning by, and understand yourself within.

The meaning of concepts like national security, national identity, citizenship, is not abstract. We think of abstract concepts in the context in which they have meaning. The context is the narrative. Narratives don’t define concepts by declaring, “This is security!” Narratives provide the context in which concepts like “security” have meaning. And they go further. They show us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to behave in those contexts.

My brand of narrative strategy proceeds from an understanding that meaning is not “in” the message. Meaning is not static, nor is it “conveyed” whole and intact. Rather, my process begins with an understanding that meaning-making happens when internalized narratives interact with external events, people, ideas. Meaning goes on inside the heads of the target audience but is co-constructed in social interaction.

Social interaction sometimes solidifies assumptions built into our cultural narratives and sometimes doesn’t. Social interaction (in the form of storytelling, for example) can undermine the stability of internalized narratives.

What do we do when we are trying to influence a population that doesn’t share our worldview or our understanding of historical context? What if we are dealing with a hostile target audience? The first things we do is drop the linear communication model and all its unfortunate effects on our assumptions. Remember, we don’t “tell” the audience anything and we do not “deliver” a message. Instead, we implement a narrative strategy that involves re-configuring meanings and identities through social interaction. In a conflict situation the strategy involves doing four things simultaneously: 1) Disrupt adversarial meaning-maps. 2) Enact our own narratives. 3) Encourage the TA to adopt our narrative by constructing stories that trigger their own narrative. 4) Map those stories onto on to our own meaning map (narrative).

When we have successfully achieved those four transformations, we have changed the very identity of the TA. Messages cannot do that. Information cannot do that. Messages and communications cannot do that because there is no inherent identity component within.

But a skilled narrative strategist can do that. A skilled narrative strategist does not simply target an audience. A skilled narrative strategist co-creates the audience being targeted.

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Ajit Maan, Ph.D. writes the Narrative & National Security column for Homeland Security Today featuring her original work and work by guest experts in narrative strategy focused on identifying active narratives, who is behind them, and what strategies they are deploying to manipulate and muddy facts to the detriment of America. She is founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies LLC, affiliate faculty of the Center for Narrative Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, Professor, Global Security, Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University. She is also author of seven books including Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and the forthcoming Plato’s Fear. Maan's breakthrough theory of internarrative identity came in 1997; she published a book by the same name in 1999 which was released in its second edition in 2010 (with the addition of the subtitle Placing the Self). Internarrative identity deals with one’s sense of identity as expressed in personal narrative, connecting the formation of identity with one’s life experiences. Maan’s theories are influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s writings in narrative identity theory, and she cites several of his works in her book (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 90). The connection between the interpretation of personal narrative in relation to the larger social group seems to be a key factor in the work of both Maan and Ricoeur. She states that “Following Ricoeur, I’ve argued that who one is and what one will do will be determined by the story one sees oneself as a part of. Going further than Ricoeur, I have suggested that a genuinely imaginative theory of narrative identity would be inclusive of alternatively structured narratives” (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 71-72). This seems to indicate that Maan believes in the role of identity in behavior, but she also recognizes that one can be constrained by society to accept a self-narrative that fits within existing cultural norms. Maan is also influenced by Jacques Derrida as well as Michel Foucault, as referenced in her article “Post-Colonial Practices and Narrative Nomads: Thinking Sikhism Beyond Metaphysics” (227). After establishing herself through her work on internarrative identity, Maan has now turned her attention to the analysis of narrative as a means of understanding (and combating) terrorist recruitment tactics. Her 2014 book, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, examines the scripts perpetuated by a wide range of terrorist organizations while also making important interdisciplinary connections between studies in the humanities and current world events (a workbook companion to the text was published in 2018). She collaborated with the late Brigadier General Amar Cheema on the edited volume titled Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare, published in 2016. Maan's 2018 book, titled Narrative Warfare, is a collection of articles examining the topic of weaponized narrative; her 2020 book, Plato's Fear, further examines the role of narrative and power. Her work was also the focus of Representations of Internarrative Identity, a 2014 scholarly monograph dedicated to the exploration of internarrative identity through diverse fields of study and from international perspectives. In addition to her contributions to academia, Maan has also been active in sharing her knowledge with a wider audience. In September of 2015, Maan began work on Narrative Strategies, an online blog dedicated to the application of strategic narrative to international affairs. That project formed the basis for a consultancy group of the same name, uniting military and academic experts in the cause of eradicating violent extremism around the world. ​ ​

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