Listen to Existing Stories of the Future to Promote Your Revolutionary New One

Inspiring others with your vision of the future is critical to making it a reality. But it isn’t easy.

How in a world crowded with attention-worthy causes, do some get attention, while others languish, unrecognized?

For those who seek to create the future in the image of new vision or one with limited traction, this is a critical question. Yet it isn’t a new one. One excellent source of models and inspiration lies in the history of embattled national causes. Although these take place in the realm of politics, close attention to their lessons will bear fruit in other domains as well.

Align your values and your tactics with those of your ideal stakeholders

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of equally worthy political causes around the world. An yet some become global causes célèbres, while the rest remain obscure. Uncovering why is the goal of Clifford Bob in The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media and International Activism.  Although published in 2005, the book’s insights are perfectly relevant today.

Bob seeks the answer to his question through the dual lens of marketing and globalization. By using a marketing lens to look at international relations, he quashes any idealism we may have that the best or most worthy causes always get the most attention. Like any other attention market, the market for our humanitarian sympathies is crowded and competitive. Bob’s studies of two groups, Nigeria’s Ogoni Movement and the Zapatista uprising in Mexico provide him the real reasons why potential advocates choose to back one rebel group over another.

The answers relate to how well the sponsor group (such as the United Nations or a nation-state) feels it is aligned with the rebel group in each of five areas:

  • Substantive goals
  • Customary tactics
  • Ethical precepts
  • Cultural attitudes, and
  • Organizational needs

In other words: it is important to understand the desires, values and goals of your customer. Even rebel groups must follow this precept, and those that carefully align their own tactics and precepts with those of potential backers are more successful and ultimately more visible. This means that they must be able to frame their own cause in terms of the concerns of others, and to present an identity that implies their alignment with their sponsors.

Use symbols and stories to find common ground with potential stakeholders

Francesca Polletta takes on a similar set of issues in It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics through her exploration of how stories help (and can also hurt) fledgling social and political movements.

Poletta’s many examples make it clear that cultural, rhetorical and symbolic elements are important vehicles for helping diverse stakeholders — both insiders and outsiders — to find common ground. This is less because it gives them something to share than that narratives and symbols are open ended, and open to multiple interpretations. This gives people who actually don’t have much in common multiple ways to find a way into the common purpose of a movement or project.

It also means that storytelling is not productive in all instances. Stories are perceived as authentic, but not necessarily authoritative. So while we may engage with an organizational story emotionally, it may not have enough evidentiary firepower to convince us to join in promoting it.

The art, therefore, of gathering a community around a new narrative or vision of the future, lies in steering its story in ways large and small so that it flows with, rather than against, the existing currents in the environment.

Marketing an as yet unheard, or even disliked entity, can take advantage of this recognition by loosely steering both small stories and meta-narratives in ways that work with the existing currents in this environment.

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