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Category Narrative: Getting Them to Your New Thinking

One thing I find hard to take about the storytelling industry is its insistence that you need something called “storytelling” to tell a great story.

In your public expert’s role, you want to begin engaging with people over new research or the application of research-based expertise to a problem. And to do that, you very seldom need a full-blown story told perfectly over 5 or 10 or 20 minutes. You just need to frame your presentation with a simple and well-executed narrative structure. You need just a snippet of narrative DNA, not a whole-story Frankenstein.

For example: One of the best methods of preparing your audience for new thinking is to position the old thinking as obsolete.

The business narrative consultant Andy Raskin calls the explicit pivot from old to new thinking “category narrative.” He says every great category narrative follows this same structure:

  1. You first attack the old game — your audience’s orthodox, status quo approach to solving or thinking about a problem — by credibly showing how that approach is now outmoded.
  2. You then name the new game — ideally, that some first movers are already playing and demonstrating results for having recognized.
  3. You position your product, service or thinking as your audience’s pathway to the new game.

The category narrative works well with any audience that’s anxious about the future — in other words, any audience these days. Raskin writes for business leaders, but the category narrative can be applied equally well by to research-based public experts arguing for change.

The category narrative is so powerful for two reasons:

  • First: It explains our frustration and gives us a clear path forward.
  • Second: It promises to keep us ahead of the game — seeing into the future before almost everyone else.

Raskin confirms this quasi-religious nature of the device. “Once someone buys into your new game,” he writes, “it becomes their orthodoxy. They become fiercely loyal to it as an organizing principle for how they act in the world. Until someone shows up with another story about an even newer game.”

This is the power of narrative — what people mislabel as the power of storytelling. A well-crafted category narrative is one people want to live inside, because it’s the future…or should be.

Crypto, of course, is a category narrative — that fact alone might make you reluctant to deploy it. But category narrative works beautifully for evidence-based expertise. For instance, Vijaya Ramachandran’s argument in Nature that rich country blanket bans on fossil fuel funding for emerging economies inadvertently locks billions of people into using unhealthy and dangerous biomass fuels for cooking. Or Noah Smith’s piece this morning that framing CO2 emissions per country per-capita (the way it’s usually presented) hamstrings climate action by tacitly framing emissions as a household problem rather than a government policy problem, thus encouraging household-solution thinking that can never address climate change at scale.

Category narrative is seldom deployed in mainstream thought leadership. It should be a staple. People don’t change just because of logic, because one argument is better than another. They shift because of logic+emotion — because your framing of the necessity for new thinking elicits FOMO, or eagerness to be first. Meet them there.