Public Narrative

Intro to Public Narrative

Crafting a complete public narrative is a way to connect three core elements of leadership practice: story (why we must act now, heart), strategy (how we can act now, head), and action (what we must do to act now, hands).

To stand for yourself is a first but insufficient step. You must also construct the community with whom you stand, and move that community to act together now. To combine stories of self, us and now, find common threads in values that call you to your mission, values shared by your community, and challenges to those values that demand action now.

You may want to begin with a Story of Now, working backward through the Story of the Us with whom you are working to the Story of Self in which your calling is grounded.


Public narrative as a practice of leadership

Leadership is about accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty. Narrative is how we learn to make choices and construct our identities – as individuals, as communities, as nations.

Each of us has a compelling story to tell

Each of us has a story that can move others to action. As you learn this skill, you will be learning to tell a compelling story about yourself, your constituency, and the need for urgent – and hopeful – action. In addition, you will gain practice in listening, and coaching others to tell a good story.

Learning Public Narrative

We are all natural storytellers. We are “hard wired” for it. Although you may not have learned how to tell stories “explicitly” (their structure, the techniques), you have leaned “implicitly” (imitating others, responding to the way others react to you, etc.). You will learn this practice the way we learn any practice: the same way we learn to ride a bike. Eventually, you will also learn to coach others in telling their stories. We are all “fish” so to speak in the “water” of our own stories. We have lived in them all our lives and so we often need others to ask us probing questions, challenge us to explain why, and make connections we may have forgotten about so we can tell our stories in ways others can learn from them.

We all live rich, complex lives with many challenges, choices, and outcomes of both failure and success. We can never tell our whole life story in two minutes. We are learning to tell a two-minute story as the first step in mastering the craft of public narrative. The time limit focuses on getting to the point, offering images rather than lots of words, and choosing choice points strategically.

How Public Narrative Works

Why Use Public Narrative?

Public leadership requires the use of both the “head” and the “heart” to mobilize others to act effectively on behalf of shared values. It engages people in interpreting why they should change the world – their motivation – and how they can act to change it – their strategy. Public narrative is the “why” – the art of translating values into action through stories.


The key to motivation is understanding that values inspire action through emotion.

Emotions inform us of what we value in ourselves, in others, and in the world, and enable us to express the motivational content of our values to others. Stories draw on our emotions and show our values in action, helping us feel what matters, rather than just thinking about or telling others what matters. Because stories allow us to express our values not as abstract principles, but as lived experience, they have the power to move others.


Some emotions inhibit mindful action, but other emotions facilitate action.

Mindful action is inhibited by inertia and apathy, on the one hand, and fear, isolation and self-doubt on the other. It can be facilitated by urgency and anger, on one hand, and hope, solidarity, and YCMAD (you can make a difference) on the other. Stories can mobilize emotions enabling mindful action to overcome emotions that inhibit it.

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The Three Key Elements of Public Narrative Structure: Challenge – Choice – Outcome

A plot begins with an unexpected challenge that confronts a character with an urgent need to pay attention, to make a choice, a choice for which s/he is unprepared. The choice yields an outcome—and the outcome teaches a moral.


Because we can empathetically identify with the character, we can “feel” the moral. We not only hear “about” someone’s courage; we can also be inspired by it.

The story of the character and their effort to make choices encourages listeners to think about their own values, and challenges, and inspires them with new ways of thinking about how to make choices in their own lives.

Public narrative combines a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now.


A “story of now” communicates an urgent challenge you are calling on your community to join you in acting on now. The story of now focuses on a challenge to your community demanding action now, a source of hope, and the choice of a pathway to action you call on others to join you in taking. A “story of us” communicates shared values that anchor your community, values that may be at risk, and may also be sources of hope. Just as with a story of self, the values of a community are often expressed through key choice points in its life: founding moments, moments of crisis, of triumph, disaster, of resilience, of humor. Stories of us are accounts of events involving specific people, moments, events, words, etc.

A “story of self” communicates the values that called you to lead in this way, in this place, at this time. Each of us has compelling stories to tell. In some cases, our values have been shaped by choices others – parents, friends, teachers – have made. And we have chosen how to deal loss, even as we have found access to hope. Our choices have shaped our own life path: we dealt with challenges as children, found our way to a calling, responded to needs, demands, and gifts of others; confronted leadership challenges in places of worship, schools, communities, work.

Adapted from the working paper 'Toward a Framework for Coaching,' by Ruth Wageman at Harvard University. Modified by Hope Wood at the New Organizing Institute