Seeing the ForestNovember 10, 2016
Why Not Tell Episodic Stories?
In the last newsletter, we discussed the ways that “episodic” storytelling can limit the human service sector’s ability to engage the public in the policy and systems solutions to the challenges we address. Common examples of episodic storytelling in our sector include spotlighting individuals who have either been helped by a program, or who are struggling because they do not have access to the services that would help them. This leads the audience to hyper-focus on the individual, missing the broader context. Instead, FrameWorks Institute’s approach emphasizes “thematic” storytelling.
“Can’t see the forest for the trees” — episodic framing. Episodic frames focus on discrete events happening to specific people at particular places and times. Thematic presentations focus on trends, context, and broader societal forces. If we are trying to get people to understand social issues, we generally want them to think in a thematic way. The more vivid the examples, the more likely they are to draw the audience into episodic framing, completely missing structural and environmental causes and conditions.
Source: The Problem With Telling Compelling Personal Anecdotes, A FrameWorks Institute FrameByte, 2007.
An episodic story, for example, might follow the journey of a person who is homeless, highlighting his or her personal struggle to find safe, reliable housing. Such a story is meant to draw attention to homelessness as an important issue that the community should address through a variety of programs and policies. But the story is actually more likely to focus the public’s attention on the specific person, invoking the belief that this individual’s actions and choices resulted in homelessness.
By contrast, a thematic story would unpack the community or systemic drivers of homelessness, such as a lack of affordable housing, economic inequality in the community, the loss of a major employer or industry, or inadequate services for people who are at risk of becoming homeless. Where the episodic story focuses on a single individual, the thematic story sheds light on the broader themes and trends over time.
Learning to Tell a Thematic Story
To get a firm handle on thematic storytelling, we strongly encourage you to go through FrameWorks’ Wide Angle Lens multimedia learning module. This free resource provides examples of thematic stories on social issues and includes interactive exercises to help you practice and test your thematic storytelling skills.
Additional FrameWorks resources on thematic storytelling include:
- Episodic vs. Thematic Stories, a FrameWorks Institute FrameByte.
- Strategically Reframing Success Stories, an example of how to shift from an episodic success story to a thematic success story.
- Checklist for Advocates, a quick reference tool to help you determine if your communications materials are telling an episodic story or a thematic story.
- The Problem With Telling Compelling Personal Anecdotes, a FrameWorks Institute FrameByte.
- Vivid Examples: What They Mean and Why You Should Be Careful Using Them, a FrameWorks Institute eZine.