The Power of Narrative (Why Talking to Your Family at Thanksgiving is So Hard)

“I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative…”

Taylor Swift

Thanks to a pop culture event in 2016 that led to Taylor Swift’s famous quote, the idea of personal narrative and re-writing one’s narrative has become commonplace in the vernacular of Millenials and Gen Z.

However, the true narrative paradigm communication theory was introduced by Walter Fisher in 1984, five years before Swift joined the global population.

Fisher’s theory is that narrative, not logic, is the basic framework of all human communication. The work behind Fisher’s theory began as a rebuttal to the concept that rhetoric is led by scientific evidence, logic, and facts. Instead, narrative paradigm theory focuses on the concept of good reasons.

When the recipient of the message finds good reasons within the narrative, they will align with the content and be more likely to take action based on the narrative.

The validity of this theory is why gathering with your multigenerational, globalized family on Thanksgiving ends up in an argument about politics or encompassed with passive-aggressive digs between bites of pumpkin pie.

The narrative paradigm is why gathering with your multigenerational, globalized family on Thanksgiving ends up in an argument about politics or encompassed with passive-aggressive digs between bites of pumpkin pie.

What are ‘good reasons’?

The argument is that logic and evidence have little to do with creating an engaging story people respond to compared to the power of good reasons.

How does one determine what good reasoning would be?

In Fisher’s good reason framework, he states good reasons are connected to one’s background. One’s culture, race, education, and worldview are examples of what may influence the determination of good reasoning.

The narrative paradigm argument is that logic and evidence have little to do with creating an engaging story people respond to compared to the power of good reasons.

In essence, the way you interpret a narrative is through your past experiences and how you identify. In Fisher’s theory, you will choose these familiar reasonings over logic the majority of the time.

The power of narrative

Narrative is most powerful when it has coherence and fidelity. All those words really mean is that a recipient finds the narrative plausible and consistent while also being able to see themselves in the story.

When those two elements align, you have a powerful narrative that can encourage recipients to engage.

This is where power comes into play. Words that are well crafted can influence an individual to take action.

Now, allow those words to go viral, and you’ve influenced not just one person, but thousands.

That’s a lot of power.

Narrative is most powerful when it has coherence and fidelity.

Is this why my family is so crazy?

Perhaps.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Many families now have more generations than ever sitting around a table at the holidays.

Plus, as younger generations leave home and begin their lives in other areas of the country, they return home with a different worldview now impacted by their geographic location.

It makes sense that Uncle Ron, who has never left his hometown, may not have the same viewpoint as Cousin Becky, who has lived all over the country.

Our individual experiences shape the way we process narratives.

To use Fisher’s vocabulary, good reasons are open to interpretation.

If logic, that which is scientifically proven to be true, is not how the vast majority of humankind determines how to respond after hearing a narrative, then why are we surprised that there isn’t more unity in our neighborhoods, churches, families, and country?

In the narrative paradigm theory, we find the explanation of why people will gravitate toward their favorite news channel. This theory explains why throughout history, people have ignored new scientific findings and stayed loyal to the narrative they found comfortable. This is why as we get older, we struggle with new technology, it’s harder to see ourselves in the narrative.

What do we do with this info?

Most of us have a hand in creating narratives in our work. Every email, public statement, website, sermon, social post, and proposal includes narrative.

You have the ability to reach your customers or audience in a way that encourages them to engage. Do they believe your story? Is it plausible? Will their past experiences allow them to see themselves within your words?

When the words you write cause someone to take action, you have power.

I encourage you to steward that power well.

To strip a communication theory down to bare bones may not do it justice, but it can give us great insight into the tension that is building in our families and communities.

As you engage with family members who disagree with you this holiday season, remember that your individual experiences have shaped what narratives you will respond positively to and which you will not.

Narrative paradigm theory gives us an explanation as to why people choose ‘good reasons’ over logic, but it does not tell us how to communicate in a way that aligns everyone.

Communicating with Uncle Ron over the mashed potatoes may seem like a battle, but I hope that a better understanding of why we take in content differently may give us all a little more empathy and patience.

We all certainly need it.

Parts of this article were adapted from its original submission at Gonzaga University. October, 2022.

References Not Linked
  • Griffin, E., Ledbetter, A., Sparks, G. (2015). A First Look at Communication Theory. (Ninth Edition). McGraw-Hill Education.

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Carly Voinski is a creator sharing her grad school story.

Carly is a multi-disciplinary creator and social media strategist working her way through a graduate program in Communication & Organizational Leadership.

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