Public Narrative: Mobilizing Shared Values (Self, Us & Now)

Humans have been sharing stories for as long as we can remember. Before the written word, stories were the way we passed down our culture from one generation to the next.

As I’ve been giving presentations and facilitating groups throughout the past 15 years, I’ve discovered that people instinctively stop all distractions and start to listen when I share a good story. Theory and statistics are important, but one of the best ways to bring them to life is through real lived experience.

In a community organizing context, stories that communicate values are the fuel of social movements.

Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz developed a tool he calls Public Narrative, a leadership art that involves sharing stories to inspire collective action. Ganz says:

Public narrative is a leadership practice.

Leadership is about accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty. Narrative is how we learn to access the moral resources – the courage – to make the choices that shape our identities – as individuals, as communities, as nations.

Each of us has a compelling story to tell.  

Each of us can learn to tell a story that can move others to action. We each have stories of challenge, or we wouldn’t think the world needed changing. And we each have stories of hope, or we wouldn’t think we could change it. As you learn this skill, you will learn to tell a story about yourself (story of self), the community whom you are organizing (story of us), and the action required to create change (story of now). You will learn to tell, to listen, and to coach others.

Why use public narrative? Two ways of knowing (and why we need both!)

 Leadership requires engaging the “head” and the “heart” to engage the “hands”—mobilizing others to act together purposefully. Leaders engage people in interpreting why they should change their 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 it is through emotion that we can express our motivational content to others. Stories enable us to communicate our feelings of what matters, not only our ideas of 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 action, but other emotions facilitate action.

The language of emotion is the language of movement—they actually share the same root word. Mindful action is inhibited by inertia, fear, self-doubt, isolation, and apathy. Action is facilitated by urgency, hope, YCMAD (you can make a difference), solidarity, and anger. Stories enable us to mobilize the emotions that encourage mindful action to overcome the emotions that inhibit it.


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


By telling a “story of self” you can communicate the values that have called you to leadership.

Public leaders face the challenge of enabling others to “get” the values that move them to lead. Effective communication of motivating values can establish grounds for trust, empathy, and understanding. In its absence, people will infer our motivations, often in ways that can be very counterproductive. Telling our story of self can help establish firm ground upon which to lead, collaborate with others, and discover common purpose.

Every one of us has a compelling story of self to tell. We all have people in our lives—parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, colleagues—or characters we love—whose stories of challenge influence our own values. And we all have made choices in response to our own challenges that shape our life’s path—confrontations with pain, moments of hope, calls to action.

The key is to focus on our choice points, those moments in our lives when we experienced the influence of our values on the choices we made that have shaped who we have become. When did you first care about being heard? When did you first experience injustice? When did you feel you had to act? Why did you feel you could? What were the circumstances–the place, the colors, sounds–what did it look like? The power in your story of self is to reveal something of those moments that were deeply meaningful to you in shaping your life’s trajectory —not your deepest private secrets, but the events that shaped your public life. Learning to tell a good story of self demands the courage of introspection–and of sharing some of what you find.

By telling a “story of us” you can communicate values that can inspire others to act in concert by identifying with each other – not only with you.

Just as with a story of self, key choice points in the life of a community–its founding, crises it faced, or other events that everyone remembers—are the moments that express the values that it shares. Consider stories of experiences that members of your group have shared, especially those that held similar meaning for all of you. The key is to focus on telling a specific story about specific people at a specific time that can remind everyone–or call to everyone’s attention–values that you share against which what is going on in the world can be measured. Telling a good story of us requires the courage of empathy–to consider the experience of others deeply enough to take a chance of articulating that experience.

By telling a “story of now” you can communicate an urgent challenge we are called upon to face, the hope that we can face it, and choices we must make to act.

A story of now requires telling stories that bring the urgency of the challenge you face alive–urgent because of a need for change that cannot be denied, urgent because of a moment of opportunity to make change that may not return. At the intersection of the urgency of challenge and the promise of hope is a choice that must be made – to act, or not to act, to act in this way, or in that. Telling a good story of now requires the courage of imagination, or as Walter Brueggemann named it, a prophetic imagination, in which you call attention both to the pain of the world and also to the possibility for a better future.

The Three Key Elements of Public Narrative Structure: What turns recounting an event into a story?
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.

Incorporating Challenge, Choice, and Outcome in Your Own Story

There are some key questions you need to answer as you consider the choices you have made in your life and the path you have taken that brought you to this point in time as a leader. Once you identify the specific relevant choice point, perhaps your first true experience of community in the face of challenge, or your choice to do something about injustice for the first time, dig deeper by answering the following questions.

Challenge: Why did you feel it was a challenge? What was so challenging about it? Why was it your challenge?

Choice: Why did you make the choice you did? Where did you get the courage (or not)? Where did you get the hope (or not)? Did your parents or grandparents’ life stories teach you in any way how to act in that moment? How did it feel?

Outcome: How did the outcome feel? Why did it feel that way? What did it teach you? What do you want to teach us? How do you want us to feel?

A word about challenge. Sometimes people see the word challenge and think that they need to describe the misfortunes of their lives. Keep in mind that a struggle might be one of your own choosing–a high mountain you decided to climb as much as a valley you managed to climb out of. Any number of things may have been a challenge to you and be the source of a good story to inspire others.

The excerpts above come from a workshop guide developed by Professor Ganz and many of the fellows and colleagues who have worked with him. 

JOIN THE CONVERSATION & SHARE: Who are the people you feel called to mobilize to build a better world together? I would love to hear from you. Please share your comments below. And if you find this helpful or valuable, please share on your social media. 

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