Charting a course: communications as the ocean

I was a sailor for years, and in 2010 took two years off to sail the Caribbean, so when I first heard this metaphor to describe deep narrative last summer from Jee Kim, Executive Director of the Narrative Initiative, it really stuck with me. I keep coming back to it and recently decided to expand on Jee’s quick metaphor to help a group I’m working with to understand how they can use communications to push back on far-right/fundamentalist narratives about women.

Now, metaphors aren’t perfect, and they can even throw you off course sometimes, so I’d love your thoughts on whether this helps your understanding of effective communications! And to learn more about narrative, do check out the Narrative Initiative’s report Toward New Gravity.

Imagine you’re on a sailboat, in the middle of the ocean, trying to get somewhere.

Yes, that’s my boat. In the middle of the ocean.

At the surface, you see ripples, splashes, or chop. These can be caused by anything from puffs of wind in your immediate vicinity, or actions of things in the water. You can have a quick impact on the surface of the ocean just near you, say by skipping a stone across the water or dragging your hand through it. And while most surface-level events don’t affect your journey very much, a microburst of wind, the wake of a huge boat, or a jumping whale right next to your boat might require an immediate, significant response. But even the biggest splash, a whale breaching, isn’t even going to affect a boat you can see on the horizon. These surface effects are the everyday chatter of our communications world – like Tweets, statements, or press releases — most immediately noticeable, perhaps with a strong impact on a small audience, but ultimately short term and won’t change the world if not hooked up to a broader strategy.

Underneath the surface chop are waves, which are caused by the weather (winds) in your general area. They can throw your boat around if strong, and in a gale they can even change the shoreline or wreck your boat, but they don’t last a long time, and are localised. You have to adapt to them, and know what weather is coming, and work with them and react appropriately to set sails and hold the right course. These are the stories we react to and tell, stories that dominate the news or animate a communications campaign for days or weeks, but ultimately pass or change in a relatively short time frame. 

Deeper beneath the surface are swells, deeper, longer waves caused by long term wind trends, prevailing winds, and formed literally across the other side of the ocean. Swells can sometimes be almost invisible as your boat gently rises and falls, but they can significantly affect your course as you travel with or against them. These are the narratives and frames that signal what is this issue ‘about?’ For example:

  • Brexit as control & freedom
  • Government budgets as household budgets
  • Climate as an “environmental” issue
  • Nuclear weapons as security

Deeper still lie the great ocean currents, caused by the rotation of the earth and temperature changes. They move in relatively tiny bits over the course of weeks, years, decades or millennia. And although humans are affecting them with climate change (just not deliberately), mostly we go along with them, plotting journeys across oceans to take advantage of these invisible currents. These are the deep narratives — pervasive, intractable and often invisible stories that we take as a given in the world. For example:

  • Different genders should have different roles in society
  • The profit motive: that the economy/society runs because people are seeking a profit, look at world as a series financial transactions
  • Nation states exist outside of stories
  • We are in competition for scarce resources
  • There is an us, and there is a them

Critically, though, as a sailor, you don’t just go along with any part of what the ocean is doing. You identify your destination, and then set a course and rig your sails depending on the ocean and weather conditions – everything from the local surface winds to the deep ocean currents. While sometimes you might wait for more favorable conditions, waiting out a storm in a protected cove or delaying a journey until the wind is in your favour, ultimately you don’t just let the swells or currents of the moment carry you along. I’d argue that too many advocates and communicators pay too much attention to the surface chop and local waves, without charting a clear course to a long-term destination that takes into consideration the swell and currents.

Charting a course

Now, one of the things we can do as communicators and advocates, which sailors definitely can’t do, is create the waves and swells that affect our journeys, and even influence — over time — the deep ocean currents in our favour. By understanding the current conditions, really diving in (sorry) to the stories, frames, and narratives at work on our issues, we can not only craft messages that will reach our audiences more effectively in the short term (our interim ports of call) but ultimately reframe and reshape narratives for the long term to help us get to our final destination.

In short, to reach our destinations, every communication can be carefully crafted for the maximum impact the short run (local conditions) and long run (final destination), taking into account the frames and narratives that will push against our journey, or aid getting us there.

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