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This initiative is a project of the National Human Services Assembly and is generously funded by The Kresge Foundation and Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Seeing the Forest
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:
This week, we’re putting the spotlight on the reframing work of our partners at the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA). Tracy Wareing Evans, Executive Director of APHSA, highlighted reframing in the October 2016 issue of APHSA’s Policy & Practice magazine. Wareing Evans wrote an eloquent piece about the value and importance of reframing the human service sector, noting that “we believe it is a critical shared strategy for anyone interested in moving system transformation in health and human services.”

We couldn’t agree more! Check out the full piece, Why Framing Matters: A Review of the Basics.
As announced in our September 15 newsletter, the National Human Services Assembly is partnering with One Voice Central Texas (OVCT) to mobilize its members around reframing using the Building Well-Being Narrative. At the end of October, the National Assembly Reframing Team conducted half-day workshops for OVCT members and held reframing planning and strategy sessions with OVCT leadership groups. We’re excited to see the reframing take hold in Austin and are looking forward to our continued work together.

If you’re interested in bringing a reframing presentation, workshop, or webinar to your network, contact Ilsa Flanagan, Director of the National Reframing Initiative, for details.
We have a robust set of free tools to better equip you integrating this new narrative into your communications strategies.
Contact Us
For more information on how your organization can join the reframing mobilization, please contact Ilsa Flanagan at
For any questions about this newsletter or the online tools or website information, please contact Bridget Gavaghan at

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