Secrets of Successful Storytelling

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cover of change this 'How To Tell A Story'

If you’re wondering what ‘telling stories’ has to do with creating change, then the simple answer is – everything!

Jonah Sachs, Founder and CEO of Free Range Studios and author of Story Wars, has developed a summary of storytelling strategies in his Change This manifesto, ‘How To Tell A Story’.

Sachs is adamant that those intent on being effective change agents need to become adept at the art and science (and there is a science!) of storytelling:

Maybe it’s because we’re all so overloaded with information.

Maybe it’s because we’re all so starved for meaning.

Or maybe it’s because, thanks to social media, everyone’s become a broadcaster these days.

Whatever the reason, we’re all getting the same memo at the same time: if you want to be heard, you’d better learn to tell better stories.

He points out that we live in a world that has lost connection to its traditional myths, and that we are looking for new ones – new meaning.

Although such stories are powerful – they touch all of us, frame our worldview, shape our assumptions, subconsciously influence our behaviour – not all of us get to write those stories. What appears on the surface to be arguments over ideas or money is in fact fighting for control over cultural stories.

Sachs makes this appeal to those engaged in change work:

Put down your facts, your threats, your pleadings, and your special offers and try these simple storytelling strategies.

Below I’ve summarised and paraphrased a few of Sachs’s strategies which include:

Know What a Story Is 

A story is different to a strategy. Becoming a good storyteller requires becoming familiar with concepts like narrative and dramatic structure.

In his book ‘The Writer’s Journey’, Hollywood development executive and story consultant Christopher Vogler outlines ‘The Hero’s Journey’ (also known as ‘The Monomyth’).

This is a basic pattern of narrative, or story, that appears to be common across time and cultures, the essence of which was distilled by scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell in his classic work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).

This pattern might best be summed up as ‘The Quest’ – think of the storyline of films and literature such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Can you see how they follow this pattern?

circular b+w diagram of the Hero's Journey - the text comprising this image can be found here http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero's_journey.htm

Image credit - to enlarge image, click it, then click again

Note also that the hero undergoes an inner transformation, as well as outer journey, and it is this transformation that will be of interest to change agents:

circular b+w diagram of hero's inner journey - text comprising this diagram can be found on the same page as the previous diagram

Image credit - to enlarge image, click it, then click again

The elements of Luke Skywalker’s Hero’s Journey and how they can relate to an audience’s journey of change and transformation are captured in this excellent diagram by Nancy Duarte of Duarte Design.

Inviting people to be part of a story is much more effective at motivating and engaging an audience than issuing instructions or appeals to logic and reason.

Be Clear on Your Values

The characters, conflicts and settings of a story are not the story. They are elements that are created and shaped in such a way for a purpose – to illustrate, through story, a moral truth about the world. As Sachs beautifully puts it ‘stories are containers for values’.

The use of the word ‘illustrate’ is important, because the most effective storytelling follows the maxim ‘show don’t tell’. If you ‘tell’ you run the risk of preaching. If you ‘show’, the audience draws their own conclusions from the sequence of story events and what happens to the characters, and are more likely to internalise the message.

In order to reveal a truth, a storyteller must first understand the values he or she stands for:

By choosing the values you promote in every story you tell, you stake out a territory and ask others to come join you, driven by their own sense of what truly matters.

Sachs points out that marketers and advertisers have long known that telling stories based on universal human values is far more effective than simply communicating the benefits of their product or service.

However, most of these stories have appealed to values such as fear, greed, status-seeking and safety, which are characterised as ‘inadequacy storytelling’ – that is, only a relationship with a brand or leader can fulfil this manufactured sense of lacking something.

Yet Joseph Campbell’s work revealed that stories which work best are not the ones that frighten people, but the ones that call them to heroic action, inspiring them to live out transcendent values such as Justice, Perseverance, Love.

This revelation is imperative for sustainability communicators who have largely attempted to motivate people to respond to ‘the call’ with communication based on fear and/or guilt.

Make Your Audience the Hero

Yoda mentors Luke Skywalker in Star Wars

In keeping with the Hero’s Journey pattern and Joseph Campbell’s model, Sachs that audiences need to identify with a hero who is like them – kind of ordinary, the person you would least expect to change the world.

He cites the examples of Luke Skywalker, from Star Wars, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Frodo from Lord of the Rings. All ordinary characters living ordinary lives until an ‘inciting event’ (such as the destruction of Luke’s home and family, and the tornado that swept Dorothy’s house away) rips them from the Ordinary World and sends them on a path of change.

He warns not to fall into the trap of casting yourself as the hero:

…as the leader telling a story, you are not the helpless outsider. You’re the expert. You are not the hero, your audience is. Make sure the main character(s) in your story are people who start out a lot like your audience, and then evolve to be like your audience’s aspirational selves.

The audience needs to relate to the hero, and it is the hero (the audience) that goes on the journey of change and transformation.

To use Nancy Duarte’s Star Wars metaphor, your audience is Luke Skywalker – your role as storyteller is that of Yoda, a mentor to unearth and bring into play capabilities already within the group.

The Power of Stories for Sustainability

Sachs is one of an increasing number of advocates who understand the power of stories to change the culture towards sustainability.

David Korten, author of ‘The Great Turning’ and ‘Agenda for a New Economy’, is a well-known proponent of the power of stories to change culture.

His ‘Story Change Matrix’ sets out a series of current cultural myths (stories we tell ourselves), those of ‘Empire’, and a corresponding series of ‘Earth Community’ stories that we can aspire to, speak of, and enact. For example, the ‘Empire’ story of human nature is that people are by nature greedy, selfish and violent. The ‘Earth Community’ story is that we are hard-wired to reward caring and co-operation.

Tom Atlee’s work on Story Fields is another rich seam for would-be storytellers to mine.

In his paper ‘Is Humanity Fatally Successful?’ William Rees, Post Carbon Institute fellow, and creator of the Ecological Footprint, speaks of how the need to recognise and address the role of myth and story is particularly critical, because modern industrial society believes it is no longer bound by myth – we equate myth with superstition and the unscientific beliefs of so-called ‘primitive’ peoples, and yet contemporary global culture is as susceptible to comfortable myths as any other:

We tend to think of myths as fanciful stories or primitive superstitions characteristic of the belief systems of relatively primitive peoples. By contrast, we see ourselves as a science-based, fact-based society that has long-since abandoned its need for mythic constructs. My argument is that this is, itself, our greatest social myth.

The common belief that techno-industrial society generally makes its major decisions based on scientific knowledge, fact and analysis, is simply wrong. We can find myriad examples where factual scientific knowledge has almost no impact on how people think, on popular (group) behaviour, or on the political process. The power of the myth disallows consideration of contrary evidence, including the best of scientific data.

All our great cultural stories – our myths – are concoctions of fact, belief, and shared-illusion, shaped and polished by frequent repetition and ritualistic affirmation.

Myth-making is universal to all societies, and stories are the predominant way human beings have communicated values and cultural myths for thousands of years. Nothing much has changed really – although our campfires are now electronic, stories are still how we create and reinforce cultural myths.

This transition we are facing is a social and cultural journey, it is not a rational and technological task.

If you want to change a culture, you have to change its stories.

This is humanity’s ultimate Quest.

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