Secrets of Successful Storytelling

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'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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How The King of Communicators Inspired Change

Ever wondered how the great orators of history crafted and delivered such memorable speeches that resonated with their audience?

Nancy Duarte of Duarte Design – the company responsible for turning Al Gore’s Powerpoint slides into an Oscar-winning quality story in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ – has dissected Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech from the 1963 March on Washington D.C., to show how it’s done.

In this fascinating analysis, Duarte extracted each line of Dr King’s speech and organised it according to tense in order to show visually how he moved the audience from ‘what is’ to ‘what could be’, ending with the positive situation the speaker and audience wish to manifest, ‘the new bliss’:

screenshot of Duarte's dissection of King's speech, showing where parts referred to the present, and the future

Don’t worry that you can’t read the words – they’re being used here for a different purpose, to show the structure of the speech.

Duarte then separated out elements of the speech, colour-coded them, and plotted them in accordance with where they were used by Dr King. Here’s a visual overlay of each element:

Repetition (identified in blue), a device to drive a point home, and usually done in threes – here are points in the Dr King’s speech where repetition was used:

screenshot of graphic showing where King's words were repetition

Dr King’s most well-known repetitions from this speech were the words ‘I have a dream…’, but he also used it in other sections of his speech:

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. 

This paragraph is also rich with metaphor, or visual words.

Metaphors and visual words (identified in pink) were used liberally by Dr King:

screenshot of graphic showing where King's words were metaphorical

Dr King uses the metaphor of a check, and a bank account – one that would be familiar to most people – to speak of justice:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Cultural references (identified in green), show where Dr King used songs, scripture, literature that were familiar and dear to the audience:

screenshot of graphic showing where King used cultural references

Dr King referenced ‘Free At Last’, a Negro spiritual song in his rousing finish to his delivery:

Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Political references (identified in orange), show where Dr King refers to political events, dates or documents, like the Declaration of Independence:

screenshot of graphic showing where King used political references

At the beginning of his speech, Dr King invokes abolitionist President Abraham Lincoln and echoes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (which began ‘Four score and seven years ago…’)

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

It is worth nothing that the most powerful and memorable part of Dr King’s speech combined ALL of these elements: repetition, metaphor, cultural and political references:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” (political)

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (repetition)

I have a dream today. (repetition)

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream today. (repetition)

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. (repetition, metaphor, cultural – scripture)

Each of these elements, along with Dr King’s measured delivery and speaking style, combined to create a powerful emotional call to action. Dr King was not appealing to the ‘logical’ part of the brain, but intent on shifting the heart.

As noted in ‘Motivating Sustainable Behaviour’, it is more effective to inspire and involve people, and give them a sense of agency over their situation than it is to rationalise and instruct. Martin Luther King appealed to people with ‘I have a dream’ – not ‘ I have a plan’.

Here is Duarte’s analysis in full (7 mins):

It would be fascinating to see a similar visual analysis of speeches by another great political orator of King’s era, President John F Kennedy.

A cursory glance at JFK’s Inaugural Address from 20 January 1961 shows all of the elements of King’s speech: repetition, metaphor, scripture, political references:

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us…

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce. (repetition, metaphor)

Let both sides unite to heed, in all corners of the earth, the command of Isaiah – to “undo the heavy burdens, and [to] let the oppressed go free.” (cultural – scripture)

And, if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion…(metaphor)

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. (repetition, call to action)

In his address at the American University, 10 June 1963:

“When a man’s way[s] please the Lord,” the Scriptures tell us, “He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights: the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation; the right to breathe air as nature provided it; the right of future generations to a healthy existence? (repetition, cultural – scripture)

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal. (metaphor, repetition)

Duarte has also applied this technique to other historical speeches, such as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and from more recent times, Steve Jobs’s iPhone launch speech. You can learn more about creating messages and storytelling approaches in Duarte’s book, ‘Resonate’.

Yet King’s speech is perhaps the best example – not only is it memorable, it has become a cultural icon that has touched audiences beyond those who were immediately involved in the civil rights struggle, and has continued to be influential beyond the time and cultural context in which it was made.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Address at March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Washington, D.C. (17 mins)

It’s success depended very much on the spirit of the man, but also on the structure and delivery of his most cherished message.

Which other great historical or contemporary speeches would you like to see dissected and analysed? 

How well do you know your audience? What metaphors would you use, and what cultural and political references could you tap into when presenting to them? 

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