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How to Dramatize Your Cause Through Storytelling

The Key Elements of Great Stories


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We all know that storytelling is crucial to getting our nonprofit messages across to the public and supporters.

In Mobilizing Generation 2.0: A Practical Guide to Using Web 2.0, contributor Jonah Sachs elaborates on why storytelling is so crucial and how to do it effectively. His tips work especially well with youthful audiences, but they also work with any age. Everyone responds to a story, well told.

Sachs says that our goal should be to bridge the gap between the "human scale" and societal problems that seem anything but human scale. We have to get beyond the "...sea of statistics, policy proposals, and case studies." Stories will do that and when you use them the following three things occur:

  • the inherent justice of your mission becomes apparent and appeals to people's sense of right and wrong on an intimate, emotional level.
  • serial communications become welcome as you continue to tell the story or let it unfold. The stories engage the listener who seeks to find out its end or the next episode.
  • the story tends to self-replicate as it's passed from one listener to the next. This self-replication is a basic feature of stories and the Internet has "supercharged" that function.

How do you start creating stories around your organization and issue?

Sachs points out that there are established, "can't-miss formulas" available through the work of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, whose work suggests that specific story elements are universally understood by people everywhere. He says that we must imagine a "...simplified world" that our issue or organization inhabits, and then identify these aspects of it:

  • The Heroes

    Who are they? What are they trying to achieve? What person, historical figure or even animal might represent these heroes? The hero does not have to be you or your employees. He or she might be a supporter or someone we are trying to help.

  • The Villains

    Every story needs a bad guy. Every struggle has to have a villain. Who stands in your hero's way? Are they identifiable individuals or a set of problems that can be personified in a character or person? Villains should be bad but you don't have to vilify them or personally attack other people.

  • The Catalyst

    The catalyst is something or someone who shifts the balance and begins to resolve the conflict so that the hero can prevail. Who, or what, is the catalyst in your story? How can the listener of the story be the catalyst or help the catalyst to come about?

Use these basic elements to craft a myth in your simplified world. Try telling it to a six-year-old as a fairy tale. Try it out in a Greek myth style. Determine which ways of telling the story create an emotional response. Test it on other people. The effective story will make you proud of the work you are doing and provide your supporters with something very concrete to rally around.

Source: Mobilizing Generation 2.0: A Practical Guide to Using Web 2.0, Ben Rigby, Rock The Vote and Jossey-Bass, 2008.
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