Too much content. Too few storytellers.

The internet and social media disrupt the relationship between story and how we understand the world around us.

The other day I wrote this about storytelling and content strategy in a project brief for a potential client:

The candidate (or party, group, movement, government) who controls the narrative has an inside track on guiding people’s hearts, minds and passions. Even when people, on the whole, don’t believe in the narrative they often go along with what’s dominant and speaks to their basic needs.

Content strategy is simply the combination of actions that identify, deliver, market, test and measure narrative to achieve an impact on (or by) people in the audience. In a campaign, content strategy is woven together with communications, data, fundraising, events, storytelling and (most of all) organizing to connect people with powerful narratives and each other.

Simply having a compelling message is a necessary but insufficient condition for winning a campaign or sustaining a movement. Crafting a narrative with stories, data, and actions gives people hooks that connect a theory of change to their own experience. The narrative creates a route map. Like handholds and cracks on a climbing wall, we reach for stories to make sense the path forward (or up, if you like the climbing metaphor).

Content strategy is what ties it all together. It bolts stories to the narrative. It helps you give stories shape and color so that people can see stories, ask questions, connect stories to their own experience and connect your theory of change to their own needs.

Culture storytelling

But does storytelling and content strategy matter now?

The value of story in advocacy, politics and social change is in question. That may be difficult to imagine, even debatable, given that digital tools, social networks, and online media give us countless venues for finding, creating, sharing and immersing ourselves in stories.

Stories also seem central to the drumbeat of advocacy and news. We can find stories of immigrants traveling through Mexico, children separated from their parents in Texas, families losing their homes to fires in California and refugees of war stranded in North Africa. We see a thousand more stories each day in viral Facebook photos, memes on Twitter, messages passed through WhatsApp groups and email lists.

Stories that connect people to the politics of the day are in high demand. And the supply has never been greater. People are, generally speaking, confused by the chaos. Humans look to stories to make sense of the world because in story we find themes, morals, heroes with which we identify. We use language and symbols to organize data and facts into a new story about our day, community, and the time we’re living in.

Yet no story lingers in the public consciousness for more than a few days. Politicians and governments use constant storytelling and content to muddy the dominant narrative. When no story lasts more than a few day (or hours) one might even muddy their own narrative to control attention and sow confusion.

How can a story be valuable when our story supply and our story source are seemingly endless?

Maybe in our search for ever more stories we’re missing out on the role of interaction between storyteller and listener. (To be clear, I’m talking broadly about the act of storytelling and not referring to just oral, written, video or any other media. Today, and in the past, stories/content/information passes through many channels.)

Marshall Ganz wrote that one way storytelling contributes to movements is by helping people shape their identity. Storytelling gives us the tools to recognize our community and the work needed to support it. This happens, Ganz writes, through culture forging, a process of “constructing shared understandings of how to manage the risks of uncertainty, anomaly, and unpredictability grounded in recollection of how we dealt with past challenges.”

Before print, before radio and television, and certainly before the internet we used storytelling to learn from elders, parents, community leaders and others in positions of trust. Stories shared patterns that helped us learn about values, community norms, why the sun rose and set when it did, when to plant crops and how to find water. In other words, storytelling set up a culture. It also contributed to adaptations, new ways of thinking, even revolutions.

People, not words, are how stories shape culture

Today, we spend a far smaller proportion of our story telling and listening time in conversation. Social media, video, and other digitally mediated storytelling delivers us wave after wave of longreads, opinion pieces, and stories packaged as a few words above or under a photo. Pussy hats and Pepe memes are themselves elements of political storytelling.

The evolution of storytelling – as teller and receiver – is constantly evolving. We had thousands of years of oral storytelling, a few hundred years of print, and five or six decades of one to three television channels. We now have 25 years, give or take, of the public internet, including a decade of social media.

Stories about culture, norms, politics and social expectations are no longer delivered by a few familiar, trusted sources. And we no longer tell stories to family, friends and neighbors. We’ve opened ourselves to everyone on the planet.

It’s not just the nature of stories that has rapidly changed, it’s who we share them with. This has quickly blown up the role of storytelling and I don’t think we, as cultures, governments and community advocates, have recognized the speed of change.

In the same 2001 essay, Ganz wrote about how the people with whom we share stories shapes identity. Note this was written in 2001, not before the internet but before social media and YouTube:

Our individual identities are thus linked with those with whom we share stories – our families, communities, colleagues, faith traditions, nationalities – and with whom we enact them at our family dinners, worship services, holidays, and other cultural celebrations that institutionalize – or transform – their retelling

If storytelling – or, more simply, people’s stories – are to play an effective part in connecting people in support of movements we need to understand the role of storytellers and listeners, ritual and trust in storytelling.

Where to now?

I’d like to say we should (and could) get rid of 24 hour news channels and social media. I’m not sure humans have adapted to either. But going backwards isn’t a realistic option and regulating or recommending content changes to either opens the door to government-controlled news and storytelling.

Instead, we should look for ways to help change makers, storytellers, organizations and supporters better mediate storytelling. We should actively direct storytelling and content strategy for their power to forge and shape culture. Some ideas:

  • Teach storytelling. Teach listening. Show people the mechanics and the value of story and content. Show people the value of authenticity.
  • Help people tell stories about change and better futures. Develop storytellers who can be trusted by friends, family, and coworkers. Create scripts, help people generate ideas, highlight examples of powerful stories – and empowering stories that give people agency.
  • Stop asking people to share their stories with you. These projects are weird for people, generate half-hearted stories, and rely on you/your org sharing stories. You become middleman, not a trusted storyteller. Instead, guide them in crafting their story and sharing it with their community.
  • Diminish the value of “viral” content. Social media can be gamed. The algorithms maximize for attention. These are narratives that support movements. They aren’t event stories. They’re bits of story that cause anger, fury, momentary hope.
  • Create communities built around trust in our work and organizations. Help people meet and learn from one another.

Community and political leaders are usually viewed as great storytellers. But it’s not the just the story, it’s the trust they develop telling the story. People become symbols for cultural understanding through their storytelling. Leaders understand this.

Organizations and campaigns can support their leaders through storytelling and content strategy. But they can also work to build up the craft of positive storytelling across their networks. In so doing, we return the power of people and relationships to storytelling.

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