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.

Change happens when people tell their story – not yours

An intention for 2019

In addition to helping the nonprofit community speed up membership innovation, let’s create a framework for helping people find, create and share their own stories in ways that build community, grow power, and strengthen their ties to organizations as well as one another.

Never before have we had so much content, so many stories, so much news to consume. The volume isn’t just overwhelming members, readers and supporters. It’s transforming how organizations, businesses and even individuals create and fund content.

The issues facing content creators, marketers and digital strategists are many. A few: No longer is getting a story in the newspaper sufficient. An organizational blog post that gets 100 views and three retweets isn’t getting you anywhere. A video on YouTube is likely lost to the world unless you’ve committed to a full-blown YouTube marketing strategy.

Here’s the thing

Content is created to serve organizational goals. Stories we create and ask people to share may be about people impacted by the policy or product we’re working to promote (or oppose). But it’s still our story. In our voice. With our context woven through it. Aimed at achieving our purpose.

Advocates, organizations, companies, journalists and storytellers all approach content with intention and filters. We have a goal in mind. That goal shapes the questions we ask and the pieces of the story we pick up and shine a light on.

So, are we creating content, stories that actually give voice to people? Or are we just rewriting our own beliefs in the words of others? Are we reporting on the world as it is or the world as we see it?

When I talk about content strategy and storytelling, I want to be very intentional about the who, what and why. Some recent articles and conversations help here:

Ashley Alvarado is the Director of Community Engagement at KPCC, a public radio station based in Pasadena, California. They’ve been taking on a range of innovative content programs aimed at better / more deeply covering and finding community-driven news. They bought and revived community news site LAist, for instance, not what you might expect from a radio station.

Alvarado joined a Media Impact Funders webinar last month to share an update on KPCC’s Unheard LA project. Think of it as TedX talks with real local people sharing personal experiences.

The project’s name is intentional – Unheard instead of untold. As Alvarado points out, more stories go unheard than untold because people with stories don’t have access to media and storytelling opportunities. Unheard LA is about stripping away control over who gets to hear stories by investing in meeting people where they are, applying user-centered design to journalism and storytelling, and really shifting engagement from being organization-centered to people-powered.

Alvarado has a great example in the webinar of how user centered design (or, really, just listening to people who don’t usually get talked to by the media and nonprofits) is transformative right now. She talks about the coming 2020 census, how important it is to LA residents, and how many advocacy groups are working in the community to organize and raise awareness about the census.

But, in talking with people, it’s become clear that people have heard of the census but have no idea about how it affects them, why they should care, or what to do.

In other words, despite all the work happening on the ground, there’s a gap between the stories being created by advocates and how people consume, translate and use stories.

In a story for NiemanLab, Known but not discussed: Low-income people aren’t getting quality news and information. What can the industry do about it?, Christine Schmidt talks with Jay Hamilton, head of Stanford’s journalism school, and Fiona Morgan, an information ecosystems consultant and former director of Free Press’s community organizing News Voices program, about their research into the information needs of low-income communities.

The context of the conversation is journalism. Are news and media companies meeting the needs of low-income communities amidst rapid changes in newspaper availability and digital platforms?

But there are big lessons (and opportunity) here for community nonprofits, advocacy groups and anyone doing community organizing. Schmidt, Hamilton and Morgan talk about behavioral economics, helping people access information that impacts their lives, and how people make decisions. These factors, much more than high level policy outcomes, impact how people access and use messaging.

Any framework for community storytelling that builds power needs to emphasize user experience and design. Many of the organizations already working in community organizing have relationships in the community, access to data (or at least awareness of what data is out there), and insights into what information people use to make decisions on a daily basis.

These are the organizations that, with storytelling skills and resources, can transform how communities access information, use information to build power, and

Let’s think about how we scale up storytelling that puts communities at the forefront. The role of nonprofits, media organizations and funders is to train, support, guide and, perhaps most importantly, create the channels that spread learning faster.

This post is part of the latest edition of Bright Ideas. Subscribe here:

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Bright Ideas: O Facebook What Art Thou?

Here’s the latest edition of Bright Ideas where we take a look at changing Facebook relevance may mean to content, storytelling and marketing. Also, why is BuzzFeed doing tote bags? And new jobs for great people. Subscribe here:

Bright Ideas is a biweekly(ish) newsletter sharing ideas and updates on content strategy and storytelling for advocacy and social good.

O Facebook, What Art Thou? I’m not going to make the case that Facebook is going away. At least not anytime soon. But the obstacles it faces, largely challenges of its own making, should be of enormous concern to any nonprofit campaigner, fundraiser or leader. (And present exciting opportunities for positive change, I hope.)

First, let’s look at how anti-user Facebook’s core product, the ad manager (ha, I mean the news feed), has become. Despite Facebook’s self-proclaimed return to being a place for friends in 2018, it’s pretty much a visual (and targeted) classified ads platform. Example: at 4 pm last Wednesday I pulled up my Facebook feed and scrolled through the first 25 posts. Twelve were from pages I’ve followed at one time or another. Five were ads. Eight were from people I know. Five of those were straight up reshares of page content with no context.

So much for friends.

Second, the world that analyzes these things is full of stories about declining Facebook use among people under 25 and Europeans, among others. This parallels data about falling interest in the US. Meanwhile, Facebook does seem to have followed through on its promise to deprioritize news by sending less traffic to media sites – a hit to online publishers that’s unlikely, in the short term, to do anything about public trust in media.

Where does that leave us? In the short term, probably in the same place we’ve been for a couple years now. Facebook is huge and any organization willing to put real resources behind the creation and advertising of engaging content that can help bring people (and their data) to Facebook is going to be okay.

But can nonprofits as well as media orgs (including nonprofit journalism) continue to rely on social media to drive growth and visits to their websites? And can nonprofits (and even the consultants surrounding them) continue relying on a platform that seems okay absolving itself of political, social and human collateral damage?

Hey, I’m on Facebook. It’s complicated. But somehow I think we need to aim for more human-scale relationship building that don’t outsource targeting of lookalike audiences to an unregulated corporation.

That means, I think, more tools people can use to create news and fewer platforms for sharing news. More members and fewer audiences. More teaching people to tell stories and less talking about storytelling.


If you think this edition of Bright Ideas is interesting (dare we say useful?), please forward it along or share it on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook. You could share it on Instgram but that would be weird. Get this from a friend? Want to subscribe? Head over here.

Can tote bags save journalism?

Just say no to Trumpian Drift. How advocates, journalists, leaders tell stories of migrants and refugees says a lot about how society views citizenship and basic human rights. Masha Gessen urges journalists to choose their words and stories with more care because the scale of problems facing us requires smarter – and more scaled – reporting. She points this out in the quote below and it’s important for advocates to be aware of this, hold media to account, and to also be very conscious of how every story is framed in their own communications:

Like most coverage, but perhaps more than most coverage, the writing about immigration has been suffering from what I think of as Trumpian drift. Journalists casually use terms like crossing the border illegally when referring to asylum seekers—when in fact there is no law that says they must use the ports of entry. Journalists increasingly buy into the framing of immigration policy as a strategy for preventing people from entering the United States. And then there is the conspicuous use of the words caravan and migrant to refer to people fleeing for safety.
– Masha Gessen


Adding value by adding values. This is a headline I can get behind because I see nonprofits, unintentionally in most cases, making pitches for financial support and action that reflect the righteousness of their work as though it’s assumed every member or reader had a hand in creating their theory of change. Ben Terrett writes about how successful product design does a great job solving user problems but often shows no regard for public values (using the apropos and timely example of scooters littering most major cities).

Nonprofits and civil society are – or should be – modeling inclusive behavior that helps all consider the impact our work has on the whole community: the powerless, not just members, wealthy donors or the loudest voices. Thanks to Paul de Gregorio for sharing this one.


The constant pressure of tracking everything is burning out journalists. And I know that many activists and campaigners feel the same way as reporters John Crowley spoke to for this piece at Nieman Lab. A few things: (1) Stop reporting on Trump’s tweets. They exist only to overwhelm media bandwidth and make everything about him. (2) We hear a lot about tech solutions to info overload, turning off notifications, and self-care. All good (phone notifications are truly evil). But, as Crowley points out, much of this is driven by management and leaders who support systems that place professional and personal value on constant work.


Does climate fiction lead to climate action? Only if readers are also accessing cultural messages that effective action is possible. Researcher Matthew Schneider-Mayerson surveyed US readers of 19 works “cli-fi” to understand how climate storytelling may help shape advocacy and opinions on climate change.


So…who actually does what in high-performing digital comms team? Every organization is churning out content. Very few are well-staffed for it. The good folks at Contentius put together this smart field guide to content roles.


Get your BuzzFeed tote bag now. It’s free when you make your $100 membership payment. Pretty cynical tone to this piece by Christine Schmidt for NiemanLab but it seems meaningful that a private media company with a household name is scrambling to try every membership experiment it can. Curious how membership as a BuzzWord hooks on here but I’m rooting for the great writers there.


This great little piece from Transparency International shares five ways to help people engage in campaigns. It’s insights that go beyond anti-corruption activism to support most any issue and the communications around it. All orgs could benefit from a user-centered focus on accessibility, safety, relevance, credibility and responsiveness.


Anyone going to (or involved in) the #Reframe Conference on Mental Health and the Media? Looks interesting!

Do good work

A few great roles at the intersection of digital, content, creative and campaigning. Have one to share? Click reply and let me know. Have an idea of your next perfect role but not finding it? Send me a note.

  • Chicago-based Hearken helps newsrooms listen to and engage the public on the way to building public trust and stronger stories. They’re hiring US-based engagement consultants to work with their 150 (and growing) clients. Engagement consultants should have newsroom experience but, as the description says, “please don’t be discouraged if your title doesn’t include engagement-related words.”
  • Free Press has several campaigning/organizing roles open: Campaign Manager, Online Community Manager and Digital Manager. Free Press is leading the fight for net neutrality in the US by, in part, engaging tens of thousands of volunteer activists. The team is based in western Massachusetts, Washington, DC, and remote locations around the US.
  • New Citizenship Project is doing smart work helping orgs and campaigns engage people in more meaningful and powerful ways. The London-based group is bringing on a Strategist. Check it out if you’re over that way.
  • United for Iran is hiring a Civic Technology Program Director based in Berkeley. Great group and should be a wonderful opportunity to do innovative work. Note: must be fluent in Farsi.
  • I don’t know much about Communitas America but this Program Manager role that will run coworking and a social venture accelerator looks super interesting. Based in the Bronx.
  • Greenpeace is filling two Media and Digital Analyst roles to guide the global organization’s tracking and learning from social media, news, and all the other bits that fly around the internets. Flexible location.
  • The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is hiring a DC-based Digital Director.
  • Campaign Legal Center in Washington, DC, is hiring a Multimedia Strategist.
  • The BlueGreen Alliance is hiring a Denver-based Colorado State Coordinator to grow and run the Alliance’s work there.

Here’s a google spreadsheet full of job lists, email groups and online job boards where you’ll find roles like these posted. It’s editable (for now) so feel free to comment or add a resource.

What’s on your “you should read this” list?

Here’s a short version of mine. Read either of these? Have anything to add? Hit reply and share what you’re digging into (or at least hoping to with any theoretical extra time).


Question? Idea to share? Let’s talk. Reply or email

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Power-full storytelling for change

Can we create powerful (and “power-full”) storytelling for advocacy that shifts power to people and communities so they may better control the change they seek?

Power-full storytelling

The “traditional” framework for advocacy storytelling is built around persuading those who aren’t directly affected – or who aren’t currently engaged – to empathize and act. This is a good way to go when what you need are people to write Congress, come to a march on Washington or give you money so you can do more of your good work.

But persuasion isn’t about power. Persuasion acts on those not affected. Somewhere along the way it’s possible—too easy, really—for the change that needs to happen to be disputed, watered down, stalled in a committee. Meanwhile, real people go hungry, real homes sink into the ocean, real wildlife lose a place to live.

Philanthropy may recognize the power problem

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, recently wrote Why Giving Back Isn’t Enough in the New York Times. In it, Walker calls on the philanthropic community and, perhaps, a broader economic and political establishment, to not simply address the effects of inequality and injustice on society but to solve their root causes.

Farhad Ebrahimi of the Chorus Foundation wrote about the Foundation’s decision to focus on systemic change and supporting transitions to a new political economy in choosing how to direct its support of climate change advocacy.

It’s not a new idea to social justice advocates: We can (and should) feed the hungry but wouldn’t it be more prudent to tackle systemic causes of inequality and poverty that are leading to a growing number of hungry families and children each year?

Pressuring the System or Shifting Power?

Advocates and campaigners can do much more to tell the stories of people impacted by inequality, poverty, hunger, war or environmental disaster. And many are doing just that with interviews, personal histories, photos and video, and other narratives that tell stories of the impacted and less powerful in their own voices.  Recent work by Humans of New York tells the story of refugees to help fundraise for the community. In the film @Home, activist Mark Horvath interviews dozens of homeless people, family members, and others in the community to tell the story of homelessness from the perspective of those living it.

Continue reading “Power-full storytelling for change”

Turning policy experts into reporters

The Munk School of Public Affairs at the University of Toronto is doing something brilliant that NGO leaders should check out. The Fellowship in Global Journalism, an 8-month program that trains subject experts to become reporters. The program gives students the support, training and tools needed to create powerful stories for widely read news and online media outlets. Training focuses traditional and digital reporting skills and the program provides participants with high-level mentorship from working editors. All that is layered on top of the participant’s strong subject expertise.

deep sea mining
An ocean issue that could use more news stories: deep sea mining. This is an Auxiliary Cutter to be used by Nautilus Minerals for seabed mining near Papau New Guinea. Photo via Nautilus Minerals.

Imagine, for example, the stories that a few oceans experts could create for widely read media newspapers and online media if they had deep skills in reporting, data visualization, video production and other storytelling skills needed today. You don’t see many oceans stories because traditional news outlets don’t have staff to cover those stories and new media outlets haven’t built up subject expertise. But all are looking to publish great stories people will read and share.

It’s not that readers don’t care about oceans, it’s that there’s nobody to tell the story. And more (and better) stories are needed to support a public narrative on which advocates can hook their calls to action.

Oceans are just one example. You could swap out medicine, immigration, childcare or prison reform and get similar results.

Great news stories are in higher demand than ever so why not make them about issues that matter. There are more places reporting general news for national and global audiences than ever. Some start with a V: Vice and Vox. A is covered: AlJazeera. And then there B for Buzzfeed and M for Mic. Meanwhile, long-time regional, national and global news outlets are cutting full-time positions but, in most cases, hungry for good stories.

There are too few people who both know their subject and can develop great stories about it. This creates an opportunity for policy experts to engage global media in new and more direct ways. It would be fantastic to see the environmental community or other advocacy sector support a similar endeavor.

Why not say “I don’t know”?

Faking Cultural Literacy in last Sunday’s New York Times argues that social media (and online, omnipresent, instant information in general) has allowed everyone to have an opinion about everything. It’s worth a read but it misses the point.

A bunch of tabs
A bunch of open tabs. Illustration by Jennifer Daniel, New York Times.

American culture has long frowned on one saying “I don’t know.” To admit ignorance (regardless of source) is to admit weakness. It is to say to your conversation partner that they know more than you do (and must therefore be smarter, better educated, have better parents, read more, have a healthier diet, etc.).

Better to say something, anything, and fake it than perhaps question and learn from one another.

Case in point: I’ve been reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. There is a passage in which the main character who has come to the US from her native Nigeria to study at a university ruminates on the classroom experience:

School in America was easy, assignments sent in by e-mail, classrooms air-conditioned, professors willing to give makeup tests. But she was uncomfortable with what the professors called “participation,” and did not see why it should be part of the final grade; it merely made students talk and talk, class time wasted on obvious words, hollow words, sometimes meaningless words. It had to be that Americans were taught, from elementary school, to always say something in class, no matter what. And so she sat stiff-tongued, surrounded by students who were all folded easily on their seats, all flush with knowledge, not of the subject of the classes, but of how to be in the classes. They never said “I don’t know.” They said, instead, “I’m not sure,” which did not give any information but still suggested the possibility of knowledge.

We’re trained early on to have SOMETHING to say. ANYTHING. You don’t look smart (which is 90% of the battle) by quietly thinking things through. Nobody wants to hear of their child waxing philosophic. Leaders don’t hold firm to the gray area.

Social media and online information has not launched a wave of shallow knowledge—it’s always been there. Social media makes it more apparent, however. It also makes it easier to find support for our views without engaging in critical thinking or questioning our assumptions.

As advocates and social change campaigners we should be constantly aware of our role in finding, analyzing and sharing information. And recognize that most of us have an opinion whether we have knowledge or not.

We change policy by, in part, winning arguments but debate means listening and critiquing as much as it does espousing a viewpoint.

Engage, question, listen, think and respond. Don’t just make a point—create opportunity for conversation with your audience.

Power of the people: Acknowledge it

We send thank you notes to donors and good organizers do what they can to thank their activists and volunteers. But it seems difficult for groups to acknowledge the power of the people – the huge cross-section of regular people that give up their time – that together make our work bigger and better than it could be if we were just staff out doing our work.

A friend, Apollo Gonzales, recently shared the story of a project he started when he worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Apollo and his team wanted to recognize and acknowledge the people (and their power) that made NRDC’s advocacy successful. Apollo tells the story best:

Before I left NRDC in 2011 I started a project that was aimed at telling the story of how our advocates and members were a major force in the work we were doing. I wanted to tell a story that told the importance of people power. I interviewed staff who I knew had been with the organization for a long time, and who I knew had a passion for how people drove the victories we were winning. This story took shape as a video, and for a thousand little reasons we were never able to get past a script and story boards. It was the one thing I regret not having finished in my time there. Yesterday, my dear friends at Giant Ant sent me the final version.

The resulting story, Loud Voices Together are Heard, is told in a wonderful video produced by Giant Ant and narrated by Shane Koyczan

Continue reading “Power of the people: Acknowledge it”

The Force of empathy in storytelling

You need not have watched the first Obama-Romney debate on October 3rd to know what happened. Mitt Romney won the debate in the eyes of most that watched. He succeeded, in part, by creating a narrative, telling stories, and using a strong sense of empathy to connect with  citizens. The power of empathy in Governor Romney’s debate performance (and the lack of it displayed by President Obama) has been declared significant enough to perhaps turn Romney’s campaign from a languishing also-ran to a possible winner.

Empathy: photo by glsims99, Flickr.

The October 3rd debate served as a case study in the ability of stories to establish empathy. The debate showed how empathy is more valuable than policy proposals in campaigns. While Romney was busy creating empathy, President Obama was falling back on complex policy nuance and factual details. Fine for a meeting department heads. A fail in a nationally televised debate.

But why do data and policy-oriented arguments fail to persuade the opposition? Because they are typically devoid of empathy.

When data, facts and logic fail to shake loose a change in public opinion or support for legislation we turn increasingly to storytelling. We use blog posts, videos, books, and more. We ask supporters and those impacted by these issues to “share your story.”

As communicators, we know stories are important. But it is empathy that gives stories their power in advocacy and campaign communications. In the first debate, Mitt Romney didn’t show up to tell stories. His goal was to establish empathy. He has long been faulted by supporters for displaying little, if any, empathy.

Romney’s stories were a means, not an ends. It is empathy we are after, not just good stories.

The Force of Empathy: These aren’t the droids you’re looking for

Empathy is the ability of a story to put us in another place or time — or even allow us to see the world through the eyes of another.

In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel H. Pink defines empathy as:

…the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s position and to intuit what the person is feeling.

Pink goes on to describe how empathy allows one to see the other side of an argument — one of advocacy communication’s chief purposes.

The role of empathy is too often misplaced in our storytelling. Our first instinct as advocates is to get the reader or viewer to empathize with our point of view. The mission of most advocacy stories might be something like: “The story needs to get them to understand that we are right.”

A good story transports you, the reader, into the character’s world. There, empathy lets you see the world through his or her eyes. As advocate, your goal is to get people to agree with you. As storyteller, your goal is different. You want the reader to become part of the world of your issues and thereby understand the world differently.

Elaine Scarry is a professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. Recently, while commenting on Daniel Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Scarry wrote about the role of empathy in literature and its potential role in changing social behavior over time. Prof. Scarry was commenting on

By “empathy” Hunt and Pinker—rightly in my view—mean not the capacity of literature to make us feel compassion for a fictional being (though literature certainly does this), but rather the capacity of literature to exercise and reinforce our recognition that there are other points of view in the world, and to make this recognition a powerful mental habit. If this recognition occurs in a large enough population, then a law against injuring others can be passed, after which the prohibition it expresses becomes freestanding and independent of sensibility.

Empathy is a strong force in literature. One that makes us recognize alternate worldviews. Empathy is not about sympathy for a character but a more complete understanding of the character’s life. This is power that can change behavior — far more significant than compassion.

Perhaps Obi Wan Kenobi displayed the greatest (and most direct) use of empathy in storytelling. In Star Wars, Obi Wan uses the Force (the science fiction term for empathy?) to make stormtroopers see the world through Obi Wan’s eyes and realize that, indeed, these were not the droids they were looking for.

Use Empathy Well, Young Skywalker

In “Lisa Simpson for Nonprofits: What Science Can Teach You About Fundraising, Marketing and Making Social Change,” the authors (Alia McKee, Mark Rovner and Katya Andresen) point out that giving is irrational. People donate more out of feeling than thinking.

More interesting (but not surprising if you’re a fundraiser), is that giving makes people happy. Thinking a lot about something does not, in my experience, make people happy.

The urge to give is not simply people acting irrationally. What if it is simply an empathic response to a good story or video that connects the potential donor to the organization?

Fortunately, we don’t need to rely on “the Force” to create empathy. A good story with proper dramatic arc is a start.

In a recent video for the Future of Storytelling conference, Dr. Paul Zak (a professor of neuroeconomics at Claremont Graduate University) describes how people were presented with a video telling the story of a father and his young son, who is dying from cancer. Viewers empathized with the characters in the video and were more likely to make a charitable donation after watching the video.

In looking for biological explanations for empathy, Dr. Zak found increased levels of  cortisol and oxytocin in the blood of those watching the video. Cortisol correlates with distress and focuses the mind’s attention. Oxytocin is a chemical associated with care, connection and empathy. The study also scanned brain activity while watching the video and found that areas of the mind associated with understanding what others are doing were highly active, as were areas rich in oxytocin receptors.

Dr. Zak notes that viewers were asked to watch several videos about the boy and his father. Only those videos with a dramatic story arc produced cortisol and oxytocin in the viewer. Simply watching a video of a boy and his father walk around a zoo, for instance, produced no change in blood chemistry and no empathy.

In other words, powerful stories with dramatic arcs can create chemical reactions in the reader/viewer that increase their empathy. In advocacy, a strong story can help connect characters (and issues) to the viewer.

Dramatic structure is a storytelling arc described by Gustav Freytag and includes exposition, rising action, climax, fulfilling action and denoument. This structure helps the reader (or viewer) focus their mind, forget what they’re doing, and join in the story. They emerge at the end, hopefully, not with your advocacy ask in mind but with a view of the world that changes their behavior.

The moral of the story in Star Wars is that good, against all odds and weakened by youth and few resources, can triumph over evil by being clever and more persistent. Nobody, aside from a movie critic, walked out of the theater talking about that but they all felt the inspiration and power of that moral.

If empathy is the secret sauce of storytelling then the goal of advocacy stories is not to have the reader or viewer agree with you but simply to connect with your worldview. Mitt Romney’s goal in establishing empathy in the first debate was not to get people to agree with him. It’s nice if they do but the goal is to let people feel like he understands them and their world. For many, especially the undecided, their opinion (and vote) is based on comfort and confidence, not agreement.

As advocacy communicators, we can also use stories to create empathy and create or strengthen connections. Our campaign organizers can then engage people through that connection, exposing them to more stories and maybe getting them to take actions and actively support policies that create a healthier climate.

This post originally appeared in ClimateAccess

Video done right: Protect Our Winters

Great videos don’t need to be earth shattering displays of far out creativity and mind-boggling production values. Video is a storytelling form that lifts characters, dialog and emotion off the page and into the visual line of sight. Basically, video shares a story.

Marketing videos – especially PSAs – can often get overwrought or overdone. It’s hard to keep it simple.

We like this short piece from Protect Our Winters — an organization created by winter sports professionals that advocates for policies that halt climate change and gets pro athletes into schools, communities and Congress. Check out the video:

It may have helpful to share some images of winter that weren’t all about the high alpine environment and maybe more familiar to viewers. Maybe the scene of a city park hushed by a fresh blanket of snow would connect more people with their personal experiences.

But the scenes left in are aspirational, true to the character of the organization, and one can always add more scenes. Brevity and focus are powerful tools, too. We think this is powerful and a great example of how strong video doesn’t need to be complicated.

What do you think?

Our First Book Launch: The Nimble Nonprofit Hits the Streets (and Barnes & Noble)

The Nimble Nonprofit is now available at Barnes & Noble ($4.99)!
Yesterday Trey and I launched our first book, The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, with a ton of help from our Bright+3 colleague Ted Fickes.

We’re only a day into it, but it’s been great fun so far: a ton of awesome reviews on Amazon, a bunch of great Twitter traffic, and even an unsolicited and really favorable full-on book review (thanks Bonnie Cranmer!).

In addition, I now have a “Jacob Smith” author page on Amazon. I wasn’t expecting much when I logged in to set it up, but I must not have paid author pages much attention previously because it turns out they’re actually set up pretty well. In addition to what you’d expect (profile, photo, etc.), they also allow you to bring in a Twitter feed and an RSS feed, which is a nice touch.

And great news if you are a Nook fan: The Nimble Nonprofit is now available at Barnes & Noble!

The book is in review at Apple, and as soon as it launches there we’ll announce it.

We’re thrilled to sent our little book out into the world, and we welcome your comments, critiques, and thoughts … send them our way: