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

Time spent watching online video going up means you need to tell a good story to the right people

Time spent watching online video vs. streaming viewers.
Time spent watching online video going up while number of people watching holds steady.

People are watching more video online. Recent data from Nielsen shows that the growth of time spent watching online video is outpacing the rise in unique viewers. In other words, most people that will watch video online are already doing so. Growth is coming from those people spending more time watching video.

Nielsen and others cite growth in long-form video watching and not just watching more videos. People are spending more time watching movies and TV shows on Hulu, Netflix and other streaming video outlets. More people watching Weeds on their computer doesn’t have many direct benefits to organizations using video to build awareness and market their issues. Minimally, however, this is a sign that people are increasingly able and willing to view longer length streaming content.

There are a couple important takeaways for organizations. One is the value of good storytelling in video. Another is the need to take distribution strategy seriously from the start. Video content is found through many channels, lives in many places and needs to be much more than something plopped on YouTube and embedded on a web page you host.

Tell a Great Story

This shouldn’t be news to nonprofits. Some of the most successful online videos have been a few minutes or longer because they’ve used storytelling to drive engagement and sharing. A couple great examples of this are the Story of Stuff and the Meatrix. If you want to dive into some of the storytelling themes used in these videos I suggest you check out this recent presentation by Jonah Sachs, a point person behind both Story of Stuff and the Meatrix.

Continue reading “Time spent watching online video going up means you need to tell a good story to the right people”

Shared Values: Where Theory of Change meets Storytelling

Recently, I was at a conference (or, rather, an event that’s more like a collision of deep experience, ideas and passion for social change) and I’ve since been stewing on notes, memories and thoughts pulled from truly insightful discussions.

Two themes of this gathering happened to be theory of change and storytelling. Both were woven into presentations, discussions, random conversations at lunch, and have been present in ongoing interaction by and around attendees. Jonah Sachs led a great discussion about the principles of story that I wish more communicators and advocates could engage in (though he does have a book coming out on that…look for it next year). Jonah used a story, that of Moses and his quest to free his people from the Pharaoh, to help people understand the elements of a strong story.

The rise of Occupy actions around the same time – from idea to tangible gathering in New York City to what seems to be a full-blown international movement – speaks to both themes as well. What, indeed, is the Occupy theory of change and what is the story being told?

This post isn’t intended to be an exploration of the Occupy movement’s theory of change. One could debate whether there is even a theory of change present in the movement. By theory of change I mean “if we do this, this and this we will produce that result.” Occupy is trying to change culture to create sustainable societal change over time. That’s a long process that starts, in part, with storytelling.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that personal storytelling has been an important piece of spreading the Occupy message. The We Are the 99% Tumblr has given people a medium to share their story – and that’s just one place where people are talking about their situation. Many that aren’t sharing their own stories on Tumblr and sites like these can see themselves in the stories told. It isn’t hard to identify with these people and feel like you share their values and see your story in their words.

But, hooray, people are telling/sharing personal stories. That happens all the time online, in conversations with friends and neighbors, in community meetings, emails and more. Advocacy groups trot out “tell your story” campaigns aimed at getting people involved in policy change and, hopefully, a little more engaged in their organization. People post randomly on Facebook about an issue in which they’re interested.

The nature of Occupy storytelling seems different, though. Stories are different and people are arguing about details of what should happen – there are even clear strains of Tea Party activism and Ron Paul libertarianism in Occupy – but there look to be shared values running through it all. There is a sense that we can do better, need to stick together, create a plan and share in the work and sacrifice needed to take care of each other. People matter more than corporations (or politicians) We need governance and leadership but not necessarily your/this government. Of course, that’s a personal interpretation of the story.

One page of the notes and thoughts I jotted down at this conference a few weeks ago included a little venn diagram I used at the time to explore the intersection of these two themes: theory of change and story. Each is powerful on its own and a key component of a campaign (advocacy, fundraising, even in marketing a product to consumers). These two elements are much more valuable together, though.

So, what’s the commonality? Where is the intersection between theory of change and story that, when defined and used, invigorates a campaign or even a movement.

Shared Values

Perhaps it comes down to shared values. I originally wrote “moral values” which is stronger but am hesitant to frame this discussion with the word “moral” because it has been loaded with political connotations.

Shared values (or moral values if you like – or perhaps there is a better term) are key components of a strong theory of change and a good story. If trying to bring people together to take action you identify and appeal to their values, not their intellect and not the facts. Intellect and facts are debatable, easy to question. Values are deeper. Most anyone can identify and connect with the human values of liberation and persistence woven through a story of Moses and the Pharaoh. Those are values that transcend politics and religion.

Appealing to shared values in one’s advocacy messages is nothing new, really. Integrating a story about shared values with a clear theory of change is hard, though.

I would say that your internal team and strongest activists need to be clearest on the theory of change part. They need to know it back and forth to weave it into messages and stories. The audience, constituents, community need to connect with the story. It is what brings them in, keeps them there and compels them to act and spread the story. Aligning shared values across the inside and outside groups (the theory of change and story) will be the special sauce that keeps the campaign juiced and moving forward.

Storytelling for Readers (who, incredulously enough, have minds of their own)

Storytelling Here

Storytelling this. Storytelling that. We need to tell our stories. Story story story.

Sorry but I’m in a bit of a downward spiral when it comes to storytelling in/by/for/with/around organizations. It’s so much “if only we could tell our story we would WIN!”

It’s not so simple but the fact remains that organizations and the people in and around them really must do a better job connecting with the audience that helps create change (or buys their product or makes a donation or whatever the goal of organization may be). Organizations communicate constantly with email, social media, online ads, billboards, direct mail, radio spots, videos and more.

Every single one of these pieces (EVERY ONE) tells a story. So how we craft stories and language matters a great deal. (It’s just that stories aren’t as good as corporations when it comes to lining the pockets of Congress so stories alone won’t change policy.)

The Premeditated Conclusion

Most stories that spring out of organizations – be they on video, blog posts, annual reports – are crafted in internal vacuums. Staff decide that they need people to think “X” or do “Y” so they sit down as a group and/or with consultants to create a story. The conclusion that the reader should reach is the goal. Everything in the story will obviously lead the reader there.

Not so many trees lose their lives during the editing process as in the old days but “view changes” in Microsoft Word gets a serious workout as the story comes together.

The result may actually be a good story. It may be short or long, breezy or deep. But even “good” storytelling in organizations tends to forget that readers bring their own (often much different) perspectives to the story and will be likely to draw inferences that you don’t anticipate or keep them from finding the story valuable to their own experience.

There are lots of reasons stories (even otherwise good ones) don’t work out as expected and this is one of them. How can we help the reader get where we want them to go? Continue reading “Storytelling for Readers (who, incredulously enough, have minds of their own)”

Wanted: More Amazing Organizations (only the focused and passionate need apply)

We are not really Charity:Water fanboys. It may look that way given that this is the second post in a row highlighting them in some fashion. Perhaps it seems Charity:Water is able to operate on a plane or in a way that provides few transferable lessons for other nonprofits. Or maybe it is because Charity:Water isn’t an advocacy organization like most we work with so their experience doesn’t provide learning opportunities.

But damn. Their new September campaign (don’t go there yet…haven’t linked to it for a reason) and the context in which we came across it today shouts out as a teachable moment about the power of focus, passion and having a simple call to action.

Earlier today for reasons totally unrelated to this post we were looking at the home pages websites run by some of America’s leading conservation organizations. Great organizations doing vast amounts of positive work around the US and internationally. We know leaders and staff of many of them. Some are current or past clients.

We invite you to click the links below. They will open in new tabs or windows. Check out the homepage of some or all and gather a quick impression of what they’re working on, what’s moving them and their members and what their passion is RIGHT NOW. Go on…

Checked them out? Great.

Now, head to Charity:Water. Look at what’s there and perhaps watch a video (yeah…you’ll figure out which one). We’ll wait a minute. When you come back we’ll discuss. Continue reading “Wanted: More Amazing Organizations (only the focused and passionate need apply)”

Storytelling a Start to Engaging Action, not the End

Is storytelling enough? Is storytelling the peak engagement activity? If your organization is engaging supporters with good stories are you doing all you can for your people and issues? Storytelling is essential but it must tie tellers and readers together into a network that takes meaningful action.

Storytelling HereThat seems one possible conclusion that could be drawn from a recent post by Katya Andresen in which she discusses the “humanization highway” concept in Jay Baer and Amber Naslund’s book The Now Revolution. Baer and Naslund are describing responsive businesses with great customer service models. In their view (quite rightly, it seems) the more “human” an organization becomes the better service it provides. This leads to better, more loyal customers. A similar case could be made for nonprofits: interact with members and supporters on a personal, human level and you’ll have more active and engaged participants.

Baer and Nasulund lay out a five point continuum of “humanness” that places storytelling at the top. The full list is:

Continue reading “Storytelling a Start to Engaging Action, not the End”