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.

Empaty
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?

What Nonprofits Can Learn From the YouTube Laugh Factory

Wired Magazine shares lessons from Maker Studios.

Last month’s Wired magazine had a feature on Maker Studios and the rise of commercially viable independent web-based videos. Their takeaways on effectively using video online:

Rule 1: Make a lot of video content. A lot.
And if the video releases are regularly scheduled, all the better.

Rule 2: Target a niche.
Be really clear on what audience you are targeting and make sure you understand that audience really well.

Rule 3: Connect with your fans.
Olga Kay is sending a personal note to each of the 450,000 people subscribed to her YouTube channel. Nuff said.

Rule 4: Collaborate.
Collaborations can make for great content and introduce all of the folks to each other’s audiences.

Rule 5: Optimize for the algorithms.
One example: tagging, title, explain, and annotate your videos with as many specific and general descriptors as possible.

The goal for most nonprofits might focus more on engagement than ad revenue, but the lessons apply just as well.

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”

Colorado Kaleidoscope: the Story of a Good Online Storytelling Site

Some days I wake up and think that storytelling seems to have become the buzzword du jour (well, I don’t think this immediately upon awakening…after a cup or two of coffee perhaps…a time when “buzz”word takes on meaning). Inviting members, supporters, constituents or whatever part of your audience you like to “tell their story” now seems to be step one of the online engagement handbook.

Colorado Kaleidoscope homepage
Colorado Kaleidoscope storytelling site from Colorado Health Foundation
But once something enters the handbook it can be mishandled. Organizations run the risk of commoditizing stories by using them primarily as a tool, a tactic, a method for getting towards “engagement” and increasingly elusive fundraising and/or advocacy goals.

By their very nature, stories are personal. Those of us who write blog posts, fundraising emails and other material about the issues we work on ever day sometimes forget the personal nature of stories. A good story – with plot, hero, crisis and resolution – does nothing if not peel back the onion over the soul of the teller.

A story can give a glimpse into the experience, heart and mind of people. This is personal and can be a bit scary, which helps explain why good stories can be so hard to write. Despite evidence provided by Facebook’s rise (or perhaps evidenced by the often shallow nature of Facebook interaction), sharing is not simple. Most people have a hard time revealing or hinting at details of their lives for an audience. We’re shy. Or wary. Reticent. Or just way too damn busy to bother.

Organizations Behave Like Organizations, not People

Organizations too often approach storytelling projects as, well, the organizations they are and not as people. It’s hard to explain the purpose of the story, what will happen to it, what the organization will offer in return for the story. Organizations dive into the technical aspects – guidelines, format for the web page, forms, where do photos and video actually live – and can pay too little attention to the story itself and the opportunity for creating and strengthening sustainable relationships that can offer more value to the organization and the storyteller.

We can, with a good sized email list or other audience, make a request for user stories – narrative, audio, video, photos or a combination – and get responses. But it’s easy to undervalue the opportunity and/or not be sure how much value there might be. Interaction and relationship-building has a reputation for being staff resource intensive – and it can be tough and not necessarily scale. Rather than undermine the potential, however, by not giving a project enough resources and the participants enough support.

That’s why it is great to see an online storytelling website with a purpose in mind and a fair value proposition for the audience while providing the support needed to help the audience craft great stories.

Continue reading “Colorado Kaleidoscope: the Story of a Good Online Storytelling Site”