August 14, 2014

Are You Really Telling Stories?

Storytelling Summer: Answers to Common Questions About Motivating Your Audience

This week, two questions from readers:

My organization works on hunger in our region by distributing food, building local capacity, and doing some advocacy. The problem is, hunger is largely out of the public view. How do I get people to interact with really tough stories on this issue?

My organization helps (mostly orphaned) young people in Africa get an education. I believe we have a compelling story, but do you have any suggestions to help us?

Another way to put these questions is, “How do I get people to care about my issue?”  
I looked at the websites of the organizations whose staff asked these questions. I gather they are both doing vital work. But the “stories” on their websites weren’t so much stories as statements of feeling or timelines or sequences of events. Those all have their place, but they’re not stories, and they typically don’t grab people in the way stories do. 

My question is: Are you really telling stories? Here are some questions to guide you.

Who is your protagonist?

As noted in my first post in this series, every story needs a protagonist to guide us through the action.

The protagonist cannot be an organization or a community or a large group of people. Mother Teresa said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” The psychologist Paul Slovic points to research that says people become numb to social problems when too many individuals are affected.

Nonprofits may hesitate to name an individual protagonist, because they are dealing with social problems, not personal ones or because they want to give credit to more than one person for addressing those problems. Read last week’s post about developing a strategy to guide which stories you tell and how to put personal anecdotes in the context of larger social problems.

Tell your audience a bit about your protagonist so we’ll care about her and what she’s going to tell us. For example, I’m impressed by how the Voice of Witness oral-history books offer background on the people suffering through human-rights crises to give people a sense of the humanity of the people whose rights are being violated.

In the case of the anti-hunger group, is our protagonist an 8-year-old who goes to school hungry every day? Is it the teacher whose students are distracted all morning because they haven’t eaten breakfast? Is it the mother who has no car and lives a mile from the nearest produce market?

What does she want?

Can you name a good story in which the protagonist doesn’t want something? I can’t. Desire is part of what makes a story a story.

Social-sector groups are generally well-practiced at identifying needs; just about every grant proposal they write has a statement about the need or problem they’re addressing. In many cases, “need” is just another way of saying “desire”—for education or peace. And yet “need” sounds so immediate and narrow, whereas “want” is more expansive.

In the case of the organization that provides education to young Africans, maybe the protagonist is an orphaned teenager. She “needs” an education. But why? Maybe she wants a place to make friends, or she wants a shot at a better life after years of grief, or maybe she just wants to graduate, feel the diploma in her hands and think how proud her parents would be. Absent that desire, she’s just a caricature.

When gathering or writing stories, ask yourself or your storyteller about her needs and desires. Listen for words like “love” or “angry” or “searching”—anything that indicates the journey she’s on and where she imagines it leads. There is drama and passion in the work you do and the people you work with. Delve into it.

What obstacles does she face?

There’s a Twilight Zone episode in which a career criminal named “Rocky” Valentine is killed while robbing a pawnshop. He finds himself in a place where his every wish is granted by a smiling man in a white suit. Eventually, Rocky is bored with getting whatever he wants, and says he doesn’t want to stay in heaven anymore but instead go to “the other place.” The man in the suit replies, “Whatever gave you the idea that you were in heaven, Mr. Valentine? This is the other place!”

Hell is knowing exactly what’s going to happen.

And yet far too many nonprofits leave us in precisely this sort of storytelling hell of no obstacles, no conflict, just smooth sailing to the end. I suspect that’s partly because they don’t want to reveal their own difficulties as an organization for fear of alienating their supporters. “No, we’re doing great--keep giving us money!” (I touched on the phenomenon of conflict-free “stories” in this blog post.)

For the teacher with hungry kids in her classroom, the obstacle may be the hunger, or maybe it’s the local government that’s not giving adequate funding for school meals.

But just as there’s a risk in having too few obstacles in your stories, there’s a risk in having too many. If your character is full of obstacles, and we don’t know enough about her background or what she wants, then we as the audience have nothing to identify with. She herself becomes a “problem.”

Obstacles have got to figure into stories, in balance with desire or need. The difficulties en route to the desired destination get us deeper into the story.

How does it end?

I recently binge-watched two seasons of “V,” the 2009 reboot of the TV miniseries in which space aliens come to earth to harvest human DNA.

The prospects for humanity were grim as the end of Season 2 approached; optimistically, I figured either the series would wrap up with a big win by the rebels or there was a Season 3 in the offing. But, no, the show was canceled after Season 2. It didn’t so much as end as stop, as the rebels were defeated and a vast fleet of alien motherships approached our big blue marble.

It was irritating. Although I was growing tired of some of the characters, I’d spent about 15 hours of my life getting involved in the story, which was left unresolved. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, like a victory by humans, just a proper ending.

You owe your audiences an ending, something that gives meaning to what you’ve just told them. As story trainer Andy Goodman wrote for the Working Narratives blog, “By the time the last line is spoken, they should know exactly why they took this journey with you. Otherwise, you’ll have wasted both your time and theirs.”

An ending gives shape to your story, and it points your audiences in the direction you want them to go; or at least it makes them ponder questions you want them to think about.

I’m going to contradict myself slightly here and say that your endings can be a little bit open-ended. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, that gives room for your audience to get involved.

Finally, a word about vulnerability

The storyteller, if she’s talking about her own life, is vulnerable. Even if she casts herself as the hero, the storyteller—simply by virtue of revealing her needs, wants, and obstacles—is still a little bit vulnerable. And in some cases, she might be not just a little bit vulnerable but at some substantial risk—such as if she’s sharing a personal experience of some human-rights abuse.

That means that nonprofits that solicit stories, tell stories, and facilitate story sharing must pay attention to the ethics of storytelling. A person’s story is a precious thing; take care. And your audiences are more likely to respond with the same care.

Once a week through Labor Day, Paul VanDeCarr will answer readers’ questions about how to use storytelling for social change. Submit your questions for consideration to Questions used on the blog will be edited and made anonymous.

Mr. VanDeCarr is the managing director of Working Narratives, an organization that works with advocates, artists, policy groups, media-makers, and others to “change the story” on the big social-justice issues of our time. He is also the author of that organization’s publication “Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers,” He is working on a second edition of the guide, this time for nonprofits and activists, to be released this winter.

Find his organization at, on Facebook at, or on Twitter at @wnstory.