Activism and Storytelling

mister fox & little prince
The oth­er day Mis­ter Fox and I dropped in on the Lit­tle Prince’s plan­et to have a talk with Fox. You remem­ber, the one that want­ed to be tamed, became the Lit­tle Prince’s friend, but then became sad when the Lit­tle Prince went away. Fox remind­ed the Lit­tle Prince of his respon­si­bil­i­ty to all that he’d tamed, and mem­o­rably said:

It is only with the heart that one can see right­ly; what is essen­tial is invis­i­ble to the eye.”

Mis­ter Fox and I are inter­est­ed in that, because it some­times seems that a lot of people’s hearts are blind. I’m always sur­prised by how some peo­ple can see sto­ries all around us and some can’t. How some see the oppor­tu­ni­ty in hack­ing at society’s sto­ries and some don’t.

Because there are some very strange sto­ries that lots of peo­ple con­fuse with absolute, rock-solid truth. Sto­ries like “You can tell if the world is get­ting bet­ter or worse by look­ing at whether the stock mar­ket went up or down.” Or more basic sto­ries like “Mon­day.” Or “Mon­ey.” Now I know this gets deep, but real­ly, those are all things that don’t actu­al­ly exist in nature. Mon­keys aren’t hap­pier on Fri­day, Giraffes don’t get the Mon­day blues. We’ve not only for­got­ten that those sto­ries are not real, we’ve for­got­ten that we made them up. That we shape our dai­ly lives with sto­ries about what’s pos­si­ble and what’s not, what’s right and what’s not. That we have the pow­er to change them. Think of the sto­ry of mon­ey — our con­sen­su­al agree­ment about what rep­re­sents trade­able val­ue, and how fun­da­men­tal­ly that mil­len­nia-old sto­ry is being chal­lenged by Bit­Coin and an entire­ly dif­fer­ent sto­ry of how val­ue can be deter­mined by a crowd rather than a bank.

Sto­ries are invis­i­ble and pow­er­ful, like ghost pup­peteers that wag­gle their fin­gers, pulling spi­der silk threads that make peo­ple march, or dance, or sing, or vote, or buy. They shape people’s expec­ta­tions of how the world works, of what’s true, and how they them­selves should behave.

Exam­ple?” asks Mis­ter Fox, lean­ing again­st a tree and brush­ing a but­ter­fly from his nose.

Fil­tered cig­a­rettes were once con­sid­ered lady-like, and a brand called Marl­boro was strug­gling to sur­vive dis­mal sales. Along came a sto­ry­teller, Leon Bur­nett, who cre­at­ed a char­ac­ter called the Marl­boro man, a rugged, non-con­formist cow­boy. It was soon the best-sell­ing cig­a­ret­te in the world, and fil­ters became com­plete­ly accept­able for men. Mil­lions of peo­ple would die of lung can­cer because of that sto­ry. In the days when I smoked, my inner smok­er and inner non-smok­er were at war, dai­ly. My inner smok­er would sad­dle up and just look with dis­dain at my inner non-smok­er, who wore a lab coat and heavy black-rimmed glass­es patched at the nose with a band-aid. He car­ried around a clip­board, charts, and graphs about lung can­cer. No mat­ter how good the lab guy’s facts, the Marl­boro man would just lean down from his sad­dle, give me a light with his Zip­po and say “pay no atten­tion to that pen­cil-necked geek: we’re out­laws, out­side the main­stream of soci­ety, mak­ing our hobo cof­fee by a brook as the moon ris­es over the rock­ies and the coy­otes sing. Tip­ping our hats to the ladies in the streets of Dead­wood, where, sure, peo­ple die fast.”

It was no con­test. Bur­nett told a roman­tic sto­ry about that cig­a­ret­te that I des­per­ate­ly want­ed to not just believe, but inhab­it, and break­ing free of that story’s grip took years of effort.

But that was sto­ry designed to sell cig­a­rettes. What if we put that kind of cre­ativ­i­ty into sto­ries designed to save the world?

For the last two years, I and a pirate band of col­leagues have been teach­ing sto­ry­telling as an activist tool. Today I’m begin­ning a series of arti­cles about what we learned, what we got right, what we got wrong, and why I’m con­vinced this is seri­ous­ly strong mag­ic for world-chang­ers, and why sto­ry has more poten­tial today than at any time in his­to­ry to change the course of the future.

If you’d like to fol­low along, you can sub­scribe here to get new entries via email.

I’ll be running a day-long workshop in Story as Theory of Change in Berlin on October 5th, 2016. If you’re going to be in Germany for the E-Campaigning Forum, sign up! If you know an activist, artist, or entrepreneur who you think would benefit from some story mojo, nudge them toward that link or share this blog. The story that we can change the world gets stronger every time it’s retold.

This entire jour­ney began with one book: Jon­ah Sach’s Win­ning the Sto­ry Wars. If you want to get to the heart of sto­ry as the­o­ry of change, that’s a great place to start.

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