When Mister Fox talks about storytelling to activist organisations, he finds he needs to talk about stories at several different levels.
“I like stories with the number 3” says Rabbit. (This may have to do with the fact that rabbits can only count to 4)
“Very well,” says Mister Fox, “There are three levels of storytelling for change. Today we’ll talk about level 1”
Level 1: Good stories grab you by the coat-collar and insist you pay attention. This is just plain good communications sense. Plenty of very smart people dismiss this as the only thing story has to offer. “You know,” say’s Mole to Mister Fox, “it’s a communications thing. Like frosting. I bake a cake and bring it to a communications specialist, they add story, and boom, you’ve got a birthday party.” Well, we’ll get to why that doesn’t always work, and how other levels of story can be baked into that cake to make it not only inviting but nutritious and delicious, but today let’s just talk first about that frosting. This is the part of the story that your audience sees. The cake inside may be made of sawdust or double fudge (Mister Fox’s fave): all you know as someone looking at a piece of communication is whether you like the look of the frosting; whether it makes you want to eat the cake.
Epic storytelling is supposed to have a great hook; a beginning, middle, and an end; and (for most audiences) some form of a happy, life and humanity-affirming ending. But great activist stories that drive action are incomplete by design: they describe only a part of the narrative arc.
Hook they must. But end they shouldn’t.
A good activist story has to invite the listener to join the story in progress, to become the hero, or to help the hero, or in some way deliver or bring closer the happy ending which the story convinces them is possible.
Here’s a fine example, from a story a 13 year old girl, McKenna Pope, told about her 4 year old brother.
In one minute, we have a perfect activist story arc: an identifiable, lovable protagonist (I’m baking cookies!) who finds himself in a broken world — in this case, one where he can’t cook because only girls cook, and his wish for an Easy Bake Oven cannot be granted. The story engenders empathy for the boy’s plight and sympathy for his sister’s cause. It identifies evil: gender stereotyping, but it also identifies a more vulnerable, more conquerable monster: Hasbro’s marketing techniques. It then offers a credible way to help, and a call to action.
If we map this story to a traditional story arc, it looks like this:
The boy’s sister acts out the role of Obi Wan Kenobi, inviting the listener to accept their father’s light saber and journey to Alderaan. The ancestors of Mulan calling upon her to go to war in her father’s place.
Do you see what happens here?
In the story map that all of us carry around in our heads, this is not a petition link: it’s a call to adventure, a call to become a hero, to slay the monster which denies this child’s Christmas wish. We want to help. We want to answer the call. We want that boy to have a happy ending.
We listen to this story because we’ve evolved to listen to stories of people in trouble. Since the first human beings gathered around campfires, we paid deep attention to stories of obstacles and enemies overcome, of children rescued. We learned from the experience of others through their stories, and those of us who could put ourselves in their shoes, and remember their lessons when needed, were the ones who survived. The ones who kept the fire going. Who outwitted the bear. Who rescued their children. The ones who were celebrated by the tribe and passed their story-philic genes on to another generation.
There’s another powerful storytelling pattern at work in this short video, one which Marshall Ganz identified as classic activist storytelling. It begins with a story of “I” — the personal story of a little kid and his big sis — a human, kid-sized story. It widens into a story of “US” — “Is this really the message we want to tell to our youth?” making it about a bigger issue, but more importantly drawing the audience into the story by directly addressing the listener. The brain wakes up because it’s hard-wired to scan for when it’s being asked a question or engaged in a conversation. Wait wait is she talking to me? Yeah, she’s talking to you. It’s no longer a story you’re passively watching from the couch. You’re involved. You’ve been called out as having witnessed that child being thwarted in not getting their wish, and you suddenly have a choice to make. What are you going to do about it?
And so the great finale of a good activist story sweeps in on urgent wings with the story of NOW: “Sign the petition and join me in my fight” — charmingly delivered with a lack of professional polish that reminds us this is a 13 year old girl — not an actress, not a professional activist, just a kid with a cause, asking you for help. Who can resist?
“A perfect, Easy-Bake-Oven-cooked cake” says Mister Fox. 45,000 people signed McKenna Pope’s petition. Hasbro changed its marketing, and introduced a gender-neutral version of the toy. McKenna’s brother got his wish.
This is the second installment of a series on Activism and Storytelling featuring Mister Fox, the alter ego of Tommy Crawford and Brian Fitzgerald and the trickster spirit at work in their creative agency, Dancing Fox, Ltd.
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
Oxford March 8th 2016 Berlin on October 5th 2016. London March 21st 2017 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.