Activism and Storytelling: Level 1

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”

Screenshot 2016-02-26 14.03.15

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:

Story Map

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.



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