Storytellers can and must change the world

Good fundraising and advocacy are all about storytelling. If we want to make the world a better place and to solve the urgent crises facing our planet, we must tell better stories – stories that move people to action. I’m reading Jonah Sachs’ new book Winning the Story Wars. Sachs is the creator of renowned viral videos including The Meatrix, Grocery Store Wars and The Story of Stuff. Winning the Story Wars by Jonah SachsHis book is packed with great insights into the art of storytelling and how our world is shaped by stories.

Charities, just like businesses, are trying to compete to have our stories heard over the background roar of information. While storytelling tools have become easier and cheaper for charities to access, with everything from YouTube, to blogs, to Pinterest, the competition to have our voices heard above the din is also much stiffer.

Jonah Sachs has good advice about how to win in the story wars. “What we need to know to tell great stories are these simple commandments”, says Sachs:

  1. Be interesting
  2. Tell the truth
  3. And if you can’t tell the truth, change what you’re doing so you can. In other words, live the truth.

Sachs also points out that there is opportunity in areas of discomfort, where the old stories or myths no longer make sense or can keep up to our fast-changing world. He calls this the “myth gap”. “Every marketer is looking to tap into the zeitgeist, and there is no more direct way into it that through the void created by fraying myths,” says Sachs. “This is where anxiety is welling up. This is where people are looking for therapeutic relief. This is where new ritual is ripe for the making.”

Sachs says a good example of this is the Occupy Wall Street movement, which stepped into the gap caused by the crisis around the myth of the American dream – that if you are willing to work hard you will succeed. The breakthrough message of “the 99%” both reaffirms the values of the American dream and at the same time provides clear character and conflict to the story. It is the message or story that has stuck and spread.

Reading Jonah Sachs has also prompted me to re-read Joseph Campbell’s seminal works on myth. Good stories should encourage people to go on a journey of self-discovery. As Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers, all myths are about “the maturation of the individual from dependency to adulthood through maturity and then to the exit”. This is what he called “the hero’s journey”.

Charities must take their donors on a hero’s journey. The charity acts as a mentor figure empowering and guiding the donor who takes the transformational journey. This is a journey that must appeal to the best in human nature and calls on us to be great.

True engagement does not come from negative emotions. Sachs points out that most advertising is based on negative emotions such as greed, lust, and fear and either creates, or preys on, existing feelings of inadequacy. He notes that, “Ads aimed at consumers of products or services generally create anxiety and then offer the magic solution.”

Sachs concludes his book with a grand vision and a call to action to storytellers to change the world. “We have the means to design the future we want; what’s most needed are the stories that will engage millions of people to want to get there.”