Need some simple exercises to help improve your storytelling? We’ve got you covered.
Here is a simple template we use to summarize the basic elements of our narrative. Fill each section as you make your way through the corresponding exercises and conversations. That way you’ll have a core guideline that you can use across all of your story creation work!
Every story has a speaker. Sometimes that speaker is easy to identify. They will talk in the first-person or share their individual experiences. Other times, the speaker is hidden. Maybe they use the third-person (such as he, she, they or it) or language that strikes us as “objective.” Either way, every story has a storyteller.
Social media is one of the most important ways that we communicate our stories to others. If you are working with an organization that has a social media presence, pull up its pages on your phone or computer. If that’s not the case for you, then pull up the pages of a group doing similar work.
1. Closely examine some recent posts.
Are these posts friendly? Professional? Impassioned? Technical? If someone who knew nothing about this organization stumbled across their page, what kind of person would they imagine writing the posts? What would they infer about the author’s gender, age, race, hometown and education level? This is the persona of the organization.
2. Consider why your group (or the group whose page you’re examining) adopts this persona.
Who does it connect with? How does it connect with them? Now consider this persona’s limitations. Who might it alienate? Who might feel that this voice is not speaking to them?
3. Build your ideal messenger.
Can you imagine someone who could speak authoritatively and convincingly to the full range of people you’re trying to reach? Think in terms of physiology (age, sex, health, etc.). Think in terms of sociology (race, class, nationality, political affiliation, etc.). Think in terms of psychology (values, ambitions, attitudes, aptitudes, etc.).
4. Compare the two storytellers: the one currently projected via social media and the ideal messenger you’ve just built.
How far apart are they? What are the key differences? What concrete steps could be taken to bridge the gap?
The most important thing about heroes isn’t what they can accomplish on their own. It’s what they inspire in others. A hero models qualities that we aspire to, and through their example, we can clarify who exactly we want to be.
1. Choose a real life hero.
Pick someone with a public profile (not your mother, no matter how cool she is!). This should be someone your group can learn from. Someone who can inspire your audience.
2. Write down the characteristics of this hero.
How do they talk and how do they listen? How do they lead and how do they follow? What are their values, their habits, and their sensibilities? Include every trait you can think of — no detail is too small!
3. Consider how this person could be a model for you as you pursue your campaign.
Which of the characteristics that you listed should you strive to embody? What concrete steps could you take to embody them as you interact with other stakeholders?
You’re planning your campaign for a reason. Something about the issue resonates with you. It connects with ideals that you hold dear, values that motivate you. Maybe those values are on the list below, or maybe another value is driving you:
Many of us will connect with many of these values, but each one may speak to you to different degrees at different times.
1. Choose the 2-3 values that are propelling you to work on this campaign.
If you’re collaborating with a group, then choose these values together. What motivations do you share?
2. Not everyone defines their values in the same way, so take a moment to define what these values mean to you.
Again, if you’re working with other people, give everyone the chance to define these values for themselves.
3. Chances are, you’re not alone in having these values. Brainstorm about who else in your community are also concerned with justice, equality, truth, or whatever it is that you hold dear. These people or organizations need not already be involved in your specific issue — they just need to share one or more of your key values.
By explicitly defining your values, you’ve just found the common ground on which a successful campaign can take root and grow!
Activism is hard work. With all of the daily responsibilities that go into running a successful campaign, it’s easy to lose sight of what we’re ultimately aiming for. Let’s take a minute to consider the big picture.
1. First, think back to 50 years ago. Now write down everything about the world today that would have seemed impossible back then.
What political and social developments would have seemed unthinkable back then? What forms of technology or knowledge? How quickly can transformative change take place? Now you’re in the right frame of mind to paint an equally bold and impossible picture of the future.
2. Now, imagine that you’re very old, approaching the end of a long and fruitful life. You’re in your final years but you’ve worked long and hard for the causes you care about. And guess what? You feel great about the work that you’ve done and what you have achieved — you’ve really made a difference! What does that look like? Write down what has changed between now and the end of your life.
How has someone been impacted by your work? What is different about your town? What are people doing at this future date that they’re not doing today? Does this future look different, sound different, or smell different?
3. Let’s draw a line from now to that future. How does your current campaign move us toward the future you just envisioned?
What steps will it take for us to reach that vision of a better world? And how does the work you’re doing today lead us there?
4. Now think about how you can explicitly or implicitly make that connection to your audience.
Are there ways that you can link your current efforts to a more beautiful future in your appeals, your materials, and your social media posts?
Dominant Narratives and Counter Narratives
Activism can change the world.
Let’s start with changing its stories.
1. Spend a few minutes writing out the dominant narrative of the issue you’re working on.
What stories are your opponents spinning? Who are their protagonists and antagonists? What’s the conflict? From their point of view, what would make for a happy ending?
2. Consider why you find this narrative inadequate.
What frame(s) does their story use, and which ones do they ignore? Remember that we don’t want to use our opponent’s frame, even if we’re challenging it. Using their frame means that we’re still telling our story according to their rules. Consider other aspects of their narrative: Whose interests does it value, and whose does it dismiss? How does it distort reality as you understand it?
3. In a paragraph or two, write out your counternarrative.
Determine your protagonist and antagonist. Maybe you think the true heroes of the story are not the elite politician but the farmers building new ecological practices or the school children striking for climate action! Choose your central conflict and decide how to frame it. Is this issue about the economy or security, or maybe the right frame is indigenous rights and colonial oppression? Describe an end goal for your story that’s both realistic and hopeful. And as your craft your story, make sure to tailor it to be as attractive as possible to your campaign’s target audience. These decisions can come down to choices such as a the story elements above or crafting level decisions like language and image selection.
Know Your Landscape
In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates argues that rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, is not a science. Instead of relying on general principles, we need deep knowledge of a society. To make a compelling narrative, we must begin by understanding the cultural context in which we’re operating.
For example: as found by the Cultura Project at MIT, the word “individualism” has positive connotations in American culture (being associated with concepts such as ‘freedom,’ ‘creativity,’ and ‘personal expression’) yet in the French context, “individualisme” has negative connotations (and is associated with ‘égoïsme,’ ‘égocentrisme,’ and ‘solitude’).
Beyond language, culture covers an enormous variety of human processes and practices for making meaning and shaping behavior — from our rituals and norms to our beliefs and values. So where can we begin to understand the cultural context?
Here are some guiding questions from the Center for Artistic Activism to start with:
Note: these can be targeted to a general society or a specific audience.
Pop Culture: What popular forms of entertainment do people enjoy?
Alternative Culture: Are there alternative forms of culture people create or take part in?
Media: What media — both mainstream and alternative — do people rely upon for information, including print, radio, TV, internet, word-of-mouth etc.?
Big C Culture: What are the most visible and long-lasting forms of culture? These are objects or practices that don’t change quickly, and are the most overt forms of culture. For examples: museums, folk tales, holidays, art, literature, food.
Little c Culture: What are less visible forms of culture, often associated with a region, a group of people, language etc. These are cultural objects or practices that change more often. For example: communication styles or norms of behavior (such as walking on the right or left side).
Know Your Audience
A story that moves one person to tears may leave another rolling their eyes. Different characters, plots and conflicts resonate with different communities, so it’s crucial that you know who it is you’re talking to.
Make a list of the different groups that you hope to reach.
Depending on the scale of your campaign, these segments could be broad (urban millennials) or narrow (the tenants of my apartment building).
For each of these segments, fill out the handouts below.
Maybe you have demographic information to back you up, or maybe you’ll need to rely on your best guesses. Either way, this will help you to consider your audience’s perspectives and how they may relate to your campaign.
This simple, generative exercise asks you to come up with creative ways to deepen your audience’s engagement through storytelling. Storytelling is, in this light, a campaign tactic.
1. Think about the audience insights you have from your research and experience. At what level is your target audience on the Engagement Pyramid currently?
2. Now let’s brainstorm storytelling tactics (both online and IRL) that could move your audience just one step up the Pyramid.
For example: Say you’re working on single-use plastics, your target is teenagers. The audience is on the Contributing level, but you want to get them to start Endorsing. You could invite them to become Plastic Free Champions and to tell their stories on social media of how they’ve liberated themselves from plastic pollution. Highlight and amplify the stories of these Champions. They’re endorsing the cause now and spreading their stories to many more teenagers.
Here’s a list of the forms of public storytelling to get your creative juices flowing:
• Launch a community-created mural
• Put on a street play
• Hold a poetry write-a-thon or workshop
• Write a protest song
• Create a viral dance
• Write a children’s book or comic
• Erect a public sculpture that people can add to
• A post-it wall (like Subway Therapy)
• Publish a photo essay and invite people to share photographs
• Put on an art show and invite people to submit their work
• Record a podcast and host your audience as guests
• Hold a Twitter conversation with your audience
• Create an oral history and ask your audience to send in recording clips
3. Select just one tactic and build a plan to implement it.
Take the vision in your head(s) and improvise it based on your capacity and means. Invite others to feedback. And don’t be afraid to ask for help! That’s the best way to grow your movement.
Often we want to speak to a couple of audience groups. In such cases, we might develop specific narratives for each audience. But say that’s not possible. How do we create a story that can appeal to both?
Imagine that you’re sitting on a park bench with representatives of both groups. Now ask yourself: how would you speak about the issue you’re working on to make it compelling to both groups? What are the shared values, and thus, the shared deep frames between your audiences? Tell your story by appealing to them.
Below is a visual of this basic but powerful concept from George Lakoff:
Moral arguments are essential to many stories in activism. But according to the social and cultural psychologists at Moral Foundations, a global study showed that there are certain similarities and themes cutting across cultures. Specifically, they found five foundational moral values that are evoked around the world.
Here are the five foundations in their own words:
1. Care/Harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2. Fairness/Cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy.
3.Loyalty/Betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
4. Authority/Subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
5. Sanctity/Degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
NOTE: Interestingly, while liberal or progressive people tend to appeal to the first two moral frames (Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating), conservative people tend to use all five.
If you’re on this website, you’re probably interested in speaking to more people, maybe even across the political divide? So here’s a simple exercise we learned from C4AA:
• Take an issue or campaign you’re working on. Let’s say it’s immigration in the US. You might already be well-versed in making the case through the first and second frames (which are often used by liberal or progressive people). But let’s say, you’re interested in helping center or right (conservative) people see that immigration is a moral issue for all Americans.
• Now let’s try reframing immigration in the three moral frames that conservatives appeal to. How would you talk about immigration as a matter of loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation?
For example: Loyalty/Betrayal appeals to patriotism and self-sacrifice. So you might tell a story about how immigrants love America just as much as those who are born in that country. Or how immigrants sacrifice their lives to contribute to the welfare of the nation as a whole.
Cognitive linguist and philosopher George Lakoff makes the distinction between three levels of frames.
Here are the 3 levels of frames in Dr. Lakoff’s own words:
1. First are surface message frames.
These are the details of data and policies. What is a tolerable percentage of mercury in our drinking water? How soon can a new regulation be implemented? Such details are of course important, but stories that center them will only appeal to the small minority of people who are already on your side and following developments closely.
This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2. Widen the lens a bit and you have issue-based frames.
These tie your specific campaign into broader movements. If you’re working to clean up a polluted river, an issue-based frame might link your individual project together with your audience’s concern for the environment or public health. An issue-based frame can be good for rallying allied organizations and individuals to support your cause.
3. Broadest of all are the deep frames.
These frames resonate with our most heartfelt values. Think about the fundamental reasons why you’re working on this issue. Is it your passion for justice? Your love of your community? Your belief that people in vulnerable situations should have more support? Chances are, many members of your potential audience share these values, even if they aren’t currently engaged with your campaign or even with the larger issues that your campaign is a part of. By tapping into these deep frames, you can maximize your potential reach.
Lakoff argues that to reach the masses, we should speak to them on the deep frame level, appealing to core values that many people share. Deep frames also trigger “cognitive structures held in long-term memory.”
According to Lakoff, a surface message frame can work better if it also taps into deep frames. But if you only speak on the surface message level, you’ll be convincing (or even legible) only to people who already agree with you.
Take an example of a recent output from your group. Examine it closely as an outsider.
• On what frame level(s) is it working right now? Consider both the visual and textual elements of your output.
• Now try to revise the output so that it reaches all three levels of frames.