Storytelling Redux

Last week I blogged on the importance of taking the time to gather the details to tell good stories, but not a lot on how to pull it together. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to circle back.

Andy Goodman says before you launch into a story, you first should ask yourself: Who’s the protagonist?

If you think that sounds like a middle school English literature lesson, you are not too far off base.

Not unlike good literature, your audience needs a protagonist—a person to relate to—in order to enter the world of your story. Besides you need a real person to drive the action. By the way, your story needs to have some action too; but more on that later.

Audiences bore easily so mostly you need to stir up emotions. You can have great statistics, facts and figures, but people have to feel something before they will take a serious look at those numbers. As Goodman points out “nobody ever marched on Washington because of a pie chart.”

In his book, Storytelling as Best Practice, Goodman claims the average nonprofit would retell the story of “The Wizard of Oz” something like this:


Youth learns importance of community

  • An at-risk youth from a blended family in the farm belt is rendered unconscious during an extreme weather event. When she awakens, she undertakes a long, hazardous journey in which she is aided by several emotionally-challenged individuals, while also being pursued by a vindictive woman. Upon reaching her destination, she realizes her journey was only a dream yet she gained a newfound appreciation for the positive role of family and community in her life.
  • Kept you on the edge of your seat there, didn’t it?

    If you think for one minute that professional writers wouldn’t be that flat, I invite you to check out Monsters University. Apparently intended to promote the next Monsters, Inc. movie, the site also is an embarrassingly accurate parody of the typical website promoting our nation’s institutions of higher learning.

    You will find pages and pages of mediocre—albeit clever—writing but not a single compelling story. The MU “students” are made to contribute tediously nonspecific things like:

    MU was my dream school. I had many fallback schools, but I secretly hoped I’d get to slither the halls of Monsters U. And now, four years later, I still can’t believe it.


    Contrast that with these student stories on Spelman College’s “Change. Means. Action.” campaign website. The stories are conveyed in video, but writers will get the idea after listening to Octavia Ferguson (middle student in the banner below). She chronicles her life in the foster care system; from not being allowed to do homework at home—getting in trouble for reading a book instead of taking care of her five younger siblings—to a glorious first day at Spelman.

    There is a clear protagonist with a problem to overcome. Remember when your English teacher said there is no drama without conflict? The tension certainly rises as she quietly admits she was more on a path to prison than a journey to any college campus. Predictable stories are boring. Look for the surprises where the story gets interesting.

    Octavia’s victory is almost palpable in the final scene, which in expert storytelling fashion shows instead of tells, as she grabs her suitcase from the trunk of a car and is swept into a welcome brigade of upperclassmen. Talk about an emotional hook! What’s more, the meaning couldn’t be more obvious.


    Certainly everything you write cannot be a story but we do need to tell stories somewhere in our publications, websites and social media. I believe you can retrain yourself to be a better storyteller. Your readers will appreciate it, your organization will be strengthened and you might learn something.

    It is worth noting that taking the time to get the story may be only half the battle. Actually publishing it takes bravery: on the part of your subjects, you and your leadership.

    Your subjects have to trust you and be willing to go beyond the canned quotes and corporate boilerplate they are probably all too accustomed to. True stories show people as human, less than perfect.

    You have to be brave enough to pitch it. And sell it.

    And the leadership behind you has to be brave to. They have to be willing to take a few chances. It’s easy to fall back on bland and vague when it means nobody gets in trouble.

    I’m hoping to be a better storyteller. Awareness is key. A desire to be a good storyteller is key. Courage is key.


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