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Getting your story straight

June 24, 2010

A Thursday morning workshop held at the US Social Forum, “Story-based strategy: How grassroots organizations can win the battle of the story” was designed to help organizers craft communications that inspire action.

The presenters, Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning, based the workshop, and their recent book, RE: Imagining Change, on the human fascination with story telling. “Humans are story telling animals,” Reinsborough said. Both work for smartMeme, a national strategy center that links storytelling to social change.

The opening slide of their PowerPoint showed the stars in the night sky. Canning noted that humans weren’t happy with just gazing at the stars, instead they connected the stars to create characters and then told stories about them.

The government, military and corporate marketing departments have keyed in on this human commonality. “Story telling is being used for government propaganda and by the media. Bush spun his ‘control mythology’ and advertisers and their psychologists have escalated their assault deeper into our heads to tell us how to believe,” Canning said.

How do these entities get the public to take action (or inaction)? By framing the story so only the story they want told gets through. The famous photo of Iraqis toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein was their example. In the version circulated by US media, it seems a hug throng of liberated Iraqis are pulling the statue down. An expanded shot of the scene shows that the crowd is relatively small–and that the area is in fact circled by US tanks and troops imposing not a liberation, but an occupation. “When you expand the frame you make the invisible visible. The frame will always trump the facts,” Reinsborough said.

Organizers working for social justice can use storytelling, as well. They will find it more effective than presenting an uninterested public a list of facts. “No one has ever marched on Washington because of pie chart,” he added. “Creativity is a renewable resource.”

Grassroots organizers can tell their story by first framing the conflict with a focus on the details that tell the story they want told. Then, by amplifying the voices of the charaters–those impacted by the injustice, they can engage people’s values. Next, show, don’t tell. Use engaging images or pop culture references. Last, and very important, the story should offer a vision.

“So often environmental groups only show a picture of the destruction. You need to use foreshadowing, a vision of what could be,” Reinsborough said. “This really brings people in.”


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