The Storytelling Industrial Complex
JULIE RUBIN

Matt has been the roaming the streets of Los Angeles for the past 3 months. Sometimes he has nothing to eat and scours trash cans for scraps. Sometimes he sleeps alongside other homeless youth outside. As Matt says, “I felt really lost and scared and alone almost all the time. I just had no hope.”

With the help of OUR Nonprofit, Matt has found hope. OUR Nonprofit provides overnight shelters, meals, and counseling and health services to homeless youths across the country. Your donation of just $20 will give Matt and others like him hope and a home.

Faceless

How are you feeling? If my Storytelling did what it was intended to do, you are in a generous mood. I’ve introduced a singular, authentic character. I’ve given him a trajectory with a dose of authenticity. The action-oriented emotions — “scouring trash cans for food” — reeled you into the story. You have been inspired to act in a variety of ways. If you see Matt’s story as a human rights issue, you may feel compelled to seek more information. However, if you view the nonprofit as one focused on global health and poverty, you may feel more compelled to encourage community action. Using best practices of nonprofit Storytelling, I’ve created a directed story with a targeted outcome from the audience.

In 2017, Storytelling is a science and an industry where stories are crafted to elicit specific quantifiable responses. In a scrolling world of information, consumers remember and react when they read something that makes them feel something. From a stark portrait of a soldier with a caption about how a nonprofit helped him recover from PTSD, to a feature-length film about the murder of dolphins, we remember stories that speak to our inner humanity — and in our own capacities, we are called to act. While these stories may feel natural and “real,” they are constructed deliberately. Our reactions to them are scrutinized and recorded and analyzed. Although the call to action we are served with nonprofit Storytelling can result in more good in the world, we must remain aware of the pitfalls that can result when organizations study us to better manipulate our actions. We must be vigilant in our consumption of what we are shown.

Storytelling surrounds us at all times. Its artifice is obvious yet effective at getting us to move to action.

What is Capital-S Storytelling?

Following

First, the story must have an engaging character. Best practice dictates that there should only be one. The character should be immediately relatable, charismatic, and convey a universal need. Second, there must be some action in the story. The character needs to go through some sort of transformation to show growth. Third, the story should show the audience the character’s authenticity by using the character’s own voice and specific details. Fourth, the story must elicit action-oriented emotions like anger or anxiety or excitement. The reader must feel the stakes of the action. If they are left with low-arousal emotions like contentment or sadness, the story has not achieved its peak viability. Lastly, the story must have an engaging hook to grab the audience’s attention as quickly as possible. The hook could be the email subject line or the opening scene to a Facebook video. It must ensnare the reader into opening the email or halting their scrolling to continue watching the video.

Think back to my opening story, any Humans of New York Facebook post, and donation emails in your inbox. See how many of the above standards are present in the stories that you consume.

In a scrolling world of information, consumers remember and react when they read something that makes them feel something.

Taking Photo of a Photo

How Organizations Use Storytelling

Storytelling is pervasive across nonprofits. In a study from Georgetown University, 96% of surveyed organizations agreed that “storytelling is an important part of my organizations’ communications.” An audit of stories from nonprofits in the D.C. area found that 68% of stories had clear calls-to-action, with 77% of those stories including asks for donations. For nonprofits, effective storytelling can be the difference between fully funded programs or cutting corners and costs. Over 55% of nonprofits surveyed said that “stories improved their fundraising results to some degree.” In a 2013 study, 56% of those who donated to nonprofits on social media confirmed that a compelling story motivated them to take action.

With this new standardization of Storytelling, new concerns over integrity must be examined.

A Glimpse into the Storytelling Industry

Although the nonprofits say they value Storytelling, 75% of organizations spent less than 5% of their annual budget on it. Nonprofits grapple with how to incorporate the benefits of Storytelling on a limited budget. The market has reacted appropriately. There are countless organizations dedicated to improving your organizations’ Storytelling.

Online guides like Stories Worth Telling: A Guide to Strategic Nonprofit Storytelling offer an in-depth guide covering everything from the basics of a good story to how to restructure your organization to best collect, organize, and share stories. Their guide is free, but many other resources will cost you. Storytellers for Good, The Storytelling Non-Profit, and The Nonprofit Storytelling Conference all offer a variety of consulting services ranging from a one-hour phone call to a three-day conference with a similarly ranging price tag.

More sophisticated media companies have revolutionized the art of Storytelling into a true science. Participant Media is focused on creating media that “inspires and compels social change.” Their credit list is impressive: Food, Inc., Spotlight, Contagion, He Named Me Malala, An Inconvenient Truth. Participant Media creates content for film studios and then measures the impact that the film had using The Participant Index (TPI) to predict emotional involvement and likelihood of future involvement. Consumers of this type of covert media may not realize that their reactions are being analyzed for more sophisticated and targeted films.

Aerial View of a Photo Shoot

So Should We be Concerned?

With this new standardization of Storytelling, new concerns over integrity must be examined. Nonprofits may feel pressure to manipulate stories to increase their emotional appeal. Although lauded as a successful “experiment”, Invisible Children was widely criticized for their Kony 2012 video that oversimplified a complex global dynamic in order to go viral and raise achieve their fundraising goals. Humans of New York, the popular blog that features photos of New Yorkers along with a short vignette about their lives, has also received criticism for its commodification of stories and the erasure of ambiguity. The captions accompanying each photo solidify what the subject of the photo was thinking or feeling — often to an emotional extreme. It’s unclear how much control the subject had over how they were depicted or what soundbite was chosen.

Although the call to action we are served with nonprofit Storytelling can result in more good in the world, we must remain aware of the pitfalls that can result when organizations study us to better manipulate our actions.

Storytelling surrounds us at all times. Its artifice is obvious yet effective at getting us to move to action. I have no pretenses that watching a documentary like An Inconvenient Truth will emotionally disrupt my priorities for action. We are inundated with such media. However, when viewing a more covertly produced piece of media, we are responsible for examining it and identifying the possibility of manipulative constructions. Instead of reacting to Storytelling by leaping for the phone or the computer or out the door to tell the world, we must instead sit with ourselves for a minute and examine the extent to which we were manipulated and how we want to translate the information we’ve received into action in a more mindful way. But don’t let me end with a call to action. Decide for yourself how you will take this new information and braid it into your experience of stories.
 





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