What's so special about storytelling for social change?
2015/03/05
By : Simon Hodges
A new world requires new stories, but people will only listen to them when they themselves are included in the storyline. This requires a 'gear-shift' in conversations about radical action.

While working in the belly of corporate communications some years ago, I stumbled across a storytelling night at Amsterdam's Mezrab cultural centre. Nude model drawing classes and the Mahabharata in Dutch were also on the menu, but it was the storytelling that caught my eye, hosted on an open stage by an Iranian storyteller by the name of Sahand Sahbedivani.

Even through the candlelight and the smoke, the rapt attention on the faces of the audience made it clear that they loved the stories of human drama they were hearing, which was the opposite of my experience in my work. Despite the fact that I was working extremely hard to get the company's stories more attention, they rarely ignited anything like this response in the public's imagination. The difference between a profit-making organisation and an alternative arts event was obvious but intriguing. Why did storytelling at Mezrab succeed while corporate communications generally fell flat? The answers are relevant to anyone who has a story to tell, and nowhere is that more important than in the field of social change.

Today, storytelling is wildly popular. It's seen as the key to succeeding in business, strengthening organizational culture, and drumming up support for advocacy and campaigns. But why is that? The first reason is obvious: climate change, inequality, violence and other challenges can't be solved by doing more of the same. We need new narratives that connect with peoples' deepest motivations and promote more radical action. Stories engage people at every level - not just in their minds but in their emotions, values and imaginations, which are the drivers of real change. So if we want to transform society, we must learn to tell - and listen to - a new set of stories about the world we want to create.

So far so good, but what actually makes for a good story in this sense? That's where my visits to Mezrab were so instructive. For one thing, the storytellers that got the most attention were not necessarily the funniest or wittiest. Instead, they were the ones that were most prepared to put their skin in the game, to state something that was uncomfortably close to how they saw the world. This radical subjectivity - perhaps the basis of all great art - is a crucial lesson for anyone who wants to communicate a complex topic. When we allow our own insights to organise the telling of a story, we give a more compelling account of events. Why? Because our deepest values are closest to what we share with others.

Business is only now learning that telling a good story requires authenticity, as if bewildered by the discovery of truth. Storytelling in social movements is more advanced. In fact for those who work for social justice, the problem has not been making up good stories, but getting people to listen to the ones they have already. This can be especially hard when movements are very broad, and when the issues they deal with are so large in scope. But my storytelling sessions taught me another lesson that's useful in this context: even when the issues are large and complex, we feel compelled to listen when we ourselves are included in the storyline.

The danger of much current rhetoric is that justified frustration at injustice comes across in torrents of abuse. The parlous state of the economy, for example, is not just the fault of the bankers and politicians who have overspent, it's also something that involves all of us on a daily basis in our roles as consumers and producers, employers and employees, shareholders and borrowers. When anyone is marginalized or demonized in this context, they are less likely to be part of the solution, even if they have the power to make change.
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