By Adrian Lai
“There is no greater power on this earth than story.”—Libba Bray, The Diviners
“Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.”—Seth Godin, 7 Truths At The Heart of Marketing (& How to Use Them)
“Storytelling is the most important business skill in the next 5 years.”—Shane Snow, Why Storytelling Will Be the Biggest Business Skill of the Next 5 Years
These days, one catchword seems to rule them all: storytelling. Stories are how humans make sense of the universe. Almost everything we do, know and aspire towards take the form of story. However, few people are aware that there are two profoundly different modes by which we consume stories. This difference can be illustrated using the “Passenger vs Driver” analogy.
Mode #1: The “Passenger”
This is how we consumed stories growing up. Our parents read Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves to us as a bedtime story; we watched Toy Story at the cinema; followed TV serials like FRIENDS ... and like passengers, we hopped onto a ride into a world inhabited by fictional characters and their stories. The “passenger” experience is very powerful, and especially so for impressionable youth with limited life experiences.
Stories help us gain new experiences and life lessons in the relative safety and comfort of familiar spaces—such as at home or at a movie theatre. How one relates to characters and scenarios within these various stories can also influence one’s identity and self-esteem.
In my opinion, a “good” story is one that perpetuates wisdom. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of good stories being produced and consumed today. Many youth are therefore growing up on stories which, instead of challenging them to think and grow, pander to their innocence and naiveté for a quick buck.
Mode #2: The “Driver”
What do a video game, an iPhone advertisement, and a sports car review on YouTube have in common, as far as storytelling is concerned?
The answer: they all make you the protagonist of a story. In this mode of storytelling, the consumer is the Driver, i.e., the lead character who determines how the story plays out and ends. Although the “storyteller” to some extent uses the power of suggestion to influence your actions, you ultimately have final say in the matter. For example, in a video game, you decide who to shoot or where to fly the bird.
Similarly, watching a food travelogue may build up your appetite for travel and sampling delicious cuisine, but it is still you who has to book that flight to reach the destination. Reading a women’s magazine may also encourage you to imagine a life of owning nice things, but you choose if you want to make that step to buy the merchandise.
When we spend all day browsing our topics of interest (gaming, travel, fashion, etc.), we are indulging in the stories we tell ourselves. The books, magazines, websites and YouTube videos we consume are therefore mere triggers behind the plot points of our imagined journeys. However, the “driver” experience has its darker side, as evidenced by social media narcissism in which the storyteller’s stories are centered mainly on themselves. In this mode of story consumption, if left unchecked, one can fall victim to addiction, materialism and an unhealthy preoccupation with outward appearance.
Creating a Story
Now let’s reverse the vantage point from someone who consumes stories, to someone who creates stories. As the creator, we can and should make use of both “passenger” and “driver” modes to tell our stories.
Telling your own story is like owning a car and driving it: it takes you to a destination of your choosing. Along the way, you may pick up a passenger or two who may even take the wheel for a while, though it remains your journey and you alone are telling your story. Both modes of story still require the hallmarks of good storytelling to be effective, namely:
- Rising conflict, suspense and tension
- Reveals and reversals
- Emotional experiences rather than dry documentation
- A compelling lead character (if not your own self).
At the end of the day, storytelling is an innate ability, and most people can sense if a story is authentic and has value. That said, storytelling is also a craft, and a skill that can be learned, improved upon and mastered. If done well, stories are a powerful way to meaningfully connect with others in the physical and digital world.
Start Your Storytelling Journey
#1: Share Your Beliefs
Author Simon Sinek famously said, “People don’t buy what you do, people buy why you do it.”
Declare what you believe to be true. Make a bold claim about what is true to you. Clearly define your philosophy on life, your work, your relationships. Most importantly, explain to people what the heck inspired you to be on a mission, a cause, or a business in the first place.
Do you believe every woman deserves equal pay for equal work? Declare it. Do you think classrooms should be organized in circles? Declare it. Do you feel strongly that tomato sauce goes well with everything? Declare it!
No matter your belief, own it and be proud of it. Repeat it, to yourself, then to your audience. Make it your tagline as well as your organisation’s motto, because people pay attention to those who make a stand.
#2: Share Your Solutions
While it is quite easy to state one’s beliefs, what your audience is waiting for is action—to see what you do next about those beliefs.
What unique actions will you take to uphold those values and what is your special solution to address the challenges and issues surrounding your mission? The answer to these questions is your “secret sauce” or “special recipe” that everyone tuned in will be dying to know more about.
So go ahead and show everyone how you do it, and practise until you’ve honed your solution to perfection.
Many organizations have ambitious mottos and grand visions, but do not always act accordingly. Often, they put out empty claims and meaningless hashtags, without the actions to back up their beliefs. And in those cases, the audience stops listening once they realise it.
#3: Share Your Vehicle
There will be those who share similar beliefs and who are attracted to your cause—even if they do not necessarily have the same talents or skill sets that you possess. These are the ideal people to proactively engage in order to add depth and richness to your storytelling. Invite them to join your cause, and give them a chance to share their unique take and perspective on it. Help spread the word about the work they do and explore complementary collaborations. Such joint efforts can only strengthen, not dilute, your common cause.
Q&A with Adrian
1. How can I use storytelling to achieve positive social impact? (What do I have to keep in mind when designing my message and filming it? What format should I use to tell stories in the social impact space?)
A protagonist is only as good as the antagonist. This is a very effective storytelling device. For every social cause, there is an opposing force which keeps it from happening. Identify that force, and if possible personify it, then tell the story of the people trying to overcome it. A good format to keep in mind when telling any story, is to capture and follow the intention of the main character(s) until change has happened or a resolution has been attained.
2. Can you describe a good example where a social impact organisation or project used storytelling to effectively achieve its aims?
I’ve been privileged enough to personally know FOLO Farms in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. It started as a family farm in 2015, and has since grown to lead Malaysia’s healthy food revolution by powering their produce with food waste compost. The reason why their story is so effective is due to the simplicity and clarity of their message: Feed Our Loved Ones. Just from the name, we automatically understand their intention, the worthiness of their cause and the importance of their success. So we root for them and gladly follow them on their journey.
3. What challenges do beginning storytellers in the social impact space typically face, and how can they overcome them?
I think the biggest challenge for any storyteller, especially in the social space, is overcoming the need to be serious. I’m not saying you should take your cause lightly, but if telling your story is in any way important to your success, you need to engage an audience (read: don’t be boring). Make the audience like you FIRST, then bring them on a journey of change. You get people to like you by being entertaining, authentic and welcoming.
4. If I’m just starting out, what free tools or training resources that I should check out to learn how to be an effective storyteller (e.g. software, books, courses, communities, etc.)?
The YouTube community is the best place. Not only do you get lots of fantastic tutorials, you actually get to see the principles of storytelling in action, deployed by arguably the best practitioners of the art. But if you find the plethora of online content overwhelming, a fantastic book to read is Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”.
5. Who are the stakeholders I should think about when crafting a story about a social impact organisation or project?
Every social impact organization or project is designed to serve a particular community. The community is your audience, your audience is the community. Start by understanding their values and concerns. Often they will indicate to you how you may serve them. Don’t worry about appealing to everybody in the land. Online media is about narrowcasting, not broadcasting.
Adrian Lai is a professional filmmaker and story coach based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. An alumnus of the New York Film Academy, he believes everyone should have the ability to tell their own stories, in order to be true citizens of the digital age. Based on that notion, he founded StoryCraft Academy, an organisation dedicated to coaching the craft of storytelling and promoting media independence. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.