How to Get Your Happy Ending: The Role of Storytelling in Activism
When I started working here at Care2, I was amazed at the caliber and depth of activists all around me. I couldn’t believe how much knowledge was in one place and I knew I had to share it with you! These folks know exactly how powerful online and in-person activism can be and they’re ready to share insider tips on how to use that power.
For today’s insider tip, I caught up with Jen Johnson, Care2’s Manager of Member Activism, in an online chat. Jen is the mastermind behind figuring out which petitions and emails do well and why. She trains all Care2 staffers in writing for success and she was excited to share some of that knowledge with y’all, too!
In our chat, Jen talks storytelling, stereotypes and how to make your cause really pop to people around you.
K: So Jen, I know you’re really passionate about storytelling; where does that come from?
J: As a girl, I got all kinds of messages from TV and movies about what it means to be a woman — that you have to dress certain ways, act certain ways. A lot of those stereotypes didn’t feel right to me, but because the stories people watch included them, I found that other people around me did think they were true. So I realized that the stories we tell and watch are really powerful, and affect the way people think about the world around them.
I decided I wanted to help make entertainment that had progressive values in the storylines. I studied filmmaking in college and worked in film and TV for 2 years. So I learned how to make movies or short films, write a script, etc.
K: So cool! And now you’re a full-time activist, how do you think storytelling plays into activism?
J: I think it’s really important!
Storytelling is choosing how to represent your issue in an interesting way.
It’s basically the act of figuring out how you want to explain a campaign to other people who’ve never heard of it.
It makes a huge difference when it comes down to who’s likely to see the petition, understand what it’s about and why they should care about it, and ultimately sign it and spread the word about it.
K: and what about with petitions specifically?
With petitions, the story needs to answer a few questions:
What is the problem? What could solve that problem? Who has the power to make that happen, and why would public support make that happen?
K: That’s a really good checklist! Can you give me an example of that thought process?
J: Yeah! One example for you would be, we can talk about the statistics or facts about fracking and how it affects thousands of people or gets into drinking water, but it really got my attention when I found out that you can set your tap water on fire.
Or once when I talked to this guy who had to keep his windows open and water running all day and night or else his house might explode — just because there was a fracking operation nearby.
K: Totally… in that case, the story just demonstrates the problem vividly.
J: Yeah, exactly.
So, there’s kind of layers of stories happening here: your campaign has a story, and so does the issue itself and how you choose to talk about it.
K: What tips do you have for the beginner storyteller? Which things should they identify in telling their story?
J: My tip is to remember that all stories are ultimately about a conflict: somebody wants something and is having trouble getting it. Your job is to understand how to explain that in a way that will capture someone’s attention.
It always helps me to practice talking out loud to friends about an issue and see if I can distill it into a few sentences.
Also: think about why you care about it. What is it that’s wrong about this situation, how does it challenge your values? The guy who had to keep his windows open and water running, for example: I find it compelling and upsetting because it means a drilling company has put this man’s life in danger.The people who will support you will probably have those same core values. Talk to them on their level.
K: That’s a great idea! Plus, your friend may be convinced of your cause in the process. 🙂