Storytelling as Best Practice

Free-Range Thinking | February 2002

Before they can launch a campaign, advocates at the Public Interest Research Groups must prepare a memo that answers one question: What’s the story?

In 1991, a story started to spread across the state of New Jersey. For two years, it was repeated around office water coolers, in supermarket checkout lines, on the sidelines at soccer games – wherever people gathered to chew the fat. Had you been there, you might have heard something like this:

Remember back in ’72 when we passed that clean water law, and everyone thought our pollution problems were over. Some law that turned out to be. Those companies that were dumping too much waste into the rivers are still at it. And I don’t mean just a couple: ninety-seven percent of the polluters that were supposed to be policed by this law are just ignoring it.

And do you know what our ever-vigilant elected officials in Trenton are doing about this? Nothing! These polluters file reports that openly admit they’re breaking the law, and only five percent get a response – and even that’s nothing more than a warning letter. You know what we need? A stronger law, and I hear something’s already in the works.

The new law would work like speeding tickets. Get caught once, you get a fine. Do it again and you’ll get a stiffer fine – something you’ll remember. Keep ignoring the law and you go to jail. You’ve got to figure these scofflaws will eventually get the message, and when they do, maybe we’ll all have cleaner water like we were supposed to get back in ’72.

Slowly but steadily, the story built a constituency for change. In 1993, New Jersey voters passed the Clean Water Enforcement Act, a bill that strengthened existing pollution laws. This time, the polluters got the message. Within two years, excess dumping into Garden State waterways had dropped by 50%.

The structural elements which made the story compelling and the plain language which made it easy to remember and retell were no accidents. They were carefully built in by advocates at the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group. Under the direction of Ken Ward, NJPIRG developed and circulated the story as part of a statewide campaign to rally voter support for the Clean Water Enforcement Act. When Ward started to see the story in letters to the editor and hear it repeated on radio talk shows, he knew it was doing its job.

Today, the belief that an effective campaign begins with a good story is an article of faith at PIRG offices across the country. The PIRGs do not leave this belief to chance, however. Organization policy requires advocates to file a “story memo” before launching a public campaign. And the PIRG division that creates printed materials to support campaigns does not spring into action until it receives a carefully reviewed and approved story memo.

Ken Ward, who served as executive director of NJPIRG for thirteen years, teaches PIRG advocates how to write story memos. In a recent conversation, he walked me through the process using his former office’s clean water campaign as a textbook example:

Start with a common assumption. 
“Every story has to have a beginning,” Ward explained, “and the best place to begin is with what the audience already understands.” For the New Jersey campaign, this meant opening the story with a reference to the 1972 clean water law. The common assumption at that time was that this law was keeping waterways clean and protecting people’s health.

Introduce a point of conflict. 
Stories become interesting when the players are thrust into a crisis, typically a scenario where one side wants something and another side stands in the way. The good people of New Jersey wanted clean water and expected it as a result of the 1972 law. By revealing that polluters were violating this law – and doing so with impunity – the story created a clear and compelling conflict of interests.

Cast your story with clearly identifiable heroes and villains.
People relate to people, not abstract concepts, so you generate more interest by personifying both sides of your conflict. Scofflaw polluters and ineffective government officials were both candidates for the villain role in the New Jersey story. Since Ward knew that the proposed solution would involve government, however, his choice was clear. For the other side of the battle, NJPIRG and other groups fighting for clean water cast themselves as heroes. This would change over time, however.

Include at least one memorable fact.
Just as a string holds together the beads of a necklace, writes Annette Simmons in The Story Factor, a story line is the thread that holds facts together so the audience can remember them. Even if you have a strong story, though, Ward recommends featuring “one good fact, because that’s all people will remember.” NJPIRG had a few juicy facts to play with – one polluter was dumping enough mercury into rivers every day to match the weight of four compact cars – but advocates made sure the 97% figure was in every press release, sound bite, and advertisement.

Point the way to a happy ending.
With your story cast and your characters in conflict, you have two remaining tasks: (1) identify the heroes’ objective, and (2) explain how they will attain it. In Ward’s story, the immediate objective was better protection of New Jersey’s waterways. The strategy for reaching this goal was the passage of a tougher law.

As mentioned above, NJPIRG and its allies were the story’s initial heroes, but their strategy required a “cavalry” to ride in and carry the day. That meant casting the voters as the real heroes, which suggests another important element of good storytelling: make sure that your audience can find their role in the story.

Casey Hilldreth (standing) helps his colleagues at PennPIRG get their story straight.

Hit the Books
If you want to learn more about how effective stories are crafted and why we respond to them as strongly as we do, I recommend the following:

Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence
by Roger Schank (Northwestern University Press � 1990)

The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture
by Robert Fulford (Broadway Books � 1999)

The Story Factor
by Annette Simmons (Perseus Publishing � 2001)

 free-range follow-up

Bulletin: Hearts Leaving Sleeves, Migrating North

Baseball caps featuring the acronyms of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) and Police Department (NYPD) have been popping up all over Los Angeles recently, especially at fundraisers where caring is on display and cameras are plentiful. Forgive me if that sounds cynical, but this post-9/11 style trend seems exactly that: trendy. I don’t know if heartfelt haberdashery has spread to other cities, but if it has, perhaps it’s time to give the trend a name. How about compassion fashion?


Bad Words for Good

Two years ago, Tony Proscio authored a slim volume entitled, In Other Words: A Plea for Plain Speaking in Foundations. Proscio took funders to task for producing such impenetrable blocks of language as, “Comprehensive community building naturally lends itself to a return-on-investment rationale that can be modeled, drawing from existing practice.” The book – which is reviewed in the August 2000 edition of free-range thinking – had more than nitpicking to offer. Proscio contended that muddled thoughts were hiding behind all this muddy language, and that’s not good news for anybody on either side of a foundation grant.

Well, Proscio’s not finished. Thanks once again to the support of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (which funded In Other Words), Proscio now brings us Bad Words for Good: How Foundations Garble Their Message and Lose Their Audience. Slim volume #2 offers more examples of jargon that looks impressive but means next to nothing. My personal favorite is “operationalize,” about which Proscio writes, “It tries to awe the reader with its sheer unruliness, as if it contains so many ideas that it might be dangerous to unleash them all. Yet, the closer you look, the more likely the thing is to mean nothing more than do.”

Free copies of the book can be downloaded or ordered at