What do we mean by Storytelling?

Storytelling is an ancient practice, but it has become a popular word lately.

It seems that everyone — from marketing/branding professionals to leadership trainers, political movers and shakers, academics, techies, and even counter-terrorism agencies — is interested in storytelling and more broadly, the power of narratives. Each group uses storytelling to serve its own interests and further its agenda. Story then serves as a tactical tool.

As someone who taught rhetoric and persuasive writing for years, I recognize this desire to use storytelling as a persuasive tool. Something that is, at the best of times, used to convince people. And at a worst of times, to manipulate or deceive. How do we use emotional story arcs, characters, conflict etc. to make people buy our product/ideology/candidate etc.

But at the end of the day, we cannot talk about story without thinking about power. 

For the environmental movement, too, there is also growing awareness of the critical power and factor of narrative. At Greenpeace, the Story Team is interested in building a truly democratic, inclusive and ground-up process for storytelling.

We see storytelling as activism, as something that not only has the capacity to change the world, but as necessary for lasting, systemic change. We believe in the power of recognizing, breaking apart and reshaping the narratives that make our world.

Storytelling then isn’t merely a tactical tool. It’s about the belief that each of us should not simply be receivers of story, but the producers of the stories that will shape our world. 

So what do we mean by “storytelling”?

I believe that we can make a distinction between two levels of concerns when it comes to storytelling, especially in relation to organizational or movement storytelling.

One. The higher-order considerations that are foundational:

  • Meta or Master-narratives: The big stories that are often not even articulated
  • Dominant Narratives & Counter Narratives: “Common sense” narratives and the narratives that can weaken them
  • Vision: The concrete, visceral world we are building
  • Values: What we stand for
  • Identity: Who we are
  • Frames & Metaphors: What is this story really about?

Two. The presentation of the story, or the craft-level concerns: 

  • Messengers: Who is our speaker? Who is the right speaker to reach our audience?
  • Conflict/Central Question: What is the nature of the conflict? What is the question that drives the drama?
  • Characters: Protagonists/Antagonists/Critics/Chorus etc.
  • Medium: The channel or container we place our story in.
  • Structure/Plot: The spine of our story.
  • Language: The words we carefully choose.
  • Visuals/Symbolism: The visual language of our story.

For some, “storytelling” may just mean the second level. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Without establishing the deeper ideas and ideals (as George Lakoff argues), changing the language here and there will not be meaningful or effective.

Effective language or visuals begin with ideas — reflecting our moral perspective, identity, values, vision, ways of working etc.

The process of arriving at these deeper ideas and ideals is also just as important.

In my next post, I will share more about the process I have been developing at Greenpeace with my team.