Winning the Story Wars with Freaks, Cheats and Familiars

Winning the Story Wars with Freaks, Cheats and Familiars

Science may be good at explaining things, but it’s not so good at motivating people to act. That’s why Jonah Sachs, co-founder of Free Range Studios, is among those who believe that facts are not enough and that good storytelling is a must for climate communicators. I was excited this week to receive a sneak preview of his forthcoming book Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future.

I would like to say that I have always applied storytelling best practices in my work. But as someone who has spent the last 18 years communicating about the environment, I must admit to putting out my fair share of “myth vs. fact” sheets. It is an understandably tempting thing to want to do when the facts about environmental degradation are unfortunately on your side.

Yet narrative is perhaps the most essential tool a climate and/or environmental communicator has in the toolkit. This became evident to me during my tenure as vice president of communications at Earthjustice where I had the task of conveying the importance of enforcing environmental laws and acting to address climate change. I was lucky enough to learn from some of the masters in storytelling including Marshall Ganz and Andy Goodman (see Climate Access’s storytelling resource collection).

At the same time, my team at Earthjustice was tinkering with new online media tools and we became one of Free Range Studios’ first clients, trying out viral movies as a way to tell stories and capture attention online. It was exciting to see Free Range Studios go on to produce “The Meatrix” which engaged more than 20 million people in factory farm issues and set a standard for storytelling in the new digital landscape.

Sachs is the creative director at Free Range Studios and earlier this year (at the Web of Change Conference at Hollyhock) I saw him give a compelling presentation on storytelling techniques and the importance of winning the “story wars.”  While we have to wait until next summer for the book, Sachs just released a synopsis, and I’d like to highlight a few things from it (Climate Access members may view the exclusive sneak preview).

Sachs gives clear frameworks and tips for breaking through the clutter with social messages and campaigns in what he calls “the Digitoral Era.” He explains how shared cultural stories are myths and that we currently are suffering from a “myth gap.”

“In our modern world, myths with universal resonance are hard to come by. We are living in a ‘myth gap.’ With shared stories disappearing, the opportunity to create new ones is emerging. And because those who write myths hold enormous power, there is a battle for control now raging.”

In this synopsis for “Winning the Story Wars,” Sachs outlines the four ingredients of myth: explanation (how the world works); meaning (how we should act as a result); story (emotional world of symbols); and ritual (ways for the listener to live the myth out). He adds, “Science offers robust explanation of how the world works but little in the way of meaning or ritual.”

Another good takeaway for climate communicators is Sachs’ assessment that when it comes to storytelling, character, conflict and plot are no longer enough these days to captivate audiences with short attention spans. His answer: add “Freaks, Cheats and Familiars” to your story.

By Freaks, Sachs means characters that break the pattern of expectations; he favors anthropomorphic animals such as the Hindu god Ganesha. (“How can your stories be populated with unforgettable characters that make audiences want to click even when seen as a tiny thumbnail?”) He says that audiences want to find out what happens to Cheats who break cultural or societal norms. (“Tell stories about villains who break cherished norms or rebels who defy hated ones.”) Sachs explains that Familiars give people easy entrance points: (“Tell stories people can instantly identify as their own.”)

One of the aims at Climate Access is to promote the widespread use of good storytelling techniques in communicating about climate change, and we will keep you apprised of other resources and tips and will continue to add materials to our storytelling collection.

To post and view comments log in or apply to be part of the network