You may have seen this photograph before…it’s one of the most famous of the 20th Century and certainly of the Vietnam War. Aside from sheer terror captured by the photographer (Nick Ut), it’s the story behind the photo that propelled this image to infamy.
The naked, screaming girl is Phan Thị Kim Phúc. American and South Vietnamese pilots had just finished bombing her town and had mistaken her and her fellow citizens fleeing the city for soldiers, and attacked. She ran crying down the street as napalm scorched the skin on her back. This story became a lynchpin of the anti war and anti napalm movements in America.
Stories have always been critical to the success of social movements. They’ve been used to incite action by exposing injustice the way Rodney King’s story was used to provoke riots in LA and eventually became a symbol of the bubbling tension between the distressed black community and white law enforcement. And they’ve been used like fables to articulate the moral framework of a movement, the best example of which is religion, which in my mind is the most successful social movement in history.
In fact, religion is essentially organized storytelling from which we draw moral and personal conclusions. The bible is an anthology of these stories. Sociologist Gary Alan Fine said “a movement is a bundle of stories…a group with a shared narrative is more likely to mobilize it’s members.” Religion’s, and especially Christianity’s, ability to mobilize its members has hinged on a very familiar schema for storytelling: “I once was lost and now I’m found.” This formula has been efficacious in its ability to draft follower’s because it promises transformation if you join its collective identity.
What’s your organization’s collective identity? What does it promise? What are the stories that define your cause? Do they just highlight the importance of your work or do they have a moral framework? Are they capable of mobilizing people?
Consumer brands have very sophisticated stories. Apple established a narrative condemning the drab and oppressive PC establishment while mobilizing their forces to fight for creativity starting with the 1984 spot and continuing today in the Mac vs PC spots. Stories of Harley Davidson’s popularity with the Hell’s Angels have given the brand an enduring culture of rebellion.
What’s interesting to me about the stories that consumer brands tell is that almost all of them are completely made up – fabricated by genius spin doctors at ad agencies. Whereas NPO’s and causes have real stories to tell, many basing their very existence on the founder’s personal quest. However, due to the inequities of the media market, we hear so few of them.
One of the ways NPO’s do attempt to tell their stories is by utilizing the ubiquitous and oft-insipid mission statement. These statements are too often stripped of the real storytelling elements and exist only as a regrettable corporate necessity. It’s too often an opportunity missed.
The good news is that it’s easier than ever to tell your story. Getting an audience on the Internet is not a monumental feat (the fact that you’re reading this is a testimonial to that.) We have a forum for accessing the population so it’s now about understanding how to use this medium for effective storytelling. So I pose the question: what are the best practices for storytelling via web 2.0?
In my next post I will dissect the traditional elements of storytelling and explore their applications in the web 2.0 world. In the meantime, check out BRANDEMiX.