The Nature of Storytelling

Andy Goodman photo courtesy of the Nature Conservancy of Canada

Why stories matter: An interview with Andy Goodman

By Christine Beevis Trickett
Nature Conservancy of Canada

Much of my role at the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) involves searching for great stories about our work, and then either sharing them myself or helping others to share them with our friends and supporters. For many years, I've been following the work of Andy Goodman of the Goodman Center. Andy seemed to be a kindred spirit of sorts, as his work also focuses on the use of storytelling in the non-profit world.

I interviewed Andy about why he thinks storytelling is important and how it can help non-profit organizations like NCC in our work.

CBT: How and when did you first become a storyteller?

AG: I’ve always been interested in storytelling. All human beings are inherently storytellers. It is how we evolved. In my personal life, my dream growing up was to write network sitcoms. I moved to Los Angeles in 1991 to pursue it. I got lucky and worked on television shows such as The Nanny and Dinosaurs. So I’ve been practising storytelling in one form or another for a long time.

But when that work turned out not to be what I dreamed, I went to the not-for-profit world. And here were all these nice people with important stories to tell, but they were not very good at telling them. The juxtaposition was, in television I worked with people with the biggest megaphones in the world but there wasn’t much to say. But in the not-for-profit world, people had the most important things to say but didn’t know how to use their megaphone.

What I wanted to do in my career was to help people tell stories more effectively. When I left television, I was first involved with the Environmental Media Association based in Los Angeles. The organization was designed to sit at the nexus of environmental communications and the entertainment industry. Our idea was to lobby television producers to put environmental messages in their storylines. We would help environmental groups reach out to the producers so you would see a movie or tv show discussing themes like global warming, modeling good behaviour and so on.

For example, we consulted with producers of The American President to insert factual information about global warming in the storyline.

I ran this non-profit for five years, then launched my own business, for which the Environmental Defense Fund was one of my earliest clients.

CBT: Why are stories important?

AG: Stories are how we communicate and think. Stories act as filters in our brains and everything we express passes through those filters.

There are many studies out there that show the impact of stories on our brains. Even as early as the 1980s, professor Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan was literally testing the impact of stories versus data on study participants. The researchers found that the story influenced far more than data, even though study participants were rational people. The researchers found that one bad story was much more powerful than data that showed a very different picture.

Other studies show the same thing — we tend to react strongly to story.

CBT: How can stories help conservation organizations?

AG: The same thing holds true for conservation groups as with any not-for-profits I work with — stories help people remember. If have a set of facts want people to remember, they will remember much more if I tell them a story than if I just share a chart or graph.

Stories reach people an emotional level. If we take someone on an emotional journey with ups and downs, they’ll have an emotional response. When you have emotion in your body, it leaves markers in your brain.

We live in a world where our default response to data is to delete. There’s always so much coming at us — through email, tv, billboards, radio. What we’re doing more often than not is only paying attention to what matters.

Stories reach us on a heart level. If you don’t care about something, it doesn’t get to the brain.

CBT: What makes a great story?

AG: A good story always has to have a challenge. If you’re telling someone a story, until you reach the point where “I want” runs into “You can’t,” you don’t have a story.

In fact, one of the mistakes in the non-profit world is that far too many stories are structured this way: There was a problem. We went to solve it. We solved it. Give us money.

That just isn’t interesting. What’s interesting is when someone runs into a problem they can’t solve. Then the audience leans in and pays attention. Without the barriers and obstacles, that story is just not interesting.

The point of the barrier is not that it’s insurmountable; it’s interesting. In storytelling, we do have victories. The barriers keep it authentic and honest.

CBT: What’s the best story you’ve ever heard?

AG: I recommend The Story Handbook, published by the Trust for Public Land. It’s filled with conservation stories; stories that illustrate the basic connection human beings have with the land, whether they’re standing in middle of Yosemite or a little pocket park in the middle of New York City. This book captures the yearning we have for nature.

What I admire is that although a lot of what the Trust for Public Land does is very un-sexy (the "what" of what they do), the “why” is. And that handbook illustrates the "why."

CBT: How have changes in technology and social media changed how we tell stories?

AG: That’s a very interesting question. I don’t believe the way we tell stories has fundamentally changed. The story is the story is the story. How we told stories 100,000 years ago and today hasn’t changed.

What’s changed is our ability to point people to stories or evoke parts of stories. In Twitter and social media, we use these tools to point to stories, with a link to watch a story or read a story.

Some people will say a tweet can be a story or Instagram can be. I don’t agree — you can have threads of narrative in social media but these things are not a story in the classical sense.

New media have given ways us to connect with people briefly and get them to spend time reading stories.

CBT: How can we all become better storytellers?

AG: The first thing to be aware of when telling a story is be conscious of who is your audience. Not everyone cares about the environment [or nature] the same way you do. What does your audience care about the most that you can appeal to? Good communicators will always think about that first then shape or frame story to emphasize the point that the audience is already interested in.

My second point of advice would be: when telling a story, it needs to have twists and turns, obstacles and surprises. A story with no surprises in any way doesn’t have people leaning forward; it’s just not interesting.

Give people a reason to lean forward and say, “What happened next?"

Third, as brevity is the soul of wit, good stories don’t have to go on forever. You can tell a good story in a couple of minutes. Keep it as concise as possible — whether in text, video, audio. Less is usually more.

CBT: It seems that more and more people are talking about the importance of story. Do you agree, and if so, why are we seeing this recent popularity of storytelling?

AG: I’ve been out talking about storytelling for almost 15 years. I can tell you 15 years ago, people were not nearly as interested as they are now. The attitude when we wanted to offer workshops on storytelling was, “Sure, why not? It might be useful to us.” There was lots of leaning back, arms crossed.

Over the last 15 years that has shifted, and in last few years, dramatically so. More and more people are saying, we have to get better at storytelling. It’s not, “Should we?” Now, it’s “How do we?”

Just why is hard to say. There have been a number of threads I point to. In political campaigns, analysis is much more focused on candidates’ narrative. In the corporate world, with the rise of interest in branding and identity, storytelling is very important.

Traditionally, the not-for-profit world has tended to turn up its nose at branding. But there is now an acceptance that you have a brand whether you like it or not, and you do market it. So some tools from the business and political worlds have raised the profile of storytelling as well.

All that said, will storytelling burn out? I think not. It might be considered a fad, since it’s hot now. Interest may dip. But we have been telling stories for tens of thousands of years. That’s not going to stop. The tools and means of distribution will all change. But whether the stories are shared through tweeting or Google Glass or the Apple watch, the content will not change.

Story is still the fundamental unit of human communication.

One of the problems with environmentalists is our faith that science and facts will prevail is misplaced. Yes, science and facts are important, but they do not prevail of their own. We have to bring people to see these facts. And people cannot see facts if they’re looking wrong way.

Story gets them to turn their head in the right direction. It’s just human nature. That’s not to say that science is unimportant, but that our faith in science often leads us the wrong way.

I once held a storytelling workshop for climate scientists and marine biologists. Ten minutes in, one of the scientists raised his hand and asked the question: “With all due respect, isn’t storytelling the opposite of what I do? A story is a one-off; an anecdote. Science is the study of the many to determine if really a trend here or not.”

To which I responded: “Storytelling is an important complement to what you to. It’s the story that gets people to look up and pay attention to what you do. Story is key to getting them to understand what you do. It allows what you do to be heard."

© 2015 Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC)

Christine Beevis Trickett is the director of editorial services for the Nature Conservancy of Canada

Andy Goodman is co-founder and director of The Goodman Center.

This blog is reprinted with the permission of the Nature Conservancy of Canada - Ed

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