We are all storytellers. Story is how humans make meaning of the world. Kirk Cheyfitz illustrates what a story is, why stories work, and shows us how to construct and tell stories that engage people and change culture.
Kirk Cheyfitz is a storyteller, narrative strategist, and founder of Story World Wide and Political Narrative.
ResourcesStory Sharing Pre-sheet Tips for Creating & Sharing a Story Slide Presentation PDF
Mallika Dutt: Welcome to Leadership Moves, presented by Interconnected. I’m Mallika Dutt. In this episode we explore the importance of storytelling with Kirk Cheyfitz. Kirk illustrates what a story is, why stories work, and shows us how to construct stories that change culture.
Mallika Dutt: So the general arc of this training is that we started out with Bridget who really gave us the big picture of culture change, narrative strategy storytelling and how we create ecosystems to create the worlds that we desire to shift the story, if you will. And in this session, we are going to go from that big ocean that Bridget invited us into and move to one of the drops that make up the ocean, a very important part of the drops that make up the ocean, there would be no ocean and without drops, and that is stories. Actual stories. And the reason that I felt it was really important for us to remember the power and importance of stories is because this is the place where we all make meaning, this is the place that humans make meaning of the world. What I find in our social justice world is that in our desire for transformation and in the ways in which we’ve constructed almost a different language around how we speak about our work. And, particularly in the ways in which philanthropy sometimes insists that we present our work to them and the world. That we have forgotten the power and importance of stories that we’ve started to speak language of outcomes and impact and indicators and outputs and all manner of things, or that we have become so focused on the very specific social justice goal that we have that we’re not remembering that stories underlie the shifts that we are trying to mak. Not just the shifts that we are trying to make, but actually the norms, the very cultural values that perhaps are creating the problems that we are trying to change.
In this session we’re going to focus in on storytelling and stories and becoming a storyteller and so without further ado I would like to introduce you to Kirk Cheyfitz who is going to be leading us in this next session. I’m really grateful to Kirk who I met only last week, our earlier presenter was unable to join us today, and I was incredibly grateful for Liz’s introduction to Kirk because he is a master storyteller and narrative strategist and brings a wealth of experience from decades in journalism. Many years and advertising, storytelling and digital content agencies. He was with McCann World Group before he created Story Worldwide. He’s written books and he has also worked with progressive political organizations, clients, and issues.
So I thought wow we’ve really gotten ourselves an incredible storyteller across multiple domains, to help us dive into this drop of the ocean, which is story. So without further ado, I am going to hand the screen and the mic over to Kirk.
Kirk Cheyfitz: Thank you very much Malika and hi everybody. What I really like to do today as Mallika said is share some practical knowledge that I’ve accumulated. I think about what a story is, why stories work – which helps you construct and structure stories in the right way to work for social justice. I think that what I want to say by way of introduction is that storytelling is really critical for social justice, because if you want to persuade and activate people in the short term, and you want to change the culture in the long term, you really have to tell stories. And I think that the good news about this is that we are in fact all storytellers so this should come naturally. Storytelling is not about using a tool, or a tactic it’s about the way you look at the world. And I think as Bridget said it’s about recognizing that you live in this ocean of narratives and being able to look around you and listen to people and say that’s a great story that’s a great story that’s a great story, I can use that. These are the are the critical ways in which we need to be and and, as I say, the good news about this is that we, you are all storytellers seemingly hardwired seemingly by nature because this is what made human beings modern human beings was when these images and these are the famous images from the Lascaux caves in Europe in France but these and many similar images which began to appear on cave walls 50,000 years ago.
A great South African paleo anthropologist named David Lewis Williams has pointed out, these are actually representations of intricate stories about a spirit world of animals and how to join with them that these these animals that we depended on for food and clothing and everything. Then, and to a certain extent still now so that this is really, this is, who we are and another great great thinker named Walter Fisher who taught at the Annenberg Center an expert in communications created what is called the narrative paradigm and very simply, that was that all human communication is, in fact, and indeed, storytelling. Many people, including Walter Fisher, like to call our species homo neurons, which is the storytelling creature essentially that’s what makes us who we are. If you look at the science of it, and I think it’s important to do so, even though I am not, not a scientist at all, but stories are so fundamental to human existence that they’re the subject of virtually every scientific discipline – the hard sciences like neuroscience, and the soft sciences sociology, psychology, anthropology, and so on, all of those disciplines agree that our memories are in fact stored as stories. That narrative is the way the human brain works. And that way, if you want to introduce new ideas, change behavior you need to tell a story to overwrite or rewrite the old stories that on which our behavior and our decisions are based.
I think another point that’s really critical that struck me when the first anthropologist told me this, and then several psychologists, that this was a hard finding. And it’s really what what Mallika referred to in the beginning, we seem to love white papers and rational logical arguments but the notion, and when I say we, I mean we in the social justice world and that’s great I mean I treasure facts as much as the next person – but we have to understand that the idea of a rational decision is scientifically known as an illusion. It just doesn’t happen. We make our decisions largely at the unconscious level and and think about the word unconscious for a moment, it means we are not conscious of what we are doing. There are stories in our minds that are attack- connecting with one another and creating associations and emotional reactions. That drives our decision making in ways that we don’t as individuals don’t clearly understand. And it’s only by telling a story that we reach that level of emotional connection at the unconscious level a pure factual argument will never get us there.
Now that brings us to what is exactly a story? And I think the best way – there are millions of ways to answer this question. And this is the one I’ve chosen for the moment: a story is really a journey. A story is a complete journey, it has it has to have these outlets, it has to begin somewhere recognizable to everyone pass through a middle of actions and scenes and it has to have an ending that is in some way satisfying and for the purposes of social justice, that is – that is activating that the best sorts of social justice stories or stories where something is accomplished with joy is received, because that’s what motivates people on a much longer term basis than fear or any other set of emotions. So it has to have this movement, it has to have characters that are sim- that the audience can be sympathetic with, that they recognize and these characters can very often be the archetypes as Bridget was discussing she talked about narrative archetypes and then there are character archetypes as well. There has to be action change has to happen, things have to go on and that creates the movement of the story, this plot line or through line that the audience can identify and, finally, we need to get to an outcome and again typically, the most powerful outcome is where characters get together to overcome obstacles and when something of value and that particular idea has been tested and tested and tested and that kind of story structure is always the most effective as far as we can tell.
Now to look at this carefully. I know that many of you may have heard or be very familiar with the work of Joseph Campbell. Joseph Campbell’s study myth and and the stories that drive myth and he found that in every culture in the world, virtually without exception that the most powerful stories share a similar structure. Just to take a look at that I want to look at a folktale that has hundreds of thousands of versions in every culture of the world, and that is Cinderella which I’m going to assume you’re familiar with at least a few of the I think we all are a few of the versions of Cinderella that exists in your mind and in your culture. And this is Joseph Campbell’s view. Actually translated by a couple of folks at the agency I used to run about a decade ago of Cinderella. Campbell wrote a book about myth called the Hero’s Journey. And this is Cinderella’s hero’s journey which is his typical arc structure right – and it begins at the top of the circle, with what Campbell calls the ordinary world and, by the way, this circle goes counter clockwise. So he gives you the ordinary world which for Cinderella of course was miserable right these are the problems we face, she was cleaning the cinders and doing the housework for her terrible stepmother and her stepsisters. Now there’s a call to adventure to change that world and to effect to step out of that world, and this was the ball that was going to happen at the palace and usually there are obstacles to that call – what Campbell calls the refusal of the call right in this case Cinderella was told she could not go, didn’t have the clothes, wasn’t going to happen. Then she gets help, she finds a mentor, the fairy godmother and the fairy godmother makes it possible for her – this helps she finds – makes it possible for her to go to the ball. There are what Campbell calls adventures, experiments and challenges right, and in this case that carriage is made out of pumpkins, mice who turn into horses and glass slippers that identify her as someone very, very special. She goes to the ball there’s an emotional investment when she dances with the Prince and that investment, that investment creates a commitment in her, she makes a commitment to this new world and falls in love with the Prince she’s rewarded when he falls in love with her. But then she has to go back to the old world, but she carries with her the knowledge of the new world that she has seen and committed to, and there is a moment in the story when there’s a resurrection of her right when the glass slipper fits and she returned to the new world and of course now she has the answer – the Prince marries her. Campbell called it, the elixir, it’s the secret, the answer, the moral, the lesson of the story that she learned from this entire journey. As a result of that they ruled their kingdom happily and everyone lives happily ever after so that’s Campbell’s hero’s journey as written through Cinderella. What I’d like to do now is show you two very quick social justice stories that use, believe it or not, this same structure in an in an abbreviated form and it just like you to listen to these watch these videos with that, with that structure in mind, so the first one is 60 seconds and has to do with the the movement for Trans rights and acceptance, full acceptance and inclusion of trans people.
Ebony: As a kid in South central Los Angeles, I was seen as an extremely feminine 13 year old boy. And so you can imagine how well that went down, I was chased, ridiculed, bullied, beaten up, just total isolation and no safe place to turn, not even my own home. So I turned to sex work and living on the streets. And those were some hard years but I survived, and now I work every day as an advocate for Trans folks. My goal was to create the kind of community and the kind of world that would have made a kid like me feel safe and accepted. I don’t want anyone else to go through the pain and isolation I went through because nobody’s free to be exactly who they are, unless everybody’s free to be exactly who they are. Join the campaign at StrongerCalifornia.org. Together we are building a future of justice and opportunity for people of all genders.
Kirk Cheyfitz: So Ebony’s video is created out of a project, where I was the narrative lead called Story at Scale, which was all about gender justice. Now the next one I would like to show you is half as long, and this was in one sense, a much more utilitarian story, this was a 30 second ad for a presidential candidate in the United States presidential primaries last year. And I was working on that campaign, so again it’s really the structure that I want you to hear the way the story works in this very short TV spot.
Dudley: In 1974 the world’s richest man tried to put an oil refinery here on the seacoast of New Hampshire. My neighbors and I beat him. Today’s job is beating Donald Trump. Tom Steyer will do that Tom fights for the planet, just like we did. He organized people against the Keystone pipeline and to protect clean air laws.Tom Steyer will beat Trump and unite us to save the planet. I’m Tom Steyer and I approve this message.
Kirk Cheyfitz: Okay. So here is the structural view of that, and I think an abbreviated version of Campbell structure that can come in handy in day in, day out storytelling for social justice. So you’ve got Ebony’s story on the left, Dudley’s story the elements of it on the right and the stages of the journey, the elements of the story, in the middle. The ordinary world of course, the problems we face, and I think they were very clear in both stories. Finding help, finding a mentor was less clear in Ebony’s story; she focused on other things. Again, very clear in Dudley’s story, where she organized with her neighbors to win this battle against the world’s richest man and his oil refinery. Again we go down the adventures, experiments and challenges, there were many for each of them, the resurrection, and this is really important, in typical social justice stories was winning. Winning, the fact that people can make change, they can have an effect is the most motivating, energizing force of the world. That knowledge that I, you, we together can make a difference and that happened in both of these stories and, finally, the return to the ordinary world with the answer the enduring moral. That in Ebony’s story, nobody is free unless everybody is free, in Dudley’s story that we can save the planet in the same way that we saved the New Hampshire coast by organizing we can win this one, these are simplified, essentially heroes journeys those kinds of stories structures, are really, really useful to understand.
Real quickly, where do you find the stories, you need well, as I say, there’s the only place, you can find stories is in people. The people around you, the people you reach out to, the people you work with. Great stories come from all people, and when I say, being a storyteller. I want to repeat, you are already a storyteller by nature, you need only to look within you and listen to stories more intentionally so that you’re saying to yourself that’s a great story that’s a great story, I can I can use that I can hear that that motivates me it’ll motivate others. So you listen to the people you serve, the people you work with, your colleagues, you listen to people around the world who won similar fights for justice and sometimes you retell their stories, because those kinds of victories are very important. You listen to the people for whom you’re organizing and, most importantly, what Bridget called your audience what I always call your audience, which is everybody, you want to reach, you need to understand the stories in their heads. And most importantly, you need to understand your own story, what got you involved in this, what motivates you, being in touch with your own story is a great way to tell stories for others.
How do you find those stories? Listening is the most important, and you can listen in formal sessions, where people are brought together and tell their stories, you can listen as journalists listen by reaching out and interviewing people about where their lives intersect with the issues you’re dealing with. It’s really important to listen to the words that are used, whether people feel they are fighting a battle, or whether they feel they are on a mission, those are, for instance, two very different views of, of how people engage in the struggle and whether they call it a struggle you see, it is a struggle it’s really listening to language for what it is, for what it says, for what people are actually say not what you might assume they’re saying. And one way to get beyond words is to look at the images that people select to represent their feelings about how the world is, or how it should be, or how it could change and should change, all of those exercises are great exercises. And, finally, to understand their metaphors and how they how they view the journeys in their stories. And there’s some great examples of that that I can can share with you later if we have time.
I want to say that when using tools you cannot, for storytelling purposes, rely solely or even primarily on the traditional research tools of polls and focus groups. They ask people to think consciously and rationally about binary questions that do not reach the unconscious. They just never get there. You’ll always get the conscious, rational thoughts from these things and they don’t provide good storytelling material. They can ratify or validate good storytelling material, but you’re not going to get them out of that. In-depth interviews, which is really both a discipline and art form used in both psychology and narrative stuff.
Pop culture as Bridget talked about. I’ve worked with a number of people. Significantly Aaron Pots and Liz Man on, on creating and sort of perfecting the art and science of the pop culture audit. So that you’re really looking for the way your issues are viewed for the stories that are being told about what you’re concerned about throughout pop culture – music, TV, books, the whole gamut of pop culture.
And finally, there are agencies and experts who look at metaphors to elicit the stories that people have deep in their unconscious. Zaltman is a great example of one. There’s a new one that’s just been started by Gretchen Barton, a friend. These agencies exist, and if you have the budgets, they can be useful.
So, having gone through that really quick art and science of storytelling what I’d like now to ask is that everybody take your turn and tell your story. I think it’s a really great exercise. But the real question here is how did you choose to work? Now I’ve used this question in partnership with a great organizer and narrative expert and fabulous storyteller and performance artist named Amber Jay Phillips. And Amber and I started asking people how did you choose your work, what brought you to what you do? – because when you ask organizers and the people you work with when we’re working on social justice that question, what you’re finding out is what motivates people to model the behavior that you want modeled – which is to get everybody engaged in these, in creating a better world. That’s really the ultimate object of culture change is engagement for the betterment and inclusion of everyone.
Think about the story elements we’ve covered right, think about your own journey, think importantly about the feelings that were stirred up and knew that got you involved in social justice, not just the facts. Think about what you saw on that made you choose the path you’ve chosen, you know what got you started off it it’s a it can be a teacher in college, it can be a parent, and you know they’re a good friend, there are all kinds of, of people who energize us and what were the obstacles that were in your way and that you moved beyond and overcame.
When we all come back after you’ve told your stories to each other, remember what you told, because a few of you are going to be asked at random to share those stories with everyone, and then we can all talk together and ask questions and see where that goes. So be ready to tell your story and I’ll now turn it back to Mallika and the folks who can break you out into breakout groups thanks.
Mallika Dutt: We are seeing this really wonderful conversation that’s coming in, on the chat and overcoming adversity, feeling lost and found, clear thread of moments that inspired storytellers action, human connection and opportunity to speak up, childhood youth experiences informing future activism, our parents. So I’ll hand this back to you.
Kirk Cheyfitz: These are great common themes and the working class origins. I noticed Cynthia has noted that Trump was such a great organizer for the left. I think that actually goes a long way to explaining the really high voter turnout.
I think it’s important first of all for everybody to see that’s why I asked that question, that there are common themes that emerged from the stories and that those common themes can be great clues to things that will then reach out and touch something in the stories of your audience and the stories they tell themselves about their own lives – it is that notion of finding the familiar for people to grasp on to. i=It’s also very important when, if you tell the story that doesn’t touch the lives of your audience in any particular way they are very likely to dismiss that story if it’s not real in their experience then they aren’t going to be engaged by it. I often talk about the necessity of not only telling the truth but making it sound truthful. And the way you make something sound truthful – and I think Bridget touched on this as well – is it summons up these common stories, the stories that we, we all have, or nearly all have in our heads.
So that’s why I think sharing these things, and looking at the common threads is really important, and the last thing I’ll say about that is very often in research we spend entirely too much time looking at the minute differences among people and we don’t spend nearly enough time saying well what joins all of these people together, what’s the common thread in all of their stories? We look for division more than we look for unity too often so that’s another point.
I would love to hear a couple of of the stories. I’m not sure how we go about nominating for that process or if you want to push someone in particular who you heard whose story you love. But Mallika, can you pick a couple of people to tell their stories?
Monique Davis: My name is Monique Davis, and my story begins as a story of many African Americans with an ancestor who owned another ancestor in a subsequent ancestor who’s the product of rape and trauma. That story progresses generations later to being dispossessed by lands being moved out of Mississippi and forced to go to Chicago for opportunities. In a subsequent generation later that family had to buy back the land in Foxworth Mississippi that has their surname on it, which was dispossessed from their grandfather. Those stories inform my genesis as a social justice worker, always feeling and advocating for the people who are unheard, unrepresented, unseen and dehumanized. And the intersection of arts and social justice to that story is a way to connect to heart work and distance ourselves from head work, especially as we work within the museum context which I do. Which is an elitist institution that is trying to go back to storytelling, instead celebrating objects, instead of celebrating the people that created those objects and those stories.
Kirk Cheyfitz: That’s terrific. Thank you very much for that Monique. So I, if I may, the, Monique’s story is is a great example of again, beginning in the ordinary world, beginning with, with the I think, with the calling up her ancestors calling up the deep, the deep obstacles they face to living their lives, the migration in search of have a better life and, ultimately, the return home to repossess that which had been stolen, I mean this is an epic tale. And if you boil it, you know if you kind of watch the through points of your own stories in that way, to see the drama of all of that all of that dispossession ending in possession. This is in some sense it’s terrible that you had to repossess what had been stolen but it’s wonderful that you could that that struggle wound up in victory action for at least one family. I just think it’s a wonderful, wonderful dramatic story that could be a book, a feature film, a 30 second spot, you know I mean there’s all kinds of treatments that would express that story and inspire.
Anybody else want to volunteer? One more? Thank you so much, it’s a great story.
Aquiles Damiron: I can volunteer. So my story is actually very American. So I studied politics that the University of Virginia and for those of you who are not in the US, Charlottesville and UVA has its own problems. But in studying politics there meant that my focus was very, our program was very history driven and theoretical but it wasn’t very community organizing or community engagement driven at all. I wasn’t at Berkeley, we weren’t activists in that sense. So when I graduated in 2012 in the middle of the presidential election or that year I walked into an Obama campaign office in Allentown Pennsylvania and Allentown it’s an interesting city because it is seeing a lot of Latino growth. I’m Dominican there’s a lot of Dominicans there, so I arrived in this office to volunteer with this political science degree, never having never done it through community engagement. And the community organizer – a really good one, engages so well that she asked me “Do you want to be a fellow with us?” and I said I don’t know what that means, but sure let’s go try it. And so what we did the first afternoon on the job we went to some street in Allentown, which is one of the main streets and for those of you who have been there in this city there’s a lots of row houses so folks hang out in the summer outside on the stoop so there’s lots of transit. And so I reached out to this Dominican woman who sounded, looked like my mom or my family, and I asked in spanish, “Ma’am are you registered to vote?”
And she said, “I am not and I don’t vote”, and then I remember just pausing and I had no idea what to say thereafter, and, ironically, after four years of studying politics and Latin American politics and these type of voters, specifically, I had no idea how to actually talk to this voter. And so, for them, that was the very foundation of my career in politics and community organizing and now into learning and development. It developed this intense curiosity about how we actually engage folks in a system, folks that are very much, share my family history. Should they be involved at all? Why are they not involved at all? What needs to change? And what is the role of community organizing in helping that happen? While at the same time, feeding my intense curiosity for people and people in the community. How do we work? How do we learn together? How do we come together to build power? So that has been the foundation of the work that I do today that very moment in some street in Allentown about 10 years ago.
Kirk Cheyfitz: That’s fabulous, thank you for that one too and if I may just take a minute again the structure of what you said, which was really fabulous. The notion of beginning in college, beginning with really pushing back against a certain lack of curiosity in your college and sounds like at UVA that it wasn’t engaging with the community. Growing from that, finding a mentor. As Campbell would say and and using all of that to move yourself forward into an organizing position. What a great anecdote the notion that after all that education, all that effort you’re met with a simple question and nothing in your education prepared you to answer that question, which is clearly the fault of the education and not yours. That speaks to what’s missing in the world and then how you fill that in with stories of other people. Again it’s a great story and in the best sense, not an uncommon story. And I, and I love the way you told it and I I was sort of there with you on the doorstep, when the woman said I don’t vote and I don’t care. I can’t tell you how many times I encountered that answer when working on a civic participation program that the Midwest a few years ago ran up to the 2018, actually, Midterms. Getting people to vote and discovering how disengaged people were from the civic world at all, and how to talk about that integrates fabulous. Thank you. Can we do one more from outside the United States?
Mallika Dutt: Sure would somebody be willing to volunteer?
Abiodun Baiyewu: So hi my name is Abi and I’m from Nigeria and I work here. I used to work with an organization, I used to design these resolution systems for organizations and communities and I used to work for an organization called an Accusation and Conflict Management Group. And we were about to get a really big brief to design a dispute resolution system or Shah. And for their whole communities in the Niger Delta around my area where there’s a lot of emotion, a lot of conflicts with the communities. And so I have to immerse myself in the community for a while to understand the dispute and understand the issues going on in that. This wasn’t about communication this was about injustice, this is about social justice, this was about bad governance in this respect human rights, and that I couldn’t work on that project morally, it was just wrong for me, and so I I left my job and I went back to school and I’m doing human rights work now.
Kirk Cheyfitz: That’s, that’s great. But you left your job because, could you just tell me that one more time?
Abiodun Baiyewu: So this was me going, I had to immerse myself in the community for a couple of days, understand the issues between the community and the company and realizing this was not about dispute or communication gaps, it was about power imbalances, human rights violations and very bad governance. And I couldn’t do that.
Kirk Cheyfitz: Right that, that’s great, thank you for repeating all of that. Again I think this is a great story about listening to stories. A story about how a problem and a solution are presented before one even gets to talk to the people who are involved in it and they turn out to be totally wrong. It’s an interesting case of social journalism. In a sense, where you go out to investigate a story, and you discovered that the story, you were assigned to investigate isn’t there, it’s really a different story, and I think that, that turning point that moment when the truth of the power imbalance is revealed is such a great story I, and it also depends, I think, and one thing I would say about all three of the stories is that the powerful moments in storytelling are usually the ones where the smallest details come to represent the largest items where where a conversation with a person who is simply not being listened to by the oil company and never will be, reveals that imbalance, for example, and that when you’re when you’re thinking about storytelling and telling your own stories that they’re going for the anecdote, going for the conversation that happened, going for the moment on the voters front porch where you have nothing to say, going for that kind of very close personal anecdote is always going to be the most powerful place to go.
And I also wish we had lots more time to listen to your stories and to talk about stories, I saw an item in the comment in the chat about you know it was great to look at 30 second pieces and 60 second pieces and to listen to one another for a minute and half, but how about devoting weeks to this, a lifetime to this, and I just I just want to endorse that comment. One of the great arguments that I’ve had with campaign directors my entire life is they keep talking about the short attention span of the public, right and everything’s got to be online like that, it’s got to be over in 30 seconds and nobody’s going to pay attention to you, and I point out that there’s a multi-billion dollar industry in the world, called news and entertainment, that people pay money to listen to for hours, days, until it makes them sick they listen to this stuff because it tells them the stories they’re interested in. So don’t ever talk to me about the short attention span, instead pay attention to how terrible your stories must be if nobody’s paid, you know if nobody’s paid attention to them for more than 30 seconds that’s not their problem that’s your problem.
So that I think all of this comes out in your storytelling to one another and, and I thank you all for those stories. Again I think these are the things that have motivated you all and brought you all to this decision, this emotional decision, to devote your lives to pursuing human rights and social justice, and that mining your own story, which was something the Obama campaign did really well, I think, as well, they were a storytelling organization I in the US. But mining those stories yourself is a very powerful starting place for leaders who want to begin changing the way their organizations think about storytelling. And if we have time I’d be delighted to entertain any questions or comments that anybody has.
Mallika Dutt: So we do have some time and I’ll just kick us off Kirk and I invite you all to put questions in the chat if you have questions for Kirk, we have about another 10-12 minutes. So Kirk one of the things that happens a lot with social justice organizations and stories is that we’re often asked to tell stories of victimization, right, that the stories that we’re constantly being asked to present to the world, are all the horrible things that happened either to us or to the communities and constituencies that we work with and I certainly know that from my work in gender based violence over the, over the many decades that I did you know, there was this constant thing: We want a survivor to come and tell their story of the ways in which they were abused and what happened to them and what didn’t happen to them and so, you know there’s certainly value to lifting up stories of victimization and trauma, but what is your experience around how we make sure that those stories become transformational stories and don’t remain stories that just recreate the very harm and abuse that we are trying to actually change?
Kirk Cheyfitz: Right, I think it’s a great question and a fundamental question and one of the things that I get it, and honestly I had looked at Campbell’s scheme of things for years until preparing to for this session. I don’t normally teach storytelling I normally just try to do it and help people around me to do it, I, but I think that structure is really important, and in that structure, of course, the suffering, the difficulties, that’s the ordinary world.That may very well be the starting point, depending on how you structure the sequence of events, but if you leave it there, if it’s just suffering, if you don’t take people on a journey to the better world you’re talking about, the better world you’re seeking and working for ,it’s very demotivating. Hearing stories of suffering over and over again tends to tell people that they have no power to change things, that they are victims and that this is going nowhere and that’s actually the worst possible message. And I, and I would add what research is showing most recently here in the US, at any rate is that it’s the minority of people on the Right, who see themselves as victims and turn to violence and it’s the majority of people on the Left who are seeking justice but actually have a more hopeful view of the world and feel more agency and you really want to encourage that agency. So fine, start with a tale of suffering. But if you don’t get to the possibility of a better world if you or better yet an actual win that a community has made, a victory, however small, over injustice. That’s going to energize and affect people, and if you don’t get to that point, then you really risk doing exactly the opposite of what you wanted to
And I’ll say one more word, one of the terrible things about the business were in of social justice is we usually have to raise money and raising money works well on negative energy because it’s quick, it doesn’t go anywhere, except to write a check, it doesn’t really engage people, but it gets a reaction, it makes people feel guilty and they’ll send money. You cannot let that be the entire narrative effort of your organization. You learn nothing about the power of long term culture change by watching what raises more money. You learn what raises more money, and I understand the value and the critical nature of that, but over the long term, I believe you’d actually even raise more money by showing how you can make change rather than by just telling terrible tales that come and go quickly.
Mallika Dutt: So building off of that and on a question that comes to us from Natalie, who is with Korea, you know, one of the other challenges that we often face is who’s telling whose stories? Right, like the whole representation issue. The whole question of nothing about us without us as a response to all of these years of people talking about us or representing us certainly marginalized communities as if we don’t have voices ourselves. And so the way Natalie’s framing the question is around. How do we co-create stories, how do we make sure that even when we’re understanding the power of narrative strategy of archetypes that we don’t reduce the human dimension of people’s stories into more than just a commodity, to make a point, how do we retain ownership of the process? So the way, and she ends her question, in other words, how to see the power of the storytelling to the person whose story is so powerful? There’s so many different dimensions to this so, if you would jump into that question.
Kirk Cheyfitz: Sure, again a really critical and important question and I, I think a lot of it has to do with process. Bizarrely enough, something as rigid as process. You really have to give up total ownership of the story. That’s step number one: that story has got to be shared – as a journalist, I love getting real people to tell their real stories and then you have to make sure that you’re not distorting it. Now real people often, not everybody is a gifted storyteller and sometimes you have to restructure their stories, you have to suggest that they begin here not there. I typically try to follow a process where if I’m working with a film crew, for instance on a series of pieces, for what you know for some campaign. Some social justice or political campaign, the first thing I want to do is spread out and interview as many people as I can, to conduct those in depth interviews. Then you select the people whose real stories coincide the best with what you know from your research and your understanding is going to be the most motivating. I mean some stories are just better and more engaging than other stores. Then you take what I do is, I do a live interview with the person before there any cameras of the robe. It’s just me in them days before and I listened to the whole story. Sometimes it’s an hour, two hours, three hours. I get a transcript made of that. And then I move that down into whatever it needs to be into a one minute, two minute, three minute, five of either a script or an outline, then I go back to the person I interviewed and I say “Okay, what do, you know, is this right, does this capture what you mean, because it’s going to be you talking to the camera, and I think, importantly, putting real people in front of cameras is much more important than putting celebrity spokespeople in front of cameras. Yeah again they can be useful, but letting real people talk, helping them to structure it so it has the best in. All of that I think is a critical process of telling great stories.
The other thing I will say is that the deeper you can go in you’re interviewing the people and, there’s a great guy at Harvard it’s actually in the marketing department, he taught at the Business School on Jerry Zalman. Who created the Zalman metaphor elicitation technique, which is a great way of drawing metaphors out of people. And Jerry and I’ve worked with him a lot and his team, and what they always say is: “Look it’s at the surface, mostly where our divisions exist, the deeper you go into each human story. As you get down to the core level of the emotional level of people’s stories they become broader and broader and broader in other words they apply to more and more and more people and the deeper you can go with any particular person and their story, the more likely you are to find an effective story for a very large audience and that’s another way to make sure that you are both effective and you stay really true to the person whose story is being told. Let them tell their story, make sure it’s the right story, help them to structure it effectively, make them a real part of the team and check in with them at every stage of writing the script, structuring the outline, doing the edit ,you know all of that stuff. Collaboration is not just a word, it’s an approach to life and nobody has all the answers. I hope that helped. It’s a tough question.
Mallika Dutt: No that’s really helpful. It’s also great to kind of get an inside look at some of the processes that practitioners use in the storytelling journey. One of the other questions that I have for you is in your slides you referred to the power of metaphor, a couple of times, could you speak to metaphor, a little bit more, could you explain what you mean by that and why that’s a powerful way to tell stories?
Kirk Cheyfitz: I will I mean stories stories, stories or metaphorical in the way that, in the way they’re structured, where they’re like Cinderella is not just about Cinderella. It’s what it takes – it as a whole it’s a metaphor for. It is a metaphor about, granted it’s a completely unrealistic fairy tale – I don’t mean to hold it up as an icon of social justice storytelling, but it is about transcending class, it is about the fact that being poor is an economic condition, not a condition of the soul. It’s you know it says some some good things metaphorically, while telling the story. I was just scrolling through some notes, I had that question. About a decade ago Stanford did a really great study that it’s often quoted about how people understand and react to stories about crime. And they asked people if they portrayed crime in two different ways one as a wildebeest preying on our city and the other as a virus infecting society right? So the crime, metaphorically could either be an uncontrollable beast or a disease, those were the two ways they portrayed it. When it was portrayed as a beast 75% of the people who listened to that story of the crowd reacted by favoring just more law enforcement getting tougher. When it was portrayed as a disease that was in effect nobody’s fault that almost turned around right? The majority of people favored more social programs like education and job training and that sort of thing, so we learned that one metaphor could be much more powerful than pushing a human rights agenda dealing with crime, then another. This is, this is why metaphors are so critical in another case, another project that I worked on, we were talking about the notions of poverty and the economy and social mobility, you know economic mobility and social mobility. And whether people ,the metaphor, they use for the progress of their lot, the economic progress of their lives, was really critical you know. For some it was a river that anybody could jump into and sometimes the currents was strong and pushed you back, but you will free to make progress and everybody was affected equally, right, by the currents of the river. But for others it was a mountain that had to be climbing and the rich were at the top and the poor or at the bottom and for the majority, there was a wall around the base of that now. And these are the sort of visual metaphors that gets you deep into how people view a particular issue. So again, we could talk about metaphor for days, but I hope that’s at least an introduction to the answer to that question. You really want to listen, for what is the imagery that people are using in their language, as if you were a literary theorist and their words and gestures and expressions were a text. You want to deconstruct that text to hear exactly what they’re saying. So that you could hear it properly, not just dismiss it and siphon it through your own thoughts. What are they really saying? That’s a critical question in any kind of story listening.
Mallika Dutt: You know Kirk as I was listening to lay that journey out of really listening. It made me think that a part two exercise that perhaps everybody could do is to take the prompt that you gave everyone about creating the stories to share with one another and take that exercise to themselves, and perhaps create two different stories for yourself. And then look at the imagery, and the metaphors, and the framing that you’re using even in terms of how you understand why you do this work, how you came to this work. A lot of us in the social justice world are very externally focused and we forget that our own stories and our own meaning making and how we think about our place in the world, and why we do what we do deeply informs, then, why we do what we do in the world, and how we do it. So being a storyteller, which is where we started this whole journey, is also as much about understanding your own story and your own unconscious and understanding it in ways that use these kinds of metaphors so that we get out of just the sort of thinking mind that’s oriented towards trying to convince funders or a narrow agenda and allows us to start becoming aware of the sea and the ocean that we’re all swimming in, the ocean of meaning that we’re all swimming in. So that our own stories and the stories we tell and the stories we share can become a part of this larger change that we are so deeply desirous of.
This series of Leadership Moves is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation. Stay connected at Mallikadutt.com
This series is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation.
“Inter-Connected Theme” composed by Devadas, (c) Mallika Dutt, LLC 2021.
Production team: Mallika Dutt, Devadas Labrecque, Ambika Pressman.