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Storytelling for Impact


Imagine if you spoke almost solely in stories. Think about if, when someone visited your website, they were greeted by a range of stories told in different forms, voices, and media. Instead of simply making claims, you become known as the organization that has a deep and keen understanding of the people it serves and the people who serve it. Storytelling is key for your organization, and unlocking the stories that exist internally is the most powerful way to build an authentic, emotional connection with your audiences.

By the end of this webinar, you’ll be able to:

  • Articulate why stories are powerful
  • Find good stories within your organization
  • Write a better story


Hello, and welcome to “Storytelling for Impact,” a webinar from Mighty Citizen. So let me ask you - how much would you pay for this tiny, little jar of mayonnaise? There’s a penny there in the photograph to give you a little bit of perspective. This is the kind of mayo you might get in a room-service meal. It looks a little old and worn too, but would you pay $10 for it? Maybe $5, maybe even less? Ok, let’s try another item and see.

How about this pretty cute little teddy bear - peace and love figurine? Again, pretty small but pretty adorable if you ask me, and the question is - if this were up for auction, how much would you pay for it? $25? $20? $15? Somewhere in there? Ok, well let’s try one last item.

And this is my favorite item - it is the world’s saddest egg whisk. This poor little guy, he is being asked to literally whisk his cousins to death, but it’s cute and it has a use. So, would you pay $40? Would you pay $70 for it maybe?

Well the truth is, that most people report not wanting to pay much, if anything, for any three of these items. But a journalist by the name of Rob Walker, really wanted to test a theory he had. So, several years ago he went to ebay and he purchased a number of items, in fact he purchased 200 items; that totaled a cost of $250 including the three items that we just saw. He called these insignificant objects. Very small, often used, or useless items, and what he did was really interesting. He then found 200 writers and he gave each one of those writers an item from his collection and asked those writers to write a new story-based description of the item. And then, he put all 200 items back up for sale on eBay with their new descriptions attached - written by professional storytellers and put them up for sale. And you want to take a moment and guess what those items might have sold for? Those once insignificant items, the only difference now is that they’re a little older, and they now had a better description. Well those 200 items, totaled a sale price of about $8000. Pretty impressive.

Now before you just end this webinar right here and jump onto eBay because you have a new career, I want to spend a little bit of time today - maybe the next 35 or 40 minutes, talking about what makes the difference between something that’s insignificant and something that is significant. What turns ordinary objects into extraordinary ones? And really, what makes our communication as organizations most effective in an increasingly difficult marketplace. And of course, the answer is storytelling. Now, for the record, these are what those particular items sold for. That jar of mayonnaise blows me away right? $51 it sold for, simply because a professional writer had given it a good story.

And that’s really the focus of this webinar of course, now I will admit that story or storytelling has been a big buzz word in the marketing industry for a number of years now. Probably at least a decade. And you’ve seen plenty of webinars advertised, white papers, books that talk about story, and what we’re going to do today is really try to hone in on the fundamentals of storytelling so that you’re not, sort of awash in techniques and tricks to tell a story. But that you just really understand what seperates a story that sticks from one that floats right by your user’s attention and doesn’t grab them. There’s a great quote that I love from a journalist, Anthony de Mello who says, “The shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.” Which I think really demonstrates or illustrates how closely we, as human beings, feel to stories. They are certainly the oldest form of persuasive communication going back to the very beginning of civilization and really beyond, now we know. So, we’re going to talk a little bit today about why they’re so powerful, but then we really want to get into some of the nuts and bolts of what makes them work.

End of this Session

By the end of this webinar there’s a few things that I’m hoping you will be able to do. So the first is, articulate why stories are powerful. Number two is to find good stories within your organization. You know often here at Mighty Citizen we hear from clients that, “yeah we’d love to tell stories but we can’t seem to find them,” or “we do, they feel less than compelling.” Well, I don’t think that’s really ever the case, and we’re going to give you some tips to find those. And number three, we’re going to talk about how to write or create a better story.

Andrew Buck

Ok, just a little bit about me, my name is Andrew Buck, that’s what I look like when I haven’t shaved in too long. I am the content strategist here at Mighty Citizen. For those of you who don’t know, Mighty Citizen is a full-service marketing and digital transformation agency focused on mission-driven organizations. So, we do branding, digital marketing, design, website development, pretty much anything related to public-facing communications. Especially for non-profits, universities, professional associations, and government agencies. Personally, I’ve had about 18 years experience in fundraising, communications, and strategy - especially around marketing campaigns. But enough about me, let’s jump into the good stuff.


So, we’re going to start with a little bit of an experiment. Now this is tricky to do in a webinar setting. You know, when I present this live and in-person this exercise always creates a little bit of tension or at least anxiety among the users. Because what I ask you to do, is to tell a story. What I typically do is ask you know people to pair up in the room and turn to their partner and tell a 30 second story. Any story that they want. Now obviously, you’re probably watching this without someone there next to you, if you are great go ahead and take a moment to just tell any story. It could be from your organization, it could be from your personal life, it could be a story that you read somewhere recently, an anecdote that you know. If you’re alone though, I’m going to presume that you are, just take a few seconds here to think about a story. Any one that comes to mind. Often I hear people say that what first comes to mind is some sort of fairytale, like an Esopp fable right? But the exercise here, the point we’re trying to make is that for all the talking that people like me do, about the notion of storytelling as a marketing tool, or as a persuasive tactic. The actual act of storytelling, actually doing the work, is more difficult than we initially believe.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean, so let’s pretend that we’re doing this live and in-person and you’re being asked to on-the-spot turn to somebody, maybe you know them, maybe you don’t, but you’ve got 30 seconds to tell a story. Well, whenever I do this, I immediately follow up by asking some questions of the people in the audience. And I first ask, you know, did you cover these three things in the story? Did you indicate who the story’s about? Did you indicate what that person or persons wanted or needed? And did you indicate what was different from one point to the other? In other words, what changed over the course of the story? Now these are some fundamentals of storytelling. We need to know who our main hero is, we always want to know what they want, and we like some sort of change. Now whether you know these as storytelling fundamentals or not, we find that we often kind of gravitate towards this naturally. Even though we’re not sort of thinking about it in these terms, there seems to be a natural tendency amongst most people to tell stories in this way. And that’s probably because we spend our lives consuming stories.

But then I take a bit of a poll of the audience, so I ask them, “by show of hands - how many found this difficult?” Everybody’s hand shoots up almost. “By show of hands,” I ask, “if you told a story that’s already on your organizations website.” Usually about half of the people do. Which means that there are some stories in our organization that we’ve come to become very familiar with. This is a really interesting one, “In 30 seconds were you able to finish the story?” I’m always shocked at how many people were able to finish the story, but my suspicion is they didn’t actually finish the story, they just stopped telling the story. And we’re going to talk about that more in just a second. And this one is also great, “would you tell the story to a prospective or current user?” And this always gets way fewer hands than you might think. Meaning that we have, sometimes the feeling, that there are some stories that are appropriate to share with our target audiences, and some that aren’t. And while that’s true, I’m going to argue that more stories are appropriate to tell than we might initially think. And at the end of this presentation I’m going to explain why I think that’s true.

Why You Need to Tell More Stories

Ok so, let’s start by making the case for storytelling. So, I’m going to presume you’re some sort of professional communicator. You’re either in marketing, or fundraising, advancement, membership development, recruiting, something like that - where your job is to go out and make the case for your organization. And one thing I always like to do in presentations is start by, you know, why are we even here? Why are we taking the time out of our day to talk about this? And what can we explain to our fellow team members, internally, within our organization, so that they get on board with our effort. So in this case, how can we explain to our colleagues, or maybe even our bosses, why we need to take the time, and sometimes the money, to find and tell better stories?

So, in order to really illustrate this, I want to do another exercise. And this is going to require your imagination. I feel like the word imagination also gets used so much that we don’t often really think about what imagination is. And I used this photo because it reminds me of how when we were children, most of us had wildly active imaginations. The world was our playground right? And so just with a cardboard box we could imagine all sorts of stories, and adventures, and scenarios. So I want us to sort of cast ourselves back there to when we were young, our imaginations were a lot more active and vibrant. The good news is, we haven’t totally lost that. It’s just gotten buried under everything that comes with being an adult; but if we spend some time intentionally trying to imagine things, we can find that we’re still pretty darn good at it. In fact we’re probably even better at it than we once were.

So, I’m going to ask you to imagine a few things, and then we’re going to see how that imagination can be influential. So, the first thing I want you to imagine is a flashing light. The second thing I want you to imagine is someone tapping on your skin. The third thing I want you to imagine is any word that begins with the letter ‘B’. The second letter of the alphabet. Any word that begins with the letter ‘B’. And finally, please imagine the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Ok, so if during that little exercise we had brought in a doctor who hooked your brain up to all sorts of fancy scans, we would’ve seen some interesting things happening in your brain during those imaginations.

So for example, when you imagined a flashing light, whatever kind of light it was, that doctor would have noticed that the portion of your brain responsible for interpreting visual cues would have lit up. Even though you weren’t seeing a flashing light it would have looked from the brain’s point-of-view as if you were. Similarly, when you imagined someone tapping on your skin, the part of your brain responsible for processing touch or tactile sensations also would have lit up. Now if we had trained a high definition camera on your face during this exercise when you imagined a word that begins with the letter ‘B’ like ‘banana,’ we would’ve noticed that your lips, ever so subtly, ever so briefly, would have formed the shape of that letter ‘B’. And that camera also would have picked up that when you imagined the Eiffel Tower your eyes would have gone upwards slightly. As if you were looking up at the Eiffel Tower.

So, the point here is that the human mind is a simulation machine. Maybe one of the best on the planet. When it hears a story, our brains can’t help but recreate that story. So again, from the brain’s point-of-view simply imagining yourself or casting yourself into a scenario is the same as actually doing that thing. If you imagine what it’s like to sky-dive and you imagine it really, really hard - all the details, the colors, the sensations, the sounds, then again, from your brain’s point-of-view there’s almost no difference between thinking about skydiving (imagining it), and actually doing it. That’s a powerful tool that we have as professional communicators, and that’s why the first reason of storytelling being powerful is that, the human mind can’t help but simulate things. So, for example, if I started telling you about my morning, how I woke up after hitting the alarm, snooze button a few times, and I was running a bit late but I woke up really hungry so I quickly ran in the kitchen and popped some toast in the toaster, and while that was going I was getting dressed for the day, and I’m trying to keep one eye on the news to see what happened over night, as I’m telling you this story even though you know very little about me - you certainly don’t know where I live, or what kind of place I live in, what my bed looks like, you don’t know what my toaster looks like, or where my kitchen is in relation to my bedroom, you don’t know what news I was watching or what kind of TV I have, you don’t have any of those details, but that doesn’t so much matter. Because you’re sort of mapping this as I’m telling it to you. You’re envisioning it right? That is a powerful way into the mind’s of your users, and of course as marketers that’s often what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get our hooks, our little velcro hooks, into the brains of the people that we want to engage with. And storytelling is probably the surest and deepest way to do that. Oh, there’s our Eiffel Tower by the way.

Making a Claim

Now here’s another thing I want to talk about. Often marketers do this thing where they make a claim. They just make a claim, “we do X,” “our organization is really known for doing X,Y, and Z,” “last year we made this many widgets and we sold this many programs, and this many people signed up, and this many students joined.” And while claim-making is part of the equation, I see it far too often try to stand in as some sort of persuasive communication. When you make a claim, you are asking the person who hears that claim to argue with you. Now by argue I don’t mean disagree necessarily, you’re just asking their brain to fire up their rational, logical, functions. So in that sense, you’re standing across from your user, facing each other, making claims. Sometimes making claims back and forth. That’s not particularly persuasive, and I want to encourage all of us in our various industries and disciplines, to think about making fewer claims and telling more stories. Because when you tell a story, in part because of the first reason - how the human mind kind of simulates it, we are sort of stepping across that sort of proverbial fence, standing next to our audience, and looking out at the world from the same vantage point. I hope that makes sense.

Telling a Story

So, on the one hand we have claim making where we are being sort of forceful, and direct, and facing each other. And on the other hand we have storytelling where we are standing next to each other, and asking our users, our prospective customers, our prospective donors, or students, or members, or what have you, to see things the way we see them. And that’s far more powerful. In fact, I would say that that’s the definition of engagement. We use that word a lot too don’t we? Engagement. What does engagement really mean? Well, I think that it means this - seeing the world, even if only temporarily, from the person’s perspective and point-of-view, or the other organizations perspective or point-of-view. So that’s reason number two storytelling is so powerful. The way we communicate to our users, tells them how to respond to it. And we don’t really want people thinking too hard, we want them feeling, and seeing, and engaging. Because A) that’s more persuasive, but also B) it’s a lot more fun, frankly.

And the last reason is a bit of a personal one I want to share with you. So, we all have our pocket passions right? Things in the world that we particularly care about. For me it’s literacy. I’ve always loved reading personally, and I really do feel strongly that the more we get children and young people reading, the better the world will be. So, a number of years ago, I decided that I wanted to get more involved with literacy causes. So, I didn’t know really where to begin and so when I don’t know where to begin with something I begin where most of us begin - Google. And so I went on Google and I searched for literacy programs, or literacy tutoring, those kinds of terms in my area. Now I happen to live in Austin, Texas, that’s where Mighty Citizen is located in addition to Washington, DC, but I live in Austin, and so when I went searching for literacy programs I found you know, a number of options. In fact, I found some of these wonderful non-profit organizations, and I want to emphasize, these are great groups doing all sorts of important work. Some of which is related to literacy, but not all of them, some of them even have wider missions even than that. But when I went to each one of the websites, I found myself feeling a bit cold. And it’s not that they’re cold organizations, it’s just that their websites weren’t really pulling me and weren’t showing me how I could get involved. Sure they all had ‘donate’ buttons and they all had different pages talking about their programs and services; but there was something that I didn’t feel connected to. Until I found another organization.

An organization by the name of Literacy First. Now, Literacy First, is a local organization focused here in central Texas and I should point out that they are probably the smallest organization by far of the ones I looked at. But what they do so brilliantly, is tell stories. Now, they tell stories through pictures, they certainly use words to tell stories, and they have some really great videos as well. But the moment I landed on their page, I felt a certain sort of warmth, and engagement, a welcoming feeling, I could cast myself into these scenarios they were talk - I could see myself as one of the tutors they were telling stories about. I could even, in some cases, remember myself as some of the kids that they worked with. Now I’m clearly not a kid anymore, but I could relate to them. And that relationship right? That engagement is what is so powerful. So, of course Literacy First is the organization that I chose to give money to and to volunteer with.

So just goes to show, and I know this is anecdotal, but I think we all probably have similar experiences. Where we encountered a person, or group, an organization, where they just made it clear how we could fit. So, because other organizations aren’t telling stories, telling stories becomes a differentiator. And isn’t that what we’re trying to do as marketers, really, at the end of the day we’re really just trying to explain to the world why we are special as an organization. And while I’ll admit that I see increasingly, organizations trying to tell stories, it’s still very, very few of them in relation to the total number. So if you want to think about a way to really differentiate your organization, what if you decided that the primary way that we’re going to communicate anything we have to communicate is through a story. We’re going to make less claims, we’re going to share, we’re not going to worry about sharing as many facts and figures and data, and we’re going to try and tell everything through a story. Whether it’s a short or long one, whether the hero is someone in our organization, or someone without it, what have you - the details are a little less important. But imagine what that might do for your engagement, especially for your ability to differentiate yourself from your competitors and from the larger marketplace.

Identify Good Stories in Your Organization

Ok, so where do we find these stories? Where in our organization do these stories pop up? How do we go search them out without spending a ton of time or resources? Well, the good news is that they’re right under your nose. But sometimes you have to have some frameworks to surface them.

The Curse of Knowledge

Now the first thing I do want to mention is something called the curse of knowledge, and you may have heard of this before. And the curse of knowledge says that, “once you know something, it is impossible to imagine what it was like not to know that thing.” Now that’s tricky for professional communicators like you, because you spend roughly forty hours a week thinking about your organization, and the people you’re trying to connect with spend on average zero hours a week or maybe half an hour a week, I don’t know, thinking about you, or dealing with you. That’s a pretty big gulf. And because over time you gather all this knowledge about your organization, you have your vocabulary, you have your context, now when you go out and try to communicate to people who don’t think about you or in some cases have never thought about you - the curse of knowledge makes it really impossible to get inside of their heads. Because the moment you say something to a prospective customer, or member, or student you are saying it with all of the knowledge that you have. And what might feel to you like a very basic, direct message is still colored with all sorts of context and experience. So, I want to talk about ways we can, there are some tricks and tips you know for bridging that curse of knowledge.

Three Plots

And the first is three plots. Every story has a plot right? The things that happen in the story. So certain plots never fail. So be on the lookout for these three and you’ll find that they arise again and again and again.

David v. Goliath

So the first is David versus Goliath. We probably all know the story - it’s the story of the underdog. The little David who defeats the giant Goliath when he definitely shouldn’t. Now it’s interesting, the author Malcolm Gladwell has the fantastic breakdown of this story, in which he tries to suggest that what we think about David versus Goliath is actually totally wrong. And I encourage you guys to check it out because it’s really fascinating - Malcolm Gladwell’s story, but that aside the notion of the underdog never fails. We love the underdog. And in most organizations, there are tons of stories. Especially, in mission-focused organizations - non-profits, associations, government, or agencies, or semi-government groups associated, higher ed, I mean these stories are all over the place, right? Look for them. Tell those stories, because people tend to root for the underdog almost all the time.

Odd Couples

The second plot to look out for is the odd couple. We love when people, or groups, or entities bridge some sort of perceived barrier gap in order to come together for something greater. It’s why we can watch a five minute video on YouTube of a kitten riding on the back of a turtle. We just love odd couples. So, when the billionaire helps the person who might be living in a homeless situation, like when they help each other personally - there’s something really fascinating about that. Now these bridges or gaps can run the gambit right? They can be socio-economic, they can be cultural, they can be ethnic, they can be generational, geographical, what have you, but when forces that you wouldn’t immediately put together, come together, in order to achieve something greater than they could achieve on their own, that is a fascinating, and often very compelling, story.

The MacGyver

And the third plot I want you to look for, is something I’ll call the MacGyver. Now if you don’t know, MacGyver was a guy in a show in the 80s and early 90s called MacGyver, and he was kind of a James Bond type. He was, you know, solving problems for the government, he was kind of a secret agent, but his whole thing was he could solve really big problems with very little materials at hand. I’m not describing this well. The joke that everyone always makes about MacGyver is, you know, he could make a bomb out of toothpaste and a paperclip right? In every episode of MacGyver, in the last five minutes he would, you know, grab whatever was nearby like a button, and a bag of popcorn and suddenly he would turn it into some sort of flying car and fly away right? So the point here is we love stories about innovation.

Think about Newton and the apple falling on his head for him to realize that gravity was a force. That kind of thing. We love when people do things in a new way, see the world in a new way, maybe they use a loophole in the system, maybe they invent new rules for how things should be done, or they just, frankly, buck the system and fight against the status quo. We tend to really like that or at the very least we find it very interesting. So, are there stories in the organization of people, or groups, or things, that have decided to innovate - to try something new, to sort of rethink how the world works.

So, we’ve got David versus Goliath, odd couples, and MacGyver. Those three plots appear again, and again, and again in organizational structures and they tend to be very interesting. And what’s great about this is that the details change from story to story, the plots are more or less similar. And if the details change, but the underlying structure of the story is the same, your users won’t notice, they certainly won’t mind, and they’ll continue to consume your content.

Surfacing Good Stories

Now there’s one other thing that you can do to surface good stories. Now I’m going to presume that each week you have some sort of staff meeting. Maybe it’s just your team, or your whole organization, maybe it’s every month instead of every week - but whenever you do this, sort of, let’s all sit in a room together and work, if you ask these three questions, and I mean it - ask aloud to the room and have people respond, then you might find a bunch of stories that you didn’t really realize were ripe for the telling.

Question One

So the first one is, “whom did we turn away last week?” Now if you’re non-profit, maybe you had to turn away somebody who was asking for services for one reason or another. If you’re university maybe there’s a student who didn’t get into the school, or into a particular program, or didn’t get the service they needed for some reason. If you’re an association, maybe there was a member who was unable to, you know, get the continuing education credits they needed - they couldn’t attend a particular class. What have you, just think about who did we have to say no to in one way or another? Because there’s a reason you had to say no, there’s a reason that they needed something, and those are the recipes of a good story. When somebody needs or wants something and there’s something standing in their way. Now again, I’m not suggesting that you, the organization is standing in their way, often it’s just circumstance or bad luck or policies or what have you. But there’s definitely a story there - pursue it. Ask the follow up questions, why did we turn that person away? What did they want? What are they doing now? How can we maybe help them now or in the future? So that’s question one.

Question Two

Question two, “who’s your favorite client?” Who do you just love seeing? Who’s that student that when they come into your office you just love chatting with them? Who’s that client who they come for the tutoring session or they come to do the weekly trash pick-up at the local library or what have you, you know, who do you just love seeing? Because they, you know, bring a lot of great energy or they’re really interesting, or their story is fascinating? Again, ask follow-up questions. “They’re your favorite client? Well, why? What do they do? How long have you known them? What’s their back-story?”

Question Three

And the third question you should ask is, “who can’t you get out of your mind?” Now, this is a little different than question number two, because there may be a different reason you can’t get someone out of your mind. Not so much because they’re your favorite but because their situation is interesting, or their personal story is interesting. Again we’re asking our staff members, the people on our team, to think outside of the organization. Who out there can’t we get out of our mind? Because if they can’t get out of your mind, there is a good reason for that. And that reason, has a story wrapped around it - almost always.

So, if you ask these three questions at your staff meeting, you’ll find that your surface a lot more stories. Of course someone then has to do the work of writing the story, figuring out what form you’re going to tell them in, and we’re not really covering that in this particular webinar, but the first step of course is to surface the stories, and decide which ones are worth telling.

Tell Better Stories Better

Alright the last section of this webinar, we’re going to talk about how to tell stories better. So once we’ve found a story, what do we put into it so that it’s really going to capture someone’s attention and make them engage with our organization? And to share the lessons we want, and to get them to do the things that we hope they’ll do? How do we just tell better stories better?

So every story probably needs at least these five things:

  • A Hero
  • A Guide
  • Structure
  • Readability
  • And an Emotion

Now, the truth is we could do a ten hour webinar on storytelling and not cover all the things that can go into a story. I’ve picked the five that I think are most relevant to marketing style storytelling. You know, storytelling with a real purpose, in order to make an impact (as the title says). Right? Hero, guide, structure, readability, emotion. And I want to talk about each one of these a little bit. Now you may notice that there’s something not on this list that a lot of people associate with stories and that is - a villain.

Now, I will say that not every single story needs a villain. I’d say 99% of them do, but your stories definitely need a villain. Now here’s the thing - that villain, villains take all sorts of forms, sometimes it’s literally a person, like in all the Disney movies it’s a person, an evil witch or wizard or what have you. You know the villain can often be sort of structural, it can be a systemic problem, it can be - history can be a villain, status quo can be a villain, the weather could be a villain. There’s all sorts of villains right? But I would argue that for most of us, the best villain is usually apathy. That is - an unwillingness to do something, or a lack of concern. And why? Well, because when we’re telling stories as organizations, there’s a point to it right? We’re not doing it just to be known as great storytellers, we’re doing it because we want people to understand something, to engage, to donate, to sign-up, to get that continuing education credit, to apply to join our school, what have you. And if we can frame apathy, that is the not doing of something, as the primary connection and that we as an organization can make that connection to something greater, then suddenly that story becomes a lot more effective as a persuasive tactic.


Ok, that’s just a little side note, let’s talk about heroes. Really the main point I want to make about heroes is - well there’s two. I’ll say first that your story needs a hero. Your story needs a hero, every story needs a hero. That’s the person that we as a listener connect to. And it’s almost always one person. But here’s the thing - you are never the hero of the story. The story’s hero is the people or the person you serve.

So, if you’re a non-profit try not to tell stories where you’re the hero, tell stories where the people that you’re out there helping are the heroes. If you’re a school, you are not the hero, your students and their parents are the heroes. If you’re a membership association, you’re not the hero, the hero are your members and the people in your industry. Etc. Etc. Etc.

This seems kind of obvious once you put it on the screen like this, but you would be maybe surprised that when you go out and read stories from other organizations, how often they cast themselves as the hero. And that’s not really particularly compelling. First of all it can strike some people as a little braggy and off-putting; but more than that, it’s difficult for us, as readers or listeners to your story, to relate to an organization, but we can relate to a person. Ok?

What does your hero want?

So here are the questions - I think we talked a little bit about this at the beginning, but here are the questions you want to answer about your hero. You need to say what they want, right off the bat, what are they after? What do they need or what do they want?

What is opposing your hero from getting it?

What’s opposing them from getting it? Again, it could be a villain, it could be a policy, it could be systemic discrimination, it could be money, or what have you.

What will their life look like if they get it?

And what will life look like if they get it? And, side note, what will life look like if they don’t get it? Sometimes that’s even more compelling.

If you can answer these three questions in the course of your story, then you’ve done 80% of the work. Right? Now it’s just a matter of filling in details. So, what do they want? What’s standing in their way? And what will be better if they get it, or what would be worse if they don’t get it?

This is a man by the name of Joseph Campbell, he was a really famous mythologist in the 20th century, and if you haven’t read any of his stuff or watched any of his videos on YouTube, I highly recommend it. He’s fascinating. What he did, is in his early 20s, he went off and lived in the woods for like 4-5 years. And all he did was read, read, read, read, read. And he mostly read mythology. And he read mythology, not just what we tend to think of mythology - which is you know Greek or Roman mythology, he read mythology from across the globe. Every major and minor culture. And after consuming all of these myths over thousands of years, from all these people and all of these places of the earth, he was able to notice that all of these stories tended to have the same steps. The same beats or phases. And he turned it into what he called the Hero’s Journey. Which is sometimes called the monomyth. Now, listen, I’m not about to try and get into this diagram here, this is way too complicated in the time we have, and frankly I don’t know enough. But, the hero’s myth, in short, is like Joseph Campbell said, “listen if you’re going to tell a story, the most compelling ones follow this path.”

A Guide

It starts at the top and it moves counterclockwise around the circle. And there’s a section about a third of the way through the story where the hero encounters helpers. You can see it’s that third little bullet down there, it says “helpers arrive as needed.” That’s where you come in, because often at this point of the presentation people are going, “well yeah if our clients are the heroes then who the heck are we? How does our organization come into the story?” That’s where. You’re the helper.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean. Star Wars right? Star Wars, some say, and I think George Lucas confirmed this, was written to adhere to those steps of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the monomyth. So, we have our hero, Luke Skywalker, he’s the hero, but who is his helper? Who is his guide? Well it’s Obi Wan Kenobi. Now, maybe a little bit of Yoda, I guess it’s baby Yoda now. But we got hero, and guide. In Harry Potter, we got hero - who’s Harry of course, Harry the hero. And we have Dumbledore his guide. And my favorite movie of all time and forgive me if this is a little obscure - Stand by Me. The hero is a kid by the name of Gordie LaChance, whew I almost forgot that, Gordie LaChance. And his helper, his guide through the story, is his best friend - Chris Chambers. So, the helper doesn’t necessarily need to be an old wise man with a white beard. It could be anyone, or in your case anything. Such as an organization.

You’re the guide who’s going to help nudge this hero in the right direction, connect them to their future.


Now, I’m going to give you the Hero’s Journey for Dummies. This might be the most important slide in the whole presentation. It’s something we also call, The Story Spine. It’s the spine of a story, and it goes like this:

  • Once upon a time there was…
  • and every day…

Those are the first two steps. So many stories start, need to start this way, and they start like you know, everything was kind of going along, not necessarily good, not necessarily great, but it was going along. There was a kid, and every day this kid did blank. He went to school or he played with his little sister, or every day this kid when to the basketball court - whatever. So we got to establish that plot form. We need to get people into the story so they know how things begin.

  • Until one day…

And this is where things change. So we have, Luke Skywalker just living the life of a simple farm boy on his planet, until one day his Aunt and Uncle are killed and he has to join the rebellion. So, until one day, that’s key that’s when something changes that sets our hero off on a new path. Now, the next three steps are just -

  • And because of that…
  • And because of that…
  • And because of that…

Right? Until one day something happened, and because that happened, this happened. And because this happened, that happened, because that happened, this happened. Now, you don’t only have to have three, you could have 20, you could have somewhere in between, I don’t know you could have a hundred I guess if you wanted. But I’m just trying to illustrate that this is sort of the meat of the story. This is where we see the hero going from step to step. You know? Until one day, she lost her apartment, and because of that she didn’t have anywhere to live, and because of that she asked her sister if she could move in with her, and because of that her sister had to take an extra job. I’m just making this up as I go, but you can see how the “because of that” really builds out a lot of the plot of a story.

  • Until finally…

And this is where you come in. The hero’s going along trying to solve this challenge or problem they have and then here you come - the non-profit, the government agency, the association, the company, the higher education institution, and sort of help them - right you’re not the hero right? But you’re giving them the tools, or the connections, or the resources, or the opportunities, to help themselves.

  • And ever since that day…

That’s how it ends. And ever since that day, you know this is kind of our version of happily ever after. This Story Spine, if you literally fill it in, will tell the stories for you. And it will help you give a really organized story that tends to jibe with how people like to consume their stories.


Now, we do need to talk a little bit about readability. Ok? Because most of the stories you’re going to tell are going to be written down. In some form or another, now video storytelling is great, visual storytelling of different forms is wonderful if you can do it please do, but a lot of your stories, at least in the beginning are going to be written. So, they need to be readable.

Let me ask you this, the average American adult reads at what grade level? Any guesses? The answer is 8th grade. The average American adult reads at the 8th grade level which translates to about 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an 8th grade level. They can’t comprehend it. Now, that might be startling to you, but it also should be informative, meaning you need to write at below an 8th grade level. By the way, if you’re wondering what 8th grade readability looks like, you know the John Grisham books, or The Great Gatsby, a lot of the Harry Potter books are at about an 8th grade level. So you want to write below that, because as you write further and further above that, fewer and fewer people are going to comprehend what you have to say.

Now, I have a whole other presentation about readability, I don’t want to jump into it too deep, except to say a couple things. One is, you can check the readability score of something you write online for free. Just Google, readability, or reading level score, and there’s a number of free tools out there. One we use at Mighty Citizen is called Readable. It’s a tool called Readable. And if you’re above 8th-grade level, lower it.

Now how do you lower it? Well, there’s a few simple ways to get the story, written stories, you produce to be more readable. And again, I want to emphasize, if they aren’t readable, comprehensible, it doesn’t matter how good they are. First and foremost, people have to be able to consume what you have to say, so -

  • shorten your sentences
  • shorten the length of your words
  • add more paragraph breaks
  • add more textual interests or visual interests - meaning
    • pull quotes
    • and images
    • and lists (like bulleted lists) in the middle of your story.

These are just things that you can do and the first two really are the most important. Because often if you have really long sentences, you can easily turn them into two or three smaller sentences and that’s a lot more readable. And then second of course, if you’re using a bunch of really long words, see if there’s a simpler word. You should always probably choose the simpler word.


Ok, David Ogilvy, David Ogilvey if you don’t know was an advertising giant. He in part invented the notion of modern advertising in the 50s and 60s. Fascinating story, I won’t go too into the details, but you know he built a global advertising empire, but he started in copywriting. He was telling stories in advertising in the late 40s and in the 50s in a way that not a lot of people were. And it’s kind of what made him so innovative.

There’s a great story about David Ogilvy that I want to share with you, and the story goes - that he’s walking down this street in New York City and it is the first day of Spring. The first day that the sun is out and it’s nice and kind of warm, and so the streets are crowded with people enjoying this first day of really beautiful weather in many, many months. And Ogilvy’s walking down the street, and he notices a man sitting on the sidewalk with a cup and a sign begging for change. And this man is clearly homeless, and this man is also blind, so Ogilvy notices this man sitting there and then he notices that nobody else seems to notice this man. Everyone’s kind of walking around him, even over him in some cases, and the man’s cup is basically empty. No one’s paying him any attention, and Ogilvy has a moment of inspiration and he leans in and he asks the man if he can borrow his cardboard sign and the man says, “sure” and hands the sign to Ogilvy and Ogilvy turns the sign over to the back and Ogilvy pulls out his Mont Blanc pen and he writes a new message on the sign and hands it back to the man. And the story goes that later that day Ogilvy comes back down that same street, he passes that same man who’s homeless and blind and sure enough the man’s cup is filled with dollar bills and with change. People are actually, not only noticing him, they’re stopping and talking to him, offering him help of different sorts. So the question is, what did Ogilvy write on that beautiful spring day in New York City that made such a difference? “It is spring and I am blind.”

It’s pretty powerful if you ask me. Now there’s a lot of reasons that I think this is powerful, one is - it’s simple, simplicity almost always beats complexity. It is almost poetic, it’s lyrical, it’s got a rhythm, it’s almost like a haiku right? There’s a lot of symmetry in there, three words and three words separated by that “and” in the middle. But what’s really powerful about this is that in just a few words, in an instant, Ogilvy created a moment of real human connection, real human sympathy and compassion. Here I am enjoying this beautiful, sunny day and I’m reminded when I’m kind of caught up in my own selfishness, I’m reminded that - well, I’m really fortunate to be able to enjoy this day in the way that I am. And there are other people who frankly, aren’t as fortunate you know? And I need to think about that sometimes, and I need to help them when I can. That’s really powerful.

Now, we can argue about whether this message itself is a story, but I think it illustrates that emotion has to be part of what we do. We have to acknowledge that we are emotional creatures. I am, you are, we’re all driven by emotion. Emotion is the primary motivator for our behaviors, we want to see being happy or content. And we want to avoid being afraid, or angry, or sad. And we have to acknowledge as marketers, professional communicators, this truth about human nature. The emotional nature of our species. Now, I understand when you talk about emotion and marketing, some people get a little tense and cringe a little bit. They feel like, “well I don’t really want to play on emotions, I feel like that’s manipulative or craven.” But here’s what I would argue in response.

If we’re emotional creatures - and we are, and if we as an organization are not lying or stretching the truth - if we’re telling the truth, then it would be a really huge missed opportunity to not acknowledge emotion. Right? You don’t have to lie, you shouldn’t lie, you shouldn’t even really stretch the truth, you should always aim first to tell the truth in your marketing communications. But once you’ve established that you’re doing that, then you need to use emotion if you want to persuade people to do something, because there is an emotional component to everything we do.

By the way the four primary human emotions:

  • Glad
  • Sad
  • Mad
  • And Afraid

I once had someone after a presentation send me a message saying I had a typo on this slide, and I had to politely say, “well actually it’s meant to be afraid, it’s how we - I kind of memorize these so they rhyme.” But these really are the four basic human emotions. There are other emotions of course, but most of those other emotions are shades of these emotions, or they’re kind of combinations or mixes of these emotions.

Now what do you guess out of all of these emotions the most powerful motivators are? Well, it’s fear. Fear is the biggest motivator, followed a little bit afterward by mad. But fear really is, takes the top spot. If people are afraid of something, they tend to act. And again, I’m not encouraging you to be manipulative, in fact I’m encouraging you to do just the opposite. If there is something you think people should actually be afraid of, then you should at least acknowledge that that is a reality. You don’t want to create fear where there isn’t any, but you do want to acknowledge it when it’s a real thing.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. This is the Truth campaign. The Truth campaign is an anti-teen-smoking campaign it’s been running for a couple decades now. And there whole ethos is, “we’re going to be very emotional in our advertisements.” So here’s one that plays on a little bit of anger, and sadness, and a little bit of fear too. You know, I don’t want to die from smoking. One of their most famous ads was a commercial where they pull up in front of the headquarters of the Phillip Morris cigarette makers and open a van door and pull out all these fake body bags and say you know, “this is the number of people that your products have killed just today.” Again, very provocative, very in your face, but also really playing on fear, and anger, and sadness to get people to act. Or in this case to not act, to not start smoking. So that’s the Truth campaign and they’re pretty effective.

Now at the same time that the Truth campaign came out, another anti-teen-smoking campaign launched - it was called Think, Don’t Smoke. Now these ads were a lot more traditional, they involved kids walking around school, one of them is smoking and another kid comes up and says, “hey that’s not cool, smoking you know makes your breath smell bad, and it ruins your teeth, it can give you disease…” A lot more traditional, a lot more what we think of when we think of a public service announcement. Oh, by the way, Think, Don’t Smoke, was run by a company called - Phillip Morris. Phillip Morris the largest cigarette maker in the country, was actually forced to run an anti-teen-smoking ads when they lost some lawsuits in the 90s.

So here we have a lovely comparison of the power of emotion versus logic. We have the Truth campaign - emotional. And we have the Think, Don’t Smoke campaign - logical. A study showed that the Truth Initiative and the Think, Don’t Smoke campaign were a little bit different. They found that teens who’d only been exposed to the Truth campaign advertisement were 66% less likely to start smoking - that’s huge, that’s a big win. 66% less likely if they saw those commercials? Now the teens who were exposed to only the Think, Don’t Smoke campaign were 36% more likely. Now, can we draw a direct causation - who knows. Did Phillip Morris know that these commercials had the opposite effect than what they were intended to be? I’ll leave that to y’all, but we do know that an emotional campaign succeeded in its mission, while a logical one didn’t. So just another demonstration of the power of emotion. I would encourage you to think about how you can acknowledge it in your storytelling.

Storytelling Resources

Alright, we’ve reached the end. I do want to share with you some really great books that can help flesh out a lot of these ideas in far better detail than I can. You can see them there. The one that sort of stands out is the second one the - Adventures in the Screen Trade by a man named William Goldman. It’s really a book about storytelling, and probably the best one I’ve ever read, but all of these books here are fantastic. And of course there’s many others, but these are some of the ones that informed our thinking here at Mighty Citizen.


So again, in summary, you know stories are the most persuasive technique we have for communicating with our users. And we need to be on the lookout for stories constantly, you know? Look for the David versus Goliath, look for odd couple pairings, look for MacGyvers out there. Ask those questions of our staff that surface the stories. And once we’ve surfaced and touched on a story, let’s make sure that we identify the hero, let’s make sure that we come in as the guide, let’s give them real structure, and readability, and let’s infuse them with some emotion. And if we can do those things, then we’ll be far more successful - I promise.

So, unfortunately I can’t take questions because this is a recording, but I do want to thank you all for taking the time to listen to this, I’m sorry we went a little longer than anticipated. If you go to mightycitizen.com/storytelling you can get the slides and download those if you’d like. Or you can just go to mightycitizen.com/tools, and download all sorts of free stuff. Different templates, and webinars, and white papers, all sorts of cool stuff that we’ve put together totally free. And I want to thank you for your time, and wish you the best out there telling your stories. Bye-bye.