Story Strategies for Social Innovation

In the mid-1990s, I learned the most important lesson of my career—one simple fact about story that I’ve since used to engage and empower change agents from corporate CEOs to sex workers. Today, this lesson is more relevant than ever; it’s a sharp truth that helps me cut through all the story hype.

Back then, I was making a documentary about the Outward Bound leadership journey of Aboriginal, at-risk youth, who were exploring the wilds of northern Ontario in search of strength and skills to co-create new futures for their home communities. It was an awesome opportunity—meaningful, creative, exciting work. It should have been the pinnacle of my career. Instead, it nearly finished me.

My executive producer and I were crammed into a tiny edit suite, screening the first cut of the film, when it happened. Just five minutes into the show, he stopped the tape abruptly. “There's no story here,” he said. I was devastated—and confused. I had great characters, emotion, culture, dialogue, scenery, and action—all the stuff folks say you need for a story. So what was the problem?

The problem was that there was no problem in the film. It was just a chronicle of what had happened. The youth drove to the lake, got in the canoes, paddled to camp, and so on. The whole thing was predictable and pointless. I hadn’t told the audience why the youth were there or what problem they were trying to solve. Without that information, viewers wouldn’t be able to make sense of or engage with the film. Bored, they’d change channels, and I’d be out of a job. Luckily, instead of firing me, my producer taught me how to use story structure to generate engagement.

That’s when I learned that a story is nothing more than a problem, a quest by someone to solve the problem, and a solution.

Some examples:

Harry Potter. A young wizard has to kill Lord Voldemort. So he goes on a quest to destroy the secret source of Voldemort’s power (his horcruxes), which weakens him to the point of death.

Lord of the Rings. Frodo the hobbit has to destroy the ring of power. So he journeys through the dangers of Mordor to cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom.

Climate Smart Business. Leaders at Ecotrust Canada want to help small businesses cut greenhouse gases and save money. So they develop software and a training program, which they sell through a new social enterprise.

B.Corporations. Social entrepreneurs and impact investors need a new way to create shared value. So they work with government to create a new kind of legal corporation.

Participle. Change agents in the UK want to empower seniors and reform care. So they engage with community to develop the Circle Movement, a new kind of online service for care.

As you can start to see, each one of these stories has a problem, a “quest,” and a solution. Of course, you can stretch out the telling of the stories, but their essence remains the same.

Why is this important? It’s not just a question of semantics. This problem-based structure enables us to use story as a platform for social innovation in three distinct ways. Specifically, we can:

  • Create stories to engage audiences.
  • Analyze stories through research methods to generate intel.
  • Apply story structure to simplify planning.

Let’s start with generating engagement. I’ll tackle research and planning in future posts.

Like story, engagement is one of those nebulous terms that is bandied about but not well understood. After my crash course in engagement, I went on to make it the focus of my graduate studies. I learned that we can define engagement loosely as “a pleasurable cognitive and emotional state that one wishes to continue.” Engagement matters, because research by academic giants such as Daniel Berlyne, Jerome Bruner, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget shows that we learn, remember and participate better when an activity is engaging. More importantly, engagement occurs only when we find an activity challenging. That’s why a problem-based story structure is an effective way to engage audiences.

When the main character in a story runs into “the problem,” it piques our attention; the problem triggers what researchers call cognitive conflict or epistemic curiosity. It creates a sense of the unknown, challenging us to solve it alongside the main character in the story. When he goes off on a quest to find a solution, we mentally tag along. Every time he does something, we subconsciously compare it to what we would have done. This curiosity—this suspense about how the story will end—is what engages us. If the story doesn’t have a tricky problem—or if we already know the solution to the problem—audiences won’t engage.

So—how can you put this simple story structure to work in your world?

First, forget about myths, archetypes, and villains. The next time you have to tell the story of your work, start by trying to identify what problem you faced. What were you trying to achieve? Next, list the main things you did to solve the problem—this defines your quest. Look for highs and lows, and look for turning points. When you’re ready to tell the story, use the problem to set it up, then describe what you did, using the turning points as your road-map.

You might also start trying to identify problems and quests in stories that you hear. Like any kind of expertise, learning to spot the problem in a story is a form of pattern recognition, an ability that you can improve with practice. It’s also an important skill for all of us to develop, because it drives our narrative intelligence. As we’ll see in the next post, strengthening our innate story sense not only boosts our ability to think critically, but also enables us to define strategic and systemic problems more clearly—both are essential skills for today’s social innovators.