Story Wars: Interview with Jonah Sachs, Part 1
Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell – and Live – the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Below is the transcript from the first part of that interview. You can also listen to the whole interview now- it’s a little over 20 minutes long. We will publish part 2 of this interview transcript tomorrow.
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Kivi Leroux Miller: Hi, this is Kivi Leroux Miller with NonprofitMarketingGuide.com and today I am talking to Jonah Sachs who is the author of Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell — and Live — the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Jonah is also the co-founder and creative director of Free Range Studios. Hey Jonah.
Jonah Sachs: Hey, how are you?
Kivi Leroux Miller: Good. Thanks for talking with us today about how nonprofits can do better story telling. Tell me why it’s so important that nonprofits get this right.
Jonah Sachs: Well, there’s a huge opportunity that has come up now for nonprofits I think over the last 10 to 15 years, and it is actually something I have been exploring since I started my studio. And that is that the means of distribution of media have obviously fallen into the hands of everybody. We’re no longer in that situation where to be heard by the entire world, and by every audience member we possibly want to reach, we need to buy into the whole broadcast model and pay to get our message out there.
As nonprofits, obviously there were so many barriers to being able to do that, and along comes all these new marketing tools that the Internet provides us, that social media provides us. I actually believe that nonprofits — cause-based communications — actually will have a leg up. I think people are more likely to want to open up their social networks to messages that they passionately care about on a values basis than to share advertisements. So there is this opportunity now to be heard by the world, there is actually an advantage over those who historically had all the power and money, because we have these causes that people are really passionate about.
And now there’s a question about how to get heard, because there’s a downside, which is there is a huge amount of noise and clamor and, for all the opportunity to get heard, most of us can’t get heard at all.
I think it starts with a simple insight, getting heard really starts with a simple insight. For all of human history we existed in oral tradition, everyone owned ideas, everyone passed ideas, they moved to social networks, if an idea was not interesting it would just die. And then for a little while, all these broadcast tools came to take over and suddenly audiences became consumers of ideas. They sat back; it is no longer survival of the fittest anymore, now it is survival of the richest. You pass ideas one to millions, and people don’t have a choice, they don’t have to pass it along, there is no need for social networks, they just have to consume your ideas if you have the money to get it to them.
Now we’re returning to a time just like the old oral tradition, everybody owns ideas, everyone passes them, they move through social networks. We need to ask ourselves, what really captures people’s attention in the oral tradition, what really works? And there is only one answer for that, it’s always been stories. So right now, if you want to get your audiences to get excited, to pass your message along and do it for free and to become evangelists for your idea, you can’t be working in the realm of facts and figures and speaking only to the head. You have to learn how to tell a great story that people want to be a part of.
Kivi Leroux Miller: As part of that you talk about the “myth gap.” And I think for a lot of nonprofits, they see the idea of a myth as something that is a bad thing, that they’re fighting against whether it’s myths about the kind of people that their organizations help or serve, or myths about their cause. Tell us how a myth is actually a good thing and how nonprofits should be working towards creating myths.
Jonah Sachs: Sure. Myths have always been the kind of glue and DNA in some ways of a society. Myths are these great stories that all societies have shared and then have told them what’s important, what’s not so important, who are you, how can you be a part of this story? And it gives people a shared sense of us and a shared sense of purpose. Every society that we know of has been based on these kind of core myths. But I say we live in a myth gap now, because the old universal stories that we once all shared through religion, through the history of our nations perhaps, don’t any longer hold universal resonance. We want to sort to literally believe our stories to be true or else they’re not valuable anymore.
We live in a society that is changing so rapidly that the old explanations don’t make sense anymore. Since about the 1920,s thinkers have been wringing their hands, you know starting with Carl Jung, kind of wringing their hands and really worrying what a society without core meaning stories, where are they going to go and what is its purpose going to be? And in some ways, we have lost a lot of purpose because we don’t have shared myths.
So myths is a special kind of really important stories that people build their lives around, and they combine four things. One is explanation, here’s how the world works so maybe in the myth of Genesis, the explanation is “God created the world in seven days.” And then meaning, here is what that means for me as an individual. So in Genesis the meaning is “this is God’s world and God’s universe so we should live in obedience to him.” Story, they don’t take place in the literal here and now, they’re kind of long ago and far away. Of course Genesis takes place in the Garden of Eden. It doesn’t inhabit the same patch of earth that we inhabit right now — it is symbolic thinking. And then ritual, here’s a way to actually act that story out in your own life to make it real. So obviously from Genesis we get hundreds of ways we should live.
As these stories started to fray, we weren’t able to find them in the other places we might look. Science doesn’t give us stories and it doesn’t give us meaning. It gives us explanation, but no ritual either, so we don’t find it there. We don’t find it necessarily in entertainment, which is only giving us stories. But there is one place since about the 1950s we have been getting our myths in a very subtle way and that’s from marketers. Marketers have found ways, especially corporate marketers have found ways, to give us stories that explain the new way of living in the world that give us meaning. We all know we build an identity around brands and products that we consume and align ourselves with.
Story, we watch ads on TV, we know they’re not real, but we still act upon them. And then ritual of course in the act of consuming things and buying things and aligning ourselves with products and services, we can live these stories out and become part of them.
Marketers have long ago sort of figured out how to create new myths around products and that has in so many ways driven our society. I think that is why we went from being this thrift based society in World War II to now being this enormous consumer society that’s creating all these problems in our world.
We’ve seen how people changing those core stories and seizing on them, finding places where the old explanations are not working, and then writing new stories to kind of fill in those gaps have had enormous power. I think marketers who do that are really sort of taking over, and I see it as a huge opportunity for nonprofit marketers to do that in a more authentic way than we’ve seen in the past.
Kivi Leroux Miller: So, with corporate marketers who are doing this, they are making the buyer, the consumer, really the hero of the story. For nonprofits we have a couple of different people who are potentially that hero, it could be the client that the organization is serving if it’s a client-based or social service organization, or for a lot of nonprofits it could be the donor that’s writing the check to support the work. You may also have advocates or volunteers — so how do you recommend nonprofits go about figuring out who the hero is in this mythical journey?
Jonah Sachs: I just want to back you up one step. Actually, most marketers, whether they are for profit or nonprofit are actually not making, as you said, the corporate marketers tend to make the customer or consumer the hero of their story. That is actually relatively rare. For the most part, most of us tell our story and make ourselves the hero of the story.
Kivi Leroux Miller: Right, but that’s what you want them to do, right?
Jonah Sachs: When marketers say this brand is the hero of the story and you the audience are the damsel in distress, and if you can get align with this brand you will be saved, that is the most common type of marketing there really is. In some ways a lot of nonprofits do it as well, they do the same thing. They talk about how great they are, and how much ability they have to change the rules and all they need is your money.
So, you feel guilty, you see a state of disease, why don’t you give us money and we’ll fix it for you? That is typical in marketing that we see in corporate marketing and we see it in nonprofit marketing. And it’s boring honestly to audiences who are now in charge. They don’t want to know so much about the actual brands, they want to know so much more about how they can be part of it and how they can effect change in the world.
The first step is getting away from talking about our own organizations as the hero of the story. Now, the deeper questions about who is the hero, is it the donor, is it the client being served, where does this all fall? We encourage nonprofits to look at their entire brand as an unfolding story. The whole thing is a big story, every communication is part of that unfolding story. And on the level of brand, the brand does have a hero.
Now, each individual story might have its own separate hero, but in the big picture, you want to think of your brand as a story, and you want to think of your primary heroes as those your marketing is going to move to action. So that often can be your donors, your activists. It might be your clients if your marketing is facing them like a public health campaign, then you are going to see your clients as the heroes. But if you’re serving people, but your marketing is going out to get the donor, then they become the hero of your brand more likely.
The idea of the story is that you want to move people to action. You want to make sure that they understand through these stories that more is possible in their lives, and that they can actually be part of something larger. They can live out their larger, higher values. We’ve always listened to stories that help us believe that we can live out our higher values.
Strategically we want to make the hero of our brand story the audiences we’re most trying to reach. And then as we tell our actual stories, we might choose different protagonists for our stories. So it is very possible to heroically show one of our clients who we are serving in a story, but then tell that story in a way that it shows how the donor might actually be the hero who activates the change that this protagonist is undergoing.
Tomorrow, I’ll post the second part of the interview where Jonah and I discuss how to portray your nonprofit as a mentor and as several different archetypes. For more nonprofit storytelling tips, join me October 24th for a free presentation of my popular webinar Three Stories Every Nonprofit Should Be Telling.