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The Missing Link: Storytelling?

   /   Jul 31st, 2013Design, International


Good storytelling sparks innovation. Yet there can be no innovation without experimentation. From Ovid to Shakespeare, writers have used their creative power to engage the audience. Today social entrepreneurs all over the world are realizing that effective storytelling can inspire a happy ending.

At the Skoll World Forum 2013, leaders from Participant Media, the Sundance Institute and UCLA agreed a good story holds the moral dimension to capture heart and minds. Speaking at a workshop on impact videos, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television Dean Teri Schwartz said: “Story Matters.”  But as a responsible entrepreneur, how can you tell if storytelling will make a difference?


Look at the research of neuroeconomics expert and author of The Moral Molecule, Dr Paul Zak, who suggests the right story can release a feel-good chemical, which nudges people towards empathic behavior. The idea appears refreshing, but it has been around for centuries. Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith said humans have an innate capacity for compassion. “The greatest ruffian,” he wrote, “is not altogether without it.”

At last year’s Future of StoryTelling summit in New York, Zak showed a short film called “Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc” – which opened up a fascinating talk about how the human mind responds to effective storytelling.

An animated film about a terminally ill two-year old and his father helped Zak to make an intriguing discovery: this narrative changes behavior by changing brain chemistry. After viewing it, people who experienced the release of two chemicals – cortisol (which focuses attention) and oxytocin (which correlates with a sense of empathy) – were more likely to donate money to charity.

Even a simple story following a classic dramatic arc described by German playwright Gustav Freytag about 150 years ago can be a catalyst for empathic behavior – which can in turn translate into charitable actions. This is based on five aspects: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement.

At the Skoll World Forum, the film was a starting point for a session with Sundance Institute filmmakers Cara Mertes and Wendy Levy, featuring creative strategies for leveraging film effectively. The session referenced Bill Drayton on empathy in social entrepreneurship, and documentaries like Budrus, Revolutionary Optimists and Open Heart, which have successfully developed on-the-ground campaigns.

The Oscar-nominated short documentary Open Heart (2013) follows eight Rwandan children as they set out on a life-or-death journey to seek surgery at a cardiac hospital, the Salam Centre, run by Italian NGO Emergency. It reveals the endeavors of Rwanda’s only public cardiologist Dr Emmanuel Rusingiza and the centre’s head surgeon Dr Gino Strada – who is fighting for the hospital’s financial survival.

Yet how do you tell if storytelling will make a difference, whether making your own short video or collaborating on a documentary film? The workshop suggested focusing on a long-term goal, asking the right questions, doing a horizon scan and writing a Theory of Change. This is a smart way to plan your film, with logical interventions, assumptions and outcomes. While theory does not always translate into reality, it creates a tool to evaluate your success. In summary:

1. Write a Theory of Change – a tool for evaluating your storytelling.

2. Communicate your message using multiple platforms of technology.

3. Integrate your data with empathy in the form of a universal narrative.


At the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, human-rights film-maker Marc Silver won the Cinematography Award: World Cinema Documentary, for his moving story about the tragic consequences of immigration at the US-Mexico frontier: Who is Dayani Cristal? – which stars Mexican actor Gael García Bernal. In the film, an unidentified body in the Arizona desert sparks a real-life drama.

“We launched a website that asked people to send in stories about divisions between rich and poor. One of these was about police finding unidentified skulls in the deserts of Arizona. I thought following the investigation into an unidentified skull was a fascinating and poetic way of exploring the dehumanization of migrants,” says Silver.

“I wanted to tell a story that was local to the USA, but that was at the same time universal in its themes – a story of life and death, of love and commitment, of the drive to better yourself and your family. These are things that all people are capable of empathizing with, despite your views on immigration, borders and economics.”

The success of this documentary film reveals that at the heart of effective storytelling is a capacity for empathy. When this is an integral part of a campaign, it can make a real difference. So if you want to mobilize communities to work towards a common goal, whether seeking funding for a hospital or global action against climate change, a great way to reach people is by telling a good story.

Photo Courtesy of OpenSourceWay

3 Responses

  1. John Capecci says:

    Working with individuals who aim to make a difference with their stories–spoken face-to-face rather than digitally–we also stress the importance of situating stories within larger communities of stories. I.e., it is easy to worry that one story is not truly making a difference but when joined with the power of other stories–and when that connection is made explicit–impact increases. Thanks for this post.

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