Storytelling power

Social movement (SM) campaigns are often won or lost depending on which side tells the better story. Too often, SMs lose the battle of the story when the opposition uses techniques of advertising and public relations. Rod Bantjes asks “If rhetoric is for sale, what are the prospects of the powerless winning discursive struggles?” (Bantjes, 2007:287) I suggest that theories for analyzing SM repertoire –frame analysis or discourse analysis, or even resource mobilization – are not equipped to appreciate fully what is needed to win the battle of the story. In our hegemonic society, many activists tend to rely on objective truth and logic to present their case, perhaps neglecting what we now know about narrative (story) as a persuasive force (Bantjes, 2007). Occasionally, activists tell their story with great creativity. While this approach sometimes gets results, my impression is that, more often than not, success comes more from intuition and innate skill rather than from strategic planning and craftsmanship.

The problem with frame analysis is that it does not have the tools to help us understand how storytelling works (Polletta, 2006). Discourse analysis fares no better, because while it is useful to understand rhetoric (Polletta, 2008), it is much too focused on the logic of language and meaning, and neglects the reality that narrative complies with ancient, universal rules of its own (Gottschall, 2012; Campbell, 1949). And resource mobilization stresses rationality (Scott and Marshall, 2005), while both literature studies and science suggest we look beyond the rational and dig deep into the affective nature of storytelling if we want to appreciate its power.

The Center for Story-based Strategy (CSS) is one SM organization using storytelling as a strategy with a great deal of success. And American sociologist Francesca Polletta’s recent work relies on literary and dramatic concepts to analyze storytelling. These recent developments could lead to an evolution in SM repertoire. Perhaps storytelling is coming out of the ‘story of the battle’ closet and into the ‘battle of the story’ arena.

Many SM scholars recognize the central role of stories in SM campaigns. Bantjes, for example, writes that “discourse analysis is compelling when it uncovers ways in which those claiming to speak rationally and objectively are in fact relying on rhetoric and drama” (Bantjes, 2007:286). And Della Porta and Diani use story analysis to discuss collective action and identity: “These stories are about identity: in particular, about the relationship between identity and collective action” (Della Porta and Diani, 2006:91). When SM participants are hurt by culturally imposed negative definitions of identity, better stories can counter-frame a positive identity. For Della Porta and Diani, like Bantjes, storytelling certainly does play a pivotal role in SM. However, they do not venture to assess storytelling as an intentional repertoire strategy.

For the CSS, “the dominant culture represents powerful social interests and perpetuates the stories that validate their political agendas” (Canning, Doyle and Reinsborough, Patrick, 2009:6). We give meaning to life through stories, and so all power relations have their foundation in story. The work of the CSS is very much informed by the concept of hegemony, developed by Gramsci. The dominant hegemonic culture relies on stories to reinforce the status quo; stories with messages like “you can’t fight City Hall”. What the CSS does is help SM deconstruct the story of the dominant culture and then reframe and reconstruct a new story that exposes bias and faulty assumptions. They call their approach Story-based Strategy (SBS). SBS involves using the techniques of narrative to structure information in a way that changes hearts and minds. Control over how a story is framed, is key to success. This is what the CSS calls the battle of the story. SBS reframes the story to wrest power away from the dominant authority.

In 2007, the CSS was invited to help prevent Nestlé’s construction of America’s largest water bottling plant near McCloud, California. Nestlé had targeted the town because of its history with “Mother McCloud”, a timber company that had operated a mill in the town until it closed 25 years earlier. Nestlé had spread the narrative of the ‘good old days’, with “Father Nestlé” riding in like the cavalry to save the town from economic ruin. Nestlé framed the issue around a story with the hegemonic ‘it’s either jobs or the environment’ message. Activists knew they had to reach out for wider support from local ranchers, and they were aware of the science showing Nestlé’s proposed bottling plant would dry up the ranchers’ water supply. But rather than argue logic and science, the CSS helped develop a brand-busting campaign to reframe the story. At the time, local ranchers had been battling an invasive plant species, called a spurge, that was sucking up their water supply. Activists distributed a poster with the title “Invasive Plant Alert” and an image that blended the Nestlé chocolate drink symbol of a striped straw, with that of a spurge. With this message and story in their minds, ranchers now saw the proposed bottling plant for what it was. Soon, Nestlé was forced to change its plans.

For Della Porta and Diani, frame analysis is a useful tool for analyzing mobilization. They discuss frame alignment, frame extension, and frame bridging (Della Porta and Diani 2006). In one example, they suggest an organization seen as concerned only with financial globalization (the ‘single-issue’ trap) could use frame extension to reframe that perception. It could, for example, connect financial globalization with its harmful side effects and point out how the process is inherently undemocratic. Della Porta and Diani also discuss discourse as repertoire. For example, they suggest that the “emphasis on the political often obscures the role of discursive opportunities, such as the capacity of movements’ themes to resonate with cultural values” (Della Porta and Diani, 2006:219). Because SM so often count on the media to spread their message, control of the media is essential for mobilization. Della Porta and Diani acknowledge, though, that in SM research, little attention has been paid to “subjective perceptions of reality”. Like Bantjes, then, Della Porta and Diani acknowledge the value of framing and discursive strategies. Nonetheless, both texts seem to have neglected to hone in on storytelling as SM repertoire, something that seems typical of most SM scholars.

Francesca Polletta has studied narrative for its rhetorical effects and discovered how these rhetorical effects work (Polletta, 2006). Polletta mentions examples of activists using personal stories: In women’s consciousness-raising groups, in coming-out stories, in stories of abuse survivors (Polletta, 2008). According to Polletta, though, many activists find it difficult for their stories to be accepted outside SM, because most people have a hard time seeing people struggling for power as powerless victims. Writing about battered women, Polletta says women can be both victims and agents. They can be both dependent and autonomous. But most of us are reluctant to read or view a story that differs from the cultural norm. Polletta argues there are elements of narrative – such as its elusiveness, for example – that engage the audience’s attention and help audiences accept stories different from the norm. She demonstrates this by analyzing a documentary film made in Maryland in 1989 as part of a campaign to allow expert testimony at battered women’s murder trials. In the film, four women imprisoned for killing their abusive husbands tell their stories. Using narrative and filmic techniques, the film presents the women as complex characters – both victims and agents. It achieves this with literary devices most social scientists are not familiar with. Some of these are, for example: shifting point of view, irony, and antithesis. Each of these elements of narrative craft, says Polletta, develops ambiguity. In one scene, for example, a woman says, “but right in midstream, as he was beating me and as I was sliding down my refrigerator, something inside me was like: I want to live” (Polletta, 2008:24). Each of the four women describes that very instant when she made up her mind to save her own life. And it is at this instant when the viewer’s attitude changes from skepticism to empathy. The stories told in the film differ from the cultural norm. These complex women had been both victim and agent, but their main motivation was to survive. With this film, the SM succeeded after years of unsuccessful activism. Polletta emphasizes the women did not put any kind of PR spin on their stories. They simply spoke from the heart. And in speaking from the heart, their stories were presented in a more ‘literary’ style. For Polletta, literary analysis has a lot to teach us about storytelling for social change. Frame analysis, on the other hand, does not help us discover why some stories work while others do not.

Two other approaches to analyzing story are narrativity, the study of fictional narrative, and the transportation model from the field of communications. Kinnebrock and Bilandzic (2006) have integrated these two approaches into one model. With transportation, the reader or viewer’s enjoyment consumes her attention. While engaged so intensely with the story, she is not processing the content with a critical attitude. This combination of intense reception with uncritical processing is what gives the story its persuasive influence. Integrating narrativity, Kinnebrock and Bilandzic ask the question, “What makes a story engaging”? They propose that narratives are characterized by varying degrees of narrativity. In other words, some stories are better than others at influencing people. Several ‘narrativity’ factors make for an engaging story. A few of these are: dramatic conflict, more than one storyline, characters who develop and change, and a complex story-world. Everyone knows a story must have a beginning, middle, and an end. But just rearranging the sequence of events can evoke different reactions. Most of all, a structure that creates suspense is particularly effective to transport the audience into the story-world. How then do we integrate the transportation model with narrativity? Kinnebrock and Bilandzic claim that different levels of transportation correspond to different degrees of narrativity. Stories with well-crafted narrativity elicit intense and uncritical processing. For SM, the key here is that narrativity choices are well within the control of the storyteller.

To what extent, then, are well-crafted true stories capable of changing behaviour and attitudes? Looking at the world of news media, Kinnebrock and Bilandzic point to studies that show how engaging news stories employ narrativity factors to engage viewers. Dramatic conflict in a news story, for example, makes a news story more engaging. Whether a story is truth or fiction has little impact on the transportation effect. Thus a well-crafted true story has the power to change attitudes and influence behaviour.

Recent research reinforces this thinking. Science writer David DiSalvo (2011), says studies show that “when viewers identify with a particular character in a television drama, they later report more emotional involvement with the narrative and it results in a greater influence on their attitudes and behavior” (DiSalvo 2011:157). In one such study, viewers watched two shows about organ donation. The first presented organ donation in a negative light and the other treated it positively. Viewers who had not been organ donors changed their mind after watching the show with organ donation depicted positively. And, surprisingly, viewers learned new information, but some of what they ‘learned’ was false. As it turned out, this did not make any difference – the information was seen as accurate if the viewer felt engaged (transported) with the story and its characters. DiSalvo concludes that this experiment really says two things. The first is that emotional engagement with a story affects the way people think and act. And the second, of special note for SM, is that this kind of engagement with a story can work to challenge the status quo, but also to support it. The implication is that strategic crafting of story is all-important.

According to Jonathan Gottschal, stories are almost always about people with problems. An engaging story is about the main character overcoming obstacles to get what she wants, at some cost or sacrifice. “Good story writers rely on a pattern of complication, crisis, and resolution” (Gottschall, 2012:54). All good stories share universal features, with a recognizable pattern and a limited number of themes. One of these themes is “power: the desire to wield influence and to escape subjugation” (Gottschall, 2012:55). Gottschall suggests the reason why stories follow a pattern and have a limited number of themes is because “the human mind was shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story” (Gottschall, 2012:56). What science has now discovered is that when we watch a movie or read a story, we respond like a mirror. An engaging story makes us feel what the character is going through, as was the case with the imprisoned battered women in the documentary Polletta analyzed.

Another study Gottschall describes disproves the notion that people always store factual information separately from fiction. Whether it is knowledge or emotions, we often mix what we absorb as fact with what comes to us as fiction. While studies suggest that fiction is much more effective than nonfiction at changing attitudes and beliefs, I am not suggesting SM should stretch the truth to suit their aims. What I am suggesting, though, is that SBS apply techniques of fiction (as does the CSS) to skillfully and strategically craft nonfiction stories. In the realm of creative nonfiction, this is rudimentary. Creative nonfiction is the application of techniques from fiction to craft engaging true stories.

This, then, is a call to SM to embrace SBS as campaign repertoire, and develop it further to maximize its potential power for social change. Perhaps more work needs to be done to create a comprehensive theoretical model, then a workable framework, and perhaps even a practical guidebook. The CSS has pioneered this effort and made an impressive start. We can also learn much from Polletta’s insights into how, when, and why stories succeed or fail. And, as Polletta shows, we can only learn more if we integrate input from other disciplines.

We are, after all, the storytelling animal. Can we change the world without changing the story?


Bantjes, Rod. 2007. Social Movements in a Global Context: Canadian Perspectives. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press

Campbell, Joseph. 1949. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon Books

Canning, Doyle and Reinsborough, Patrick. Re:Imagining Change: An Introduction to Story-Based Strategy. n.p. SmartMeme, 2009

Della Porta, Donatella and Diani, Mario. 2006. Social Movements: An Introduction, Chapter 4. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Della Porta, Donatella and Diani, Mario. 2006. Social Movements: An Introduction. Chapter 8. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

DiSalvo, David. What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011.

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Kinnebrock, Susanne and Bilandzic, Helena. “How to Make a Story Work: Introducing the Concept of Narrativity into Narrative Persuasion.” International Communication Association Conference, 2006. Retrieved 29 July 2013 volltexte/2011/ 3638/pdf/3638.pdf >

Polletta, Francesca. It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Polletta, Francesca. “Storytelling in Social Movements.” 2008. Retrieved 31 July 2013 /Articles/storytelling%20in%20Johnston%20volume-2.pdf

Scott, John and Marshall, Gordon eds. A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005