Let's Engage the Power of Storytelling

Image by Barbara Davidson for the Los Angeles Times piece "From a bicycle seat she can really see Los Angeles" by Denise Florez.

Image by Barbara Davidson for the Los Angeles Times piece "From a bicycle seat she can really see Los Angeles" by Denise Florez.

Across time and culture, stories have been agents for transformation – in part because they change our brains - Elizabeth Svoboda, Aeon Magazine

One of the most important things I feel we can do as active living advocates is to recognize that we humans make up our minds with our hearts and then find the information and data to support our point of view. As advocates we are called to change hearts and minds, and to do this we need the power of great storytelling. How else will we get through the steely self righteousness of our speed culture, driver privilege and road rage?

One of the things I've discovered in seven years of being an active living advocate is that it's very easy to slide into being boring on what we're passionate about, and to lose new audiences quickly. The data can look so compelling. It's easy to get up on an imaginary soap box every opportunity we get and share what we think are really hard hitting statistics about the higher ratio of people who are killed in traffic collisions when walking or biking than driving, or the high cost of sedentary diseases. It's easy to wonk out. Just ask my family about my rantings on the evils of High Fructose Corn Syrup.

The challenge? This is exactly what makes most people's eyes glass over - even if they're in our own choir. It certainly loses the attention quickly of the media. We usually have about 30 seconds in a phone pitch, or frankly in person, to spark their interest in covering story. Why? First because the media has a short attention span and second because most human brains just can't get too excited about facts and data all on their own.

What can we get into? Emotionally engaging stories that personalize the data and make it human. Yes, for certain stories we do need data to prove our case and prove that we've done our homework, but first we've got to hook our audience through the power of storytelling.

As Rachel Gillett shares in her very insightful piece in Fast Co. last year about why we crave storytelling in marketing, the human brain is literally wired for storytelling. If we want to be truly effective in our active living advocacy our call to arms is nothing less than to become great storytellers. Whether we're invited to speak at a conference of our peers, or polishing up our elevator pitch for new supporters, or pitching a story to the media, we need to entice people with our mission, not lecture them with stats.

And in each case we need to personalize our story so that it reflects each different audience we're trying to appeal to.

In Gillet's Fast Co. article she shares a beautiful info-graphic by One Spot on "The Science of Storytelling." This info-graphic shares in an easy to understand way a series of the reasons why our brains are wired for storytelling. Here are few of the facts I found really compelling:

  1. Neural Coupling - stories are powerful to us because we're able to personalize them. When we hear a story we're literally able to project ourselves into it. We can all imagine feeling the force within.
  2. Mirroring - when a group of people listen to someone tell a story they experience similar brain activity, and that brain activity mirrors what the speaker is experiencing themselves.
  3. Content is best understood when delivered in a linear fashion expressing a clear narrative.

So Just What is a Story?

The difference between sharing a report full of meaty data and statistics and telling a story is something called The Narrative Arc - or in the very simplest terms a good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. The hero's journey, for example, is an ancient and well known type of story and one that many of us can relate to. From Moses to Luke Skywalker to Katniss Everdeen we've been captivated by the narrative arc of the hero (often reluctantly, and having no real idea what they're getting into) traveling far from their home to save their tribe, their community, or even their whole galaxy from evil.

The image I've posted at the top of this blog post is from a very recent article in the Los Angeles Times by a young journalist named Denise Florez called "From a bicycle seat, she can really see Los Angeles." The article beautifully illustrates the difference between simply reporting on an event (in this case an Ovarian Psychos Luna Ride) and sharing a personally engaging story that includes the event. Here's how Flores hooks us in the very beginning:

When biking started taking off in and around Los Angeles, I wanted to be part of it, but I was intimidated by the cars that are very much unwilling to share the road.

There are thousands of young women in L.A. who feel exactly as this young woman did, her story is a far more compelling invitation than simply inviting her to go for a group bike ride.

This summer the personally engaging story helped me to place a feature rather than just getting an event listing on our creative team member Kellie Morris and her husband Dave. I was pitching to the editor of one of our most popular local Long Beach papers when she cut me off and said,

"Oh yeah Melissa of course we'll put those bike education classes in our events listings."

"Great, I replied, thank you - but that's not the story. The story is that the instructors are a happily married couple who've revitalized their health through biking and better eating. They share a car and have both recently gone off their high blood pressure medication."

"Oh. Wow." Said the editor. "I know just who needs to cover this."

In Elizabeth Svoboda's piece on Aeon.co on The Power of Story she shares that, "Across time and across cultures, stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides, but as agents of personal transformation." Svoboda shares many examples of this core premise, but one that I found really useful for us as active living advocates was about the organization Facing History and Ourselves. This non profit helps students learn about racism, antisemitism, and prejudice so they can prevent it from happening in the future. Svoboda quotes one of their executives Marty Sleeper, "We teach specific pieces in history that have a connection to the present. We’re looking for ways in which kids see that history is connected to their own lives.’

There should be no "Car vs. Bike" tagline in the media. We're all human. Every life matters. But reports with strong data won't to get drivers to understand this. Great emotionally engaging storytelling that humanizes we're calling for better biking, walking and public transit conditions in ways that matter to the drivers is a powerful step.

You have at least one personally engaging story, one hero's journey, of why you're doing the work you're doing. Your co-workers and colleagues do as well. Let's move beyond reporting on data and infrastructure when we share about our work. Let's tap into the power of storytelling to engage hearts and minds.

So what's your story? I'm looking forward to learning it!

About Melissa

Melissa is the Media Director for the California Bicycle Coalition and Director of PedalLove.org. She is a writer, media relations specialist and active living advocate. Her mission is to share the power of artistry and personally engaging storytelling to inspire. Her passion is to recruit fresh voices from diverse multi-generational perspectives to share their stories in traditional and new media platforms to engage new audiences in active living. Melissa has placed the Pedal Love initiative, its creative team, events and CalBike in local, regional, statewide and national news outlets such as the Associated Press, Bicycling Magazine, KABC News, KPCC's Airtalk, Los Angeles Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Momentum Magazine, the Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle and more.