Principles, Layers

It is very important, as always, to introduce the work of the Beehive Collective.  With the KlimaKollektiv, we spent lots of extra time talking about the details of the story-collecting process, because they are intending to collect many stories themselves.  I am no expert on this stuff, but I shared a little of what I have learned – I have already included that in this other article.

I also facilitated the group story-telling workshop that I normally do in public schools – clip apart different scenes of the poster, divide everyone into small groups, give them 10 minutes to analyze, then we all take turns telling the full group what we found.  This was really great for building the confidence of folks.  They had already seen a presentation, so they knew the basics and they had fun peering closely and guessing at the weird details.  This was also very practical since at least some of them were definitely intending to use this in classroom settings.

All of this was excellent preparation, a kind of warm-up for the deep digging we would get into next.  Neither of these parts are necessary to include at the beginning, but it is good to put something more informal/conversational/fun before talking lots of dull theoretical stuff.


So now we get into some “meta” kinda ideas.  I started off explaining some crucial PRINCIPLES of the Beehive’s story-sharing method:

  1. Popular Education

Popular education is the simple idea that all of us are teachers and learners.  Just because I am standing at the front of the classroom does not mean that I know everything and you know nothing.  Therefore, rather than using what Paulo Freire derogatorily called the “banking method” of education, it relies on conversation, listening and sharing, and empowerment of everyone involved.  As a facilitator in a popular education setting, it is vitally important to use simple language, a reasonable pace, and to emphasize that all participants need to understand meaning rather than know facts.

2.  Entertainment

Making it all into a “show” holds a crowd’s attention better, allowing the presenter to give much more information and helping the audience to remember it better.  This is the primary strength of using fantastical pictures of cute animals – they are fun!  A skilled story-teller has many ways of entertaining the audience, such as jokes, drama, feelings.  Jokes are obviously entertaining, but it is important to remember that keeping people engaged does not mean that you need to act like a clown.  Tragic stories have been entertaining for millenia even though they elicit strong negative feelings (this is called “catharsis“).  In my opinion, one of the strongest ways you can turn your dry talk into an edge-of-the-seat thriller is simply dramatic pacing, and other standard elements of modern novels and movies such as intractable conflict (aka protagonist/antagonist), the setup-change-resolution trajectory (aka beginning-middle-end), repetition (#1 rule of good propaganda, dont ever forget it!), foreshadowing, and surprise plot twists.  Once you get to advanced-level story-telling, a great way to make your story entertaining is to lead the listeners along a cleverly-crafted path which sets them up to begin pondering certain questions, and then answers those questions moments before they are about to raise their hands and say “Wait, how is that possible?”  This last element, along with the fantastical pictures, are the two main reasons that people often describe our presentations as “magic.”

IMPORTANT NOTE:  In many ways, these two principles are mutually incompatible!  In any presentation, you will need to choose which of these to emphasize, or where exactly to find a good balance (half-and-half will probably come out sounding weird).  I recommend thinking about this balance quite seriously, and specifically for every audience you speak to.


Then I talked about the 4 LAYERS necessary to an effective motivational story.  We are not just telling any old story, we have a goal in mind.  In order to ensure that folks stay with us, or still get something good out of it even if they leave early, it is very important to craft your story along these often overlapping and intersecting layers:

  1. NEWS – the most important info first
  2. CAUSE & EFFECT – why?
  3. CRISIS – (!!!)
  4. INSPIRATION – what you can do

These concepts are fairly straightforward.  Delivering “the news” is the first and simplest part of our job as cross-pollinators.  Think about a one-column newspaper article.  The headline grabs attention, the first sentence summarizes, and the second and third and so-on just incrementally expand upon that.  If I am presenting The True Cost of Coal, the first thing (after a brief explanation of the Beehive, which is not even really a part of the story, per se) will always be an explanation of MTR.  That way, even if someone leaves after 20 minutes, they still got the most critical news.  Everything that follows is details and analysis.

The reason that we always talk about history so much is that comprehension of cause and effect is often sorely lacking among even very intelligent people in the US.  It is necessary to expose a lot of untold stories in order to understand why we find ourselves in our current situation.  This is one thing that journalists, always obsessed with “news,” too often leave out, and it is one of the great strengths of our story-telling style.  People leave our presentations feeling like they understand why things are happening, not just know what is happening.

In my opinion, every story-telling that we give should climax in a “crisis moment.”  I believe that most humans are unwilling to make any meaningful changes in their behavior unless they are threatened by a crisis that will force them to change or die (sad to say, but it just seems to be the way our brains work).  I also believe that it is possible for people to experience a crisis inside their heads without actually being in a situation of physical danger.  I try to craft my stories so that they build up to a climax that (hopefully) flips the crisis switch inside peoples heads, even if all they are doing is sitting and looking at pictures of cute animals.

And then at that point, of course, you gotta give people something they can grab on to… Examples of beautiful and meaningful work that others are already doing are great.  Folks can actually imagine themselves in the picture, and your story-telling style should actively encourage them to do so.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This last element can be really hard.  I know it is a weak point in my presentations and I am trying to get better at it.  When trying to inspire people, DO NOT spin out a bunch of utopian theoretical blah blah or tell people that if they vote everything will get better.  Everyone has heard that shit enough times already, you will lose your credibility very quickly.




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