Stories that connect: the hero’s journey

May 24, 2013

What makes a good story? Narrative structure and content. Think of the stories that have unique staying power across all cultures – mythology and folklore. There is a universality about the lessons learned by the heroes of these stories. Their dreams are our dreams. Their feelings, their challenges are shared by people in almost every corner of the globe. We live vicariously through them and empathize with them, helped along by our mirror neurons which not only have us imitating what we see (you smile, I smile), but also feeling what we sense others are feeling.

David DeSteno, director of Northeastern University’s Social Emotion Lab argues that for us to cultivate compassion, we need to help our audiences relate to the “victims.” He argues that we have to “nudge it” by subtly altering aspects of the situation to emphasize similarities between our audience and the people, animals or environment we are trying to help. In studies of the effect of mirror neurons, MRI’s show blood flowing to the same parts of the brain in the observer as the person experiencing the actual emotion.

The Australian video It’s Time, which went viral in 2011, does exactly that. The three-minute video takes us in to this very handsome guy’s life. We meet his family, we meet his friends, we see him interacting with his lover, though we never see that person. Most who watch the video wonder about his girlfriend and recognize him as someone not too different from our friends. Viewers are rooting for him when he opens the ring box and offers it to his partner. The camera finally turns to reveal that person…another man.

The video, part of a campaign to bring same-sex marriage to Australia, has that very effective element of surprise, an emotional climax generating empathy in the viewer, and a “hero’s journey.” (For more on the hero’s journey, check out this great video from Jonah Sachs and Harvard Business Review.)

Our goal as nonprofits is to tap into the emotions of potential supporters, helping them relate to our causes and the communities we serve. When developing your stories, think about the small details that target audiences will connect with, and the narrative framework that will resonate with their struggles and aspirations.

Liz Banse