Wanted: master storytellers

by Jini Stolk

This is the right time of year to acknowledge the power and lasting impact of well-told stories.

I was recently electrified by this interview with FrameWorks Institute’s Susan Nall Bales (author of the paradigm-changing, for those who were paying attention, Wanted: Master Storytellers), about how nonprofits frame the issues they’re engaged in. “What’s really important”, she says, “is telling a complete story over time and using that story, that same story, to explain multiple policy objectives. What we are doing wrong is thinking we have to have a different story for every policy ask. What a core story does is to create a way of understanding how an issue works that would then allow you to see why multiple policy prescriptions would address that reality.”

So simple but so true – and so helpful when you’re engaged as I have been in trying to reframe how people think about the role of non-profit organizations in our society, or about the impact and importance of the arts.

The environmental sector, as an example, continues to struggle with how to talk about climate change so it inspires change rather than depresses and overwhelms: warnings of imminent chaos and destruction don’t seem to work. As another example, I wish that Premier Wynne had found a better way to frame Ontario’s new sex-ed curriculum before all hell broke loose. Pioneer sex educator Meg Hickling, who championed and delivered sex education in Vancouver 40 years ago, called her topic “body science” and ran into remarkably few problems in convincing parents and schools of its importance. I love this interview with Anna Maria Tremonti of The Current, and I love that Ms. Hickling started her classes by telling the kids that “scientists never say ‘ewwww….gross’; they always say ‘interesting….’”

Tim Jones of Artscape has been honing his story for many years, and I think we can all learn from what he’s been doing. Tim long ago moved from a narrative of needs to one of opportunities. His recent talk with MaRS’ Global Leadership series, called Culture as Urban Acupuncture , told a convincing story about the role artists play in city-building, as change-makers and active network builders. He talked about culture as providing “pinpricks of urbanism that can create big change…,” healing cities, solving problems and transforming challenged neighbourhoods into vibrant and healthy ones – and he called upon the enlightened self-interest of policy-makers, developers and community activists to put culture at the heart of city-building.

It’s a simple, true and powerful story, and judging by Artscape’s success and the number of projects in its pipeline, a very effective one.

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