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Storyhacking: Why Storytelling Isn’t Enough Anymore by CJ Casciotta

CJ Casciotta has helped major brands such as TOMS, The Salvation Army, and The UN Foundation better understand their story. He writes, "Storyhacking isn’t about saying “our story is better than the one you believe.” It’s saying “your story is better than the one you believe.” Read more about why CJ believes we must begin to refine the art and science of "storyhacking."

Flip through any social media feed and you’re bound to come across an inspiring quote about “story”.

There’s no fighting it. We’re citizens of a narrative-driven marketplace, recipients of Super Bowl segments that capture our imaginations and stir our emotions so much, we’d think we were watching a full length film. Even our charities and religious institutions have realized how effective stories are in relaying old information and beliefs.

Here’s the irony: All this elevation of “story” happens to be transpiring directly in the eye of a massive dismantling of the narratives our culture used to trust the most. It’s as if every story we collectively believed has now come into question.

We trusted Brian Williams’ storytelling about the Iraq War. We believed Bill Cosby’s image of devoted family man. We assumed Robin Williams portrayed characters who were full of life, shocked by the choice to end his. We accepted the assurance that there were weapons of mass destruction. We assumed mortgage lenders had our best interests in mind.

It’s actually no surprise we’ve become more fixated on “story” as of late. Every time an individual or culture experiences a circumstance where trust is broken, security is breached, or their stability is threatened, a fascinating phenomenon happens: they start forming their own narratives to restore stability and order. In other words, every time a narrative is shattered, as humans, we automatically begin constructing our own to make sense of it all.

A few examples:

Why is it children create fantastic stories about monsters lurking beneath their bed? Did they devise this idea out of thin air or is it more likely because their parent just turned out the light, shut the door, and left the room? Could it be that their developing little minds are looking for some possible method to pull their guardian and protector out of dark obscurity and back into plain sight? It’s not the monster that’s scary. It’s the absence of mom or dad. The monster is simply the narrative created to restore peace in the midst of fear. What’s even more telling about this age-old tactic is that you never see a child consulting another on this bedtime strategy before choosing to implement it. It isn’t common knowledge around the sandbox that “the monster technique” works, yet it’s the framework almost every child uses.

Children aren’t the only ones that do this though. Take a community development expert who works with inner city gang members. We’ll call him Steve. Whenever Steve approached someone who belonged to a gang, he’d ask them for directions to the nearest freeway onramp (usually just a few blocks away). Not one member could answer him. Not because they didn’t want to, but because they literally did not know how to leave. Steve says this is because gangs are controlled by a story with a setting that only extends to the boundaries of their neighborhood, their territory. The narrative gang leaders tell their prey is that membership is the only way to survive in a community where nothing is safe and there’s no way out.

I realize at this point you might find it hard to identify with a 4-year-old or criminal mind, so let’s use an example from the marketplace. Think about your loyalty to Apple or Microsoft. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on. You’re there because at some point you had a negative experience with one brand either directly or indirectly. If you’re an Apple fan, it doesn’t matter what new products or features Microsoft develops in attempts to win back your business. They could literally clone Apple (have you been to the Microsoft store?) and it wouldn’t matter. Because it’s not about the product or features. You’ve already constructed a narrative in your head about Microsoft, one that will take more than a clever campaign to reverse.

Or think about the last time you had a disagreement with someone. Almost immediately your brain began to build a story around whatever argument it was, framing you as the hero and your opponent as the villain. In reality, neither caricature is true, but as long as the disagreement remains alive it’s what gives you a sense of control and validation. Some have learned how to fight the urge to shape these kinds of stories and thus usually resolve conflicts quicker. Others, sadly, take these narratives to their graves.

People create new narratives to re-establish order and control whenever they experience negative circumstances which is why it’s not enough to tell a story anymore. “Telling” doesn’t take into effect the vast amount of stories people have already concocted and cemented in their heads. In these uncertain times, those who wish to influence others and create change must become experts at creating counter-narrative, or as I call it “storyhacking.”

When we storyhack, we predetermine that there is already an existing narrative in our audience’s mind that must be dismantled before a new story can form in its place. Done right, storyhacking doesn’t just inspire or entertain, it creates new paradigms and establishes tangible hope. Done wrong, storyhacking not only fails to penetrate the existing story, it strengthens its forcefield and bolsters its guardrails.

So how do we become great storyhackers? I’ve researched this idea for over three years now, but I still hesitate to give you my best answer. One, because I believe it only scratches the surface of such a nuanced and important skill, and Two, this is powerful, potent stuff, the kind that’s a thousand times easier to discuss than actually put into practice. My hope is that these insights simply become a launching pad for a conversation about how we can create positive change in a world full of made-up monsters - and that that conversation would lead to all sorts of experimenting, failing, sharing, and rule-breaking together. With that in mind, here are four principles I’ve discovered which make for a successful storyhack.

1. Presence

Theaster Gates has a Masters in Fine Arts, Urban Planning, Religious Studies, and Ceramics. He is an internationally sought after installation artist as well as the Director of Art & Public Life at the University of Chicago. While many people might be content with that vast array of titles and decorations, Theaster had his eyes set on a wider canvas - a vision to revitalize the dilapidated and crime-filled south side of Chicago using art and social innovation. His first order of business? Move in.

Amid strange looks and scratched heads, Theaster settled into a small broken-down house on Dorchester street. Inch by inch he began transforming his new home into what would become an architectural work of art - a library of Black culture, history, and imagination, open to the public.

Several years later, Theaster and his foundation, Rebuild, have purchased and reimagined multiple houses on the block that serve as spaces for art galleries, film viewings, child education, and personal development. When asked how they’ve been able to influence the neighborhood so immensely, they’ll tell you it’s because they made a conscious decision to physically place themselves in the center of the space they sought to change, to live among the people they sought to inspire, eliminating boundary lines or any excuse to disconnect.

Before you offer a counter-narrative, you must be willing to immerse yourself in the one you’re trying to disrupt. The monster always vanishes when mom or dad enter the room.

2. Possibility

On the corner of a slowly gentrifying street in east San Diego there’s a studio with state of the art recording equipment modestly tucked inside of an old warehouse. This is where Brandon Steppe does his storyhacking. Like many recording engineers nowadays, Brandon often worked out of his garage which he converted into his home studio. On hot summer days, when he would open his garage door, the neighborhood kids would come by looking for their big break in the world of hip-hop. Buried just below the surface of this unwelcome intrusion, Brandon spotted an opportunity. If the kids would pull their grades up, he’d record a track for them. That’s right. Brandon began trading professional studio time to struggling inner city kids for better grades.

This unorthodox exchange grew into what is now known as The David’s Harp Foundation, a fully-functioning non-profit inspiring and educating at-risk and homeless youth to achieve academic success through music education, sound engineering, and multi-media production. The magic in what Brandon is doing is the possibility he presents to a generation whose outcome society has already predetermined.

A student may come to The David’s Harp Foundation looking to be the next Jay Z. That’s ok with Brandon. He can work with it. That drive is a good beginning. His next step is to stretch his student’s imagination and present him or her with the possibility that he or she is actually smart, worthy of an education, and capable of accomplishing the hard and often unsexy work it takes to buck the odds and realize one’s dream.

Storyhacking lifts people out of their current reality by stimulating their imagination and uncaging their full identity.

3. Practicality

I met Jeremy for the first time at a conference we were both speaking at in Austin, Texas. He’s one of those unbelievably intelligent people whose knowledge could easily make him one of those “Dr. House” personalities others feel intimidated by. Far from it, Jeremy is one of the most relationally conscious people I know. An entrepreneurial mind with a heart for the marginalized, Jeremy sought to heal the tension between Muslim groups in Iraq through his organization, Preemptive Love. His methodology for achieving such an audacious peacemaking effort, as you may have guessed by now, is atypical.

Preemptive Love doesn’t attempt to get enemies into a room to talk about their feelings. They don’t talk theoretically about what it would look like for everyone to put down their guns and hold hands.

Preemptive Love trains medical doctors to perform life-saving heart surgeries for the massive number of Iraqi children who need them. And through that tangible, life-saving work, they’ve witnessed countless enemies embrace one another. It turns out that saving the life of one’s son or daughter trumps any reservations or biases about the ethnicity, identity, or creed of the person performing that life-saving procedure. It turns out loving the ones closest to you has the capacity to help you love the ones farthest.

Storytelling inspires people. Storyhacking actually moves them. It doesn’t just illustrate change, it produces results in real-time. Storyhacking isn’t just aspirational, it’s deeply practical.

4. Proof

After the recession, the once booming city of Detroit became little more than a ghost town. People left the city in droves. Those who did stay just tried to survive. Jobs were scarce, and consequently so was any form of culture. Somewhere amidst this regression, Samantha White grew up in the neighborhood of 7 Mile. A self-described drama geek, Sam fell in love with the works of Shakespeare during middle-school after her mom caught her listening to Salt n Peppa and made her read Hamlet instead. “You like lyrics?” She said. “Read these.” What began as a punishment became a passion. Perhaps that was her mother’s plan all along.

After a brief time traveling and discovering what the rest of the country had to offer, Sam returned home to Detroit, the city she was born in and had always loved. It was during this homecoming that a crazy idea began to electrify the restless energy inside her. She would start a Shakespeare company as a way to help revive her weary town, a place that had forgotten how vital the arts were to its endurance. It’s been a difficult story to hack for Samantha. Fundraisers have gone south. Neighbors have struggled to understand her motivation as she went door-to-door inviting them to free shows held in recycling centers and city parks.

Last year Samantha directed a performance of Romeo & Juliette at her high school Alma Mater, a school with an auditorium that had never been used for a play. Until now.

A few hundred people huddled in to watch the raw and riveting performance, many of them high school students who had never seen or even heard of Shakespeare before. After the show, the cast and crew came out to do a Q & A with the audience. When the play’s director took the stage, the students were shocked to see Sam, a young, black woman standing in front of them - a woman who attended the same school they did just a few years earlier. It was proof to these students that another story is possible for them and their city, a different one than they grew up hearing, one that exclaims Detroit, in fact, isn’t doomed, that a bright future is indeed possible, AND, most importantly, someone exactly like them could initiate it. Perhaps they’re not the problem, but the solution.

The best storyhackers don’t give evidence, they are the evidence.

This is really about identity.

When chaos ensues, our identity is threatened. And when our identity is threatened, chaos ensues. However, when people recognize the full potential of who they are, apart from all the noise and voices scrambling to make sense of the chaos in the moment, it’s easier to make their lives better by helping them reach that potential, whether we’re offering them a piece of technology, ideology, or opportunity to give to a cause.

It’s a complex and scary world out there. The shortcut is to “target” and “label” people when we’re trying to change their minds. But targets are always moving and labels eventually peel off. It’s easier to keep the monsters at bay temporarily than to exterminate them completely, to give an anecdote than a cure (no, I didn’t spell that wrong).

Storyhacking isn’t about saying “our story is better than the one you believe.” It’s saying “your story is better than the one you believe.”

Let’s begin to chip and chisel at the lies and carve out the movement within those we wish to reach. By doing so we create beauty, the kind capable of withstanding the elements that seek to erode it. When we do, everyone wins, including the artist.