How to Influence Hearts and Inspire Action Through the Power of Story

If you’ve ever shifted uncomfortably in your seat at an open mic comedy night or fallen asleep in a lecture, you know everyone isn’t born knowing how to tell a good story. But we believe everyone can learn how to inspire action through the power of story—stories that inspire us, move us, or make us so mad we have no choice but to act. Got a cause you care about or a story dying to come out? Here’s how to start influencing hearts and minds:

Learn the Basic Elements of Storytelling
Because stories are literally as old as time, there are certain tactics proven to captivate and pull at people’s heartstrings. How great is it that humanity’s greatest storytellers from Ulysses to Steven Spielberg have already done the work for you! Don’t reinvent the wheel—simply learn what those classic story elements are and start replicating them in your own work. You could scour blogs or drop into any beginning filmmaking class…or you could watch this two-minute video we made with Change.org:

Study Those Who Have Been Successful
The next step is to start recognizing those elements in other people’s work. After all, if you want to become a good writer, you have to read a lot. And if you want to make change, it helps to look to those who have done it successfully.

Take Chris Mizanskey, a Change.org petitioner who wanted to free his father from jail. Chris’s dad was convicted on drug offenses involving small amounts of marijuana. But because of Missouri’s three strikes law, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Not only did Chris’s petition gain 400,000 signatures, but he successfully freed his father. Change.org, the world’s largest petition platform, credits the power of story for Chris’s success. And indeed, Chris’s writing calls upon the basic storytelling principle discussed above.

For example he writes: “My father is 61 years old, and has been in prison since he was 41. His parents – my grandparents – have since passed. While my dad has been trapped behind bars, generations of kids and grandkids have been born into our family who have never even met the man.” Statements like these viscerally show that time is of the essence. It raises the stakes and creates a sense of urgency in the reader.

Notice how Chris’s petition keeps the focus on a personal struggle, despite the greater social issues at play. He could have made the petition about the more than 7 million people who were arrested for marijuana possession between 2001 and 2010, or about how black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, but those statistics run the risk of making the average person feel helpless. Instead, by focusing the petition about his own family he not only inspires empathy in readers but empowers those moved by his story to feel as if they can make a difference. In this case 391,529 little actions added up to big change. Not only was Chris’s father freed from jail, but the viral nature of his petition catapulted the larger issue into a national conversation, ultimately contributing to greater policy change.

Become a Critic
The good news is this step involves watching movies…and identifying the structure and tactics used by the pros. (Hint: from The Little Mermaid to The Godfather, they’re all different versions of the same strategy.) Sometimes you don’t even have to watch the whole thing! Pixar’s Up masters the classic three-act story structure in just the first 10 minutes. Head on over to our analysis of the heartwarming opening scene to see how. Practice honing your critic’s eye and you’ll eventually start implementing the tactics in your own work naturally.

Notice the Details
It’s not enough to know what the storytelling elements are. You also need to notice all the various ways they can be executed successfully. From pacing to imagery to delivery, there are a million choices storytellers make that contribute to captivating their audiences. Observing—and mimicking—what works takes practice and patience. The more you pay attention to the details, such as first lines, last lines, pacing, music choice, delivery, and imagery used in other people’s work the better you’ll be able to apply effective strategies to your own creations.

To that end, hop on over to an analysis of three videos that moved us and why.