If You’re Going to Change the World, You Better Bring Your Stories: An Interview with Andy Goodman

This Wednesday, storytelling coach and guru Andy Goodman will be live on Twitter to answer questions for the frank community. We talked with Andy about his career journey, the craft of storytelling and how organizations can use stories to communicate who they are better. We hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did. 


Storytelling is obviously a passion of yours, where did it all begin?

Well, it’s funny, my dream growing up was to write for television. I wanted to write sitcoms. I thought that would be the most fun. I moved out to Los Angeles in 1991 with the dream of becoming a network sitcom writer and I was fortunate, I got to work on a couple of network TV shows on ABC and CBS. One called Dinosaurs on ABC, which was a Jim Henson and Walt Disney co-production and another show called The Nanny on CBS. Working on those shows, I learned an awful lot about storytelling. You know when I went to apply to work on those shows I told the producers of the shows, “Hey, I’m a funny guy I come up with funny jokes” and they said “There’s lots of funny people in Hollywood. Our show is 22 stories every year. Can you come up with stories?” And that was my graduate school in storytelling. That’s where I learned how to tell a story very efficiently, in a very confined time period and strict format that would keep people glued to their seats watching.

What drove you into professional storytelling?

After I got out of the TV business, I went to run a nonprofit in Los Angeles for 5 years called the Environmental Media Association (EMA). Once I got into the nonprofit community, I started to meet lots of nice people in nonprofits, foundations, government agencies, etc. You know, people who are working to make the world better. What I noticed about these people was that they were terrific people, passionate about what they did, but not so terrific about talking about it. Specifically when it came to telling stories. So after 5 years in the nonprofit world, running a nonprofit, meeting colleagues and seeing this big communication deficit, I started my own firm in 1998, The Goodman Center, specifically to help nonprofits communicate better. Overtime my specialty became storytelling because that’s where I saw the greatest need.

“If you’re in the business of changing the world for the better, then you are often first in the business of changing the story in people’s heads about the way the world works,” says Goodman.

Why is storytelling so important for the field of public interest communications?

When you look at the research at how our minds work, the average human being, what you’ll find is that each of us walks around with a bunch of stories in our head about the way the world works. And whatever we confront, whatever facts are presented to us, whatever data we run into, we filter through these stories. And if the data agrees with our stories, we’ll let it in and if it doesn’t, we’ll reject it. So, if you’re trying to give people new information that they don’t have, they’ve got to have a story in their head that will let that data in, so you can persuade them to change what they think, what they believe, how they behave. So, what I like to say to the groups I work with is, “If you’re in the business of changing the world for the better, then you are often first in the business of changing the story in people’s heads about the way the world works.” So, in the social change world, storytelling is an absolutely essential tool.

What would you say makes some stories better than others?

I can’t give you a short answer to that because over time we’ve seen around the world – different races, different nationalities, different ethnicities – people all tend to tell stories the same way and the most commonly used structure is the 3-act structure. Stories have a beginning, middle and end where you meet the characters in the beginning, they go on a journey in the middle, and in the end there’s some type of destination, some type of objective achieved or not. There’s more to it than that, but that basic arc, that basic 3-act structure, a lot of good things happened when you use that structure, in terms of your audience’s response. If you do it right they will identify with the character of the story, they will see in them something in themselves. If you do it right they will care about what happened to them and be emotionally involved in the story. At the end, having seen what happens and what journey the characters go on, they will reflect on that and say, “What does that mean for me? Would I have made the same choices? Would I want the same thing?” And they’ll be prepared to act on that. They’ll either be inspired to act, or not act, but because they felt something, they’ll be ready to do something. And so the beauty of a good story is that it can generate an emotional response for your audience that prepares them to act. And you know as well as I do, it’s sort of common sense, if you don’t feel, if you don’t care, you don’t do. So the beauty of stories is they get the blood pumping, they get the heart pumping, they get us to start caring, and then we’re just one step away from doing.

“What makes stories interesting is the conflict, the tension between wanting to do something and being able to do it,” says Goodman.

When is a story not a story?

There are a lot of websites in the nonprofit world that will have a link saying “Read our Story” and you’ll click on that link and you’ll get to these pieces which are not stories, they might just be a testimonial, they might be description of what they do, but there are no characters to identify with, there is no journey to go on, there’s no tension or conflict. One of the things that’s axiomatic about storytelling, particularly out here in Hollywood, is they say “no conflict, no story.” If your story is simply, “people are in trouble, we’ve launched this project to help them, they’re better now” it’s not an interesting story. What makes stories interesting is the conflict, the tension between wanting to do something and being able to do it. The way I put it is, in storytelling, until “I want” runs into “you can’t” you don’t have a story. Too many nonprofits tell stories of “I want, I did, now give me money” and that’s not interesting or memorable.

What would be your advice for someone who wanted to delve in the art and science of storytelling?

If you want to be a good storyteller, it’s like anything else, you have to put in the time and study the craft. You don’t come out to Hollywood and just write a screenplay because you want to and the same thing in the nonprofit world or public interest sector. You want to tell good stories, you have to learn the craft of storytelling, you have to learn structure of a good story, understand the qualities of a good story, all the ins and outs and it is a craft.

To me a craft is a certain amount of magic that you bring to it, your own talent, but also a certain amount of science, a certain amount of technique that you have to learn. Somewhere between all magic on one end of the continuum and all science on the other is what we call craft, or what you might call art, the combination of the magic in you and the technique you learn to bring it out. And so if you want to be a good storyteller you may have some natural magic in you, but you need to learn the craft to really bring out your talent.

Do you have any recommendations for books, videos, speakers, etc. that relate to storytelling?

There are tons of good books out there. For example, Paul Slovic, who spoke at last year’s frank conference, and his son Scott, they have a book called Number and Nerves, which is a collection of essays about how people take in information and about how we are numbed by numbers, but moved by stories. And so if you want to read a good overview of the area about why we should tell stories in the current literature, Scott and Paul Slovic’s Numbers and Nerves is a really good book to read to get you excited. If you want to practice the craft, there’s a book by Robert McKee called Story which is really a manual for screenwriters and TV writers, but even if that’s not your goal, there’s enough in there about the structure and quality of good storytelling to help anybody who wants to tell stories, so I highly recommend that book.

Have you ever missed a frank gathering?

I did, I missed the second one because my wife was running for city council in Los Angeles and election day was the Tuesday after the week of  frank. So I had to be in LA that week – that was a critical week to be in LA to work on her campaign. So if I had left home, I would have risked divorce at the time.

So how did you, if at all, integrate storytelling into her campaign?

I was always telling her, asking her, “What’s your personal narrative?” If people want to understand your personal story as a candidate, where you came from, who you are, or what you’re going to do, what’s the story they’re going to see, what’s the story you’re going to give them? So she spent a lot of time thinking about that so that when she got up and spoke in front of people, she would tell her story. Also I told her about the Marshall Ganz structure where leaders have to tell the story of self, the story of us and the story of now, and so she would follow that model as well.

Do you ever find that you have to adapt storytelling methods for various generations or do you find that they respond to different method over others?

Not so much. I get that question a lot, people say we live in the year of social media and shortening attention spans. I agree that its tougher to get people to stop and focus on a story, but the basic elements that make a story engaging and motivating, whether you’re watching a 2 minute video or reading 500 words off a screen or whatever, that hasn’t changed so much. I’m going to sound like Dr. Seuss here but the way I put it is “people are people wherever you go.” People love stories, they have for literally tens of thousands of years and sometimes I get the question, “Do you think we’re burning out on stories, that if everyone is telling stories are they losing their effectiveness?” And I have to laugh because I don’t think suddenly in September of 2016 it’s like “welp, that’s it, were done.” The marketplace of ideas is more crowded, but if you can send a tweet that can get someone interested and has a link where they can go find the story and read it, they’ll read it like anybody, I don’t care how old they are.

Are there any project you are currently working on?

Yes, there are two I’m very excited about. For years I would work with groups doing workshops, like a half day workshop or a full day workshop, and hold out the hope that that would be transformational, that they would take the material and that the organization would be changed and would start to really change the way they communicate. In many cases it worked, but in a lot I felt like they just sort of checked off the box of  “ok, we did the storytelling workshop” and then basically reverted back to doing what they do. Now what I’m trying to do is contract with clients to have a relationship over a year where we start with a full day workshop, but then I’m coming back in 6 months, I’m coming back in 12 months to reinforce the lessons, to see what they’re doing and to really ensure that a storytelling culture is taking hold. So that’s a new direction for me that I’m excited about because it really ensures that anybody I spend time with, that they’re really going to get the full benefit of storytelling and not just have a half day workshop and then back to business as usual.

The other thing is I’m trying to develop a storytelling curriculum that will live on in other places without me. There’s a new university being born in Africa right now called the African Leadership University (ALU) and I developed a storytelling course for them that was taught for the first time this past spring to the first cohort of students to go through, but will become a permanent part of their curriculum. This is a university that ultimately is envisioning building 25 campuses across the continent of Africa with 10,000 students per campus. Now that’s a very ambitious project and that will be decades in rolling out, but if they get to their goal, my curriculum would be a part of this major university with 2 different campuses. And I’m also doing that now for the College of Social Innovation, which is something being launched in the Boston area. I’m developing some curriculum in storytelling for these college students, to teach them how to be better communicators by the time they arrive at a nonprofit. That’s the one work I’m really excited about.

Are there any campaigns or projects that have caught your attention?

Well there are a number of organizations out there that are doing great work where storytelling is concerned., which is a movement to create a new phase of life when it comes to work, where people who hit retirement age, instead of retiring, they decide to do something close to their heart and give back. People hitting age 60 or 65 are starting what they call an “encore” career, doing something good for the world. We have something like 10,000 baby boomers a day turning 65. That’s an awful lot of talent, awful lot of expertise, and do we want it all going to golf courses and museums or do we want maybe some of it going back to the social sector? And so is trying to steer some of these people into the social sector to give back instead of kicking back and they are telling a lot of stories about people who are doing it successfully. It’s an organization I work with and I’m proud to see how they’re using storytelling to try and deal with this new phase of life.


Want more? Andy will be live on Twitter for a Q and A Wednesday, September 28 from 12:30- 1:30 p.m. EST ( 9:30-10:30 a.m. PT). Ask him a question using #franklycurious. 

For more information about this event, click here. 

This interview was conducted by Jacob Burton, a second-year Advertising major in the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. He is a staff writer for frank.

Posted: September 26, 2016
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