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Telling Tales: A Conversation with Andy Goodman

Category: Museum Magazine

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2012 edition of the Museum magazine

As critical cogs in America’s educational infrastructure, museums tell the story of the country’s heritages-historic, cultural, scientific, natural. Storytelling maven Andy Goodman feels that museums do this extremely well. What he thinks museums could do better is tell their own story: their impact, their influence, how they inspire and why they matter to communities everywhere. And as one of America’s premier storytellers, Goodman knows whereof he speaks.

A highly successful screenwriter for movies and television, Goodman abandoned the Hollywood rat race in 1998 to create his own business. Now a leading consulting firm in public interest communications, the Goodman Center helps nonprofits convey their message-“helping do-gooders do better.” Its high-profile clients include Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs at Princeton University and the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.

In July 2011, Goodman spoke to the AAM Board of Directors at the invitation of Chair Douglas G. Myers, whose San Diego Zoo Global had invoked Goodman’s best practices in its global outreach and communications. Asked how the institution did so, Myers responded in a way Andy Goodman would appreciate.

“Let me tell you a story,” Myers says. “There was a time when San Diego Zoo Global did not value the power of stories. Yes, we had a rich source of material in our visitors and collaborators, but we were very busy with the work of building and upkeep and didn’t have time for storytelling. Andy not only showed us how compelling stories can be, but how remarkable they are as a tool for change. We have since made storytelling a household word at our organization, and take every opportunity to bank our unique stories.”

Andy Goodman’s 10 Immutable Laws of Storytelling

Is there a more cost-effective way to promote your nonprofit than to tell a memorable story about its good works? When you tell a story that others will remember and can’t wait to retell, you put the world’s oldest form of viral marketing on your side. And you haven’t spent a dime.

Over the past 10 years, I have led storytelling workshops for nonprofits large and small across the U.S., and I’ve heard amazing stories that I (and the others in those workshops) will never forget. Without fail, these stories obey 10 rules that make them both unforgettable and prime candidates for retelling. Follow these rules, and your stories may start spreading just as quickly and powerfully:

1. Stories are always about people. Even if your organization (a) is devoted to saving flora and/or fauna, (b) toils in the dense thicket of policy change or (c) helps other organizations work more effectively, human beings are still driving the action. So your protagonist has to be a person, described so as to enable your audience to draw a mental picture of them. After all, it’s hard to follow something you cannot see.

2. The people in your story have to want something. A story doesn’t truly begin until the audience knows precisely what the protagonist’s goal is and has a reason to care whether or not it is attained. So within the first paragraph or two, make sure it’s clear (in an active voice) what your hero wants to do, to get or to change. Stories are driven by some kind of desire.

3. Stories need to be fixed in time and space. Audiences don’t require every detail of longitude and latitude up front. but the moment you begin telling your tale, they will want to know: Did this happen last week or 10 years ago? Are we on a street corner in Boston, a Wal-Mart in Iowa or somewhere else? If you help them get their bearings quickly, they will stop wondering about the where and when of your story and more readily follow you into the deeper meaning within.

4. Let your characters speak for themselves. When characters speak to each other in a story, it lends immediacy and urgency to the piece. Audience members will feel as if they are the proverbial fly-on-the-wall within the scene, hearing in real time what each person has to say. Direct quotes also let characters speak in their idiosyncratic voices, lending authenticity to the dialogue.

5. Audiences bore easily. Human beings are hard-wired to love stories, but in this, the Age of Too Much Information, people don’t have time to wait for your story to get interesting. Within the first paragraph or two, you have to make them wonder, “What happens next?” or “How is this going to turn out?” As the people in your story pursue their goal, they must run into obstacles, surprises or something that makes the audience sit up and take notice. Otherwise, they’ll stand up and walk away.

6. Stories speak the audience’s language. According to national literacy studies, the average American reads at a sixth-grade level. So if your ads, posters, and publications are intended for mass consumption, plain speaking is the order of the day-and colloquialisms always help.

7. Stories stir up emotions. Human beings (which should, hopefully, comprise the majority of your audience) are not inclined to think about things they do not care about. Even when you have mountains of hard evidence on your side, you have to make your audience fee/ something before they will even glance at your numbers. Stories break through the white noise of information that inundates us every day and to deliver the message this is worth your attention.

8. Stories don’t tell; they show. Intellectually, your audience will understand a sentence such as, “When the nurse visited the family at home, she was met with hostility and guardedness.” But if you had written instead, “When they all sat down for the first time in the living room, the family members wouldn’t look her in the eye,” your audience would have seen a picture, felt the hostility and become more involved with the story.

9. Stories have at least one “moment of truth.” At their essence, the best stories show us something about how we should treat ourselves, how we should treat other people or how we should treat the world around us. We have always looked to stories to be containers of truth, and your audience will instinctively look within your story for this kind of insight.

10. Stories have clear meaning. When the final line is spoken, your audience should know exactly why they took this journey with you. In the end, this may be the most important rule of all. If your audience cannot answer the question, “What was that story all about?” it won’t matter how diligently you followed rules one through nine.

Goodman helped the zoo craft and structure its stories for maximum effect. “We tell our stories at exhibits, in press releases and on guided tours,” Myers says. “On a personal level, I learned to infuse these stories into each of my presentations, and they’ve helped me touch the lives of donors, staff and volunteers.”

Recently, Goodman shared some of his storytelling wisdom with John Strand, publisher of The AAM Press.

You left hollywood to enter the world of the cash-strapped nonprofit. What is the story there?

I came out to Hollywood in 1991 to launch a career as a TV writer. It had always been my dream to write for sitcoms, and I was lucky to get a job on a network situation comedy called Dinosaurs and worked on that show for three seasons. Then I got a chance to work on another show called The Nanny that was on CBS. But after getting there, achieving my dream, then working in the writers’ room a few years, I had that “Is that all there is?” moment. It just didn’t feel fulfilling. In a moment of serendipity (or not, depending on your belief system). I got a letter from a friend running an environmental group on the East Coast. It was a photocopy of a job posting that he had seen, and in the corner he’d scribbled, “Andy, I think you’d be good for this job.” The job was to be the president of the Environmental Media Association (EMA). a nonprofit group here in Hollywood. I got this job and ran a nonprofit for five years, and that’s how I made the big left turn into this very different world.

From there to storytelling is an odd leap …

Here’s how it happened. I ran that organization for five years. It got me into the nonprofit world, and I met people from other nonprofits, environmental and otherwise. I started to see that these are very nice people, but when it came to talking about what they did they were not the best communicators. They were passionate. They were caring. They were intelligent, but just not clear and not compelling. My background was in television, radio and advertising. If I knew anything, it was how to get people’s attention and get them to sit, watch and listen. I thought maybe my true calling was to use that skill to help good causes communicate more effectively. So I set up my own firm in 1998-sort of an all-purpose and agency. Eventually clients started to call me and they would all say the same thing: “We’re very good at what we do. We’re just not so good at talking about it.” When I would ask them to tell me a story, they were not able to. This was the leadership of the organization, and I thought that’s just not right. How could you be the president or the chairman of the board and not have stories at your disposal that take what you do, bring it down to ground level and make it relatable? I thought, here’s an opportunity. I started to work with nonprofits like the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). getting them to collect their stories, hone them, decide which are the most important ones to tell and make sure that everyone on the staff knows them and can tell them.

What makes a good story? I know you have an architecture of what a good story should contain.

The architecture is not mine. It has evolved over time, and every human being knows it, because we live our lives surrounded by stories. As children, our parents tell us stories, fairytales, and we read chapter books, novels. Stories are a constant in our lives. All good stories have a protagonist-a person whom we can identify with, and it is that person’s hand we will hold to walk through this story. If it’s not a human being, it has to be something with human qualities. One of the great Pixar movies, Finding Nemo, is the story of a fish. We might identify with the fish because he is trying to break away from a controlling dad. Or we might identify with the controlling dad if we’re trying to let go of our children. Protagonists want something and must pursue a goal. There is something they want to acquire, something they want to change, something they want to do. Their life is out of balance, and until they do something to restore that balance or create a new balance, they’re not happy. So, off they go on their quest, and we go with them. Along the way they’re going to run into obstacles, and the more of those, the merrier, because every time they run into a problem and don’t get directly to this thing that they want, it’s a chance for us, the audience, to lean in and say those magic words, “And then what happened?” With every barrier, there’s more drama. There’s more tension. We start to root for the person. Will she ever make it? Finally, we get around that last barrier and we arrive at the resolution, which may or may not be the attainment of the goal, but it’s enough to tell us, “So that’s what happened.” We understand why we took this journey and what the lesson is for us, the audience. If all those things are present-protagonist, goal, barriers, overcoming barriers, resolution, and meaning or lesson-then you have the basic elements of a good story.

Many museums might have such a story of their own-how they were founded and how they developed-but they might not be aware of all these elements of the story.

They may not be. Yet, if you enter a museum and they have a Picasso exhibition, invariably you’ll see his early work and there will be some description of a change in his life and how his art had to change as a result. Very often the display of an artist’s work will follow a narrative, and I think museums are very thoughtful about that. They may not be as thoughtful about their own narrative about where they came from, what they’re all about and where they’re going.

We do concentrate a great deal on telling stories from artifacts. But you’re asking a museum to concentrate on its own institutional story, which might be just as heroic.

I think so. Often, people representing museums will say something like, “What makes our museum so unique and so valuable is that we bring together communities that maybe would not mix anywhere else in this city and cross pollinate in ways that wouldn’t happen anywhere else.” And that’s a valuable service. It’s a worthy claim. I’ll say to them, “If that’s the case, you should be able to tell me a story of one day in your museum where I can see that happening.” That’s what we do in our workshops: take these claims that museums make and the value they deliver and say, “Show me.” To me a story’s a big way of saying “for example.”

Our culture relies so heavily on data, statistics- all the quantifiables that define a truth to most people. Does storytelling match up to the hard data that people search for?

I would turn that question around and ask if data can ever really match up to stories, which resonate more deeply with us. In the modern age, people have been convinced that everything is measurable and can be reduced to numbers, and if it can’t be reduced to numbers you can’t manage it. Yet, if you look at how human beings function, our brain is the hardware that puts in the information. Stories act like software that looks at information coming in and says, “I don’t think the world really works this way. I’m going to disregard that data.” We walk around the world with a focus group of one, experiencing things from our own limited perspective. If we’re presented with data that says, “When you look at 10,000 people, it’s a different experience,” we’ll still say, “Well, that’s just not the way I see it.” The stories in our head of the way the world works are so powerful that they will often allow us to accept certain data that reinforces what we believe and reject data that doesn’t. When I work with organizations, I say, “You’re not going to change people’s minds or change their behavior by presenting them with data or facts.” You have to give them a story that makes sense to them and becomes the new “software”.

I found your 10 immutable laws of stories fascinating-they remind me of a scriptwriting seminar. Should museums be thinking more like filmmakers when they take this approach to storytelling?

I think it’s useful. I took one of those scriptwriting seminars here in Los Angeles from a guy named Robert McKee, who’s legendary. He believes that story is the most essential thing in art and that everything flows from that: how the characters act, what we learn about them, lessons about life, etc. The same thing can be said for museums and for art. Where there is a story, there is a door through which we, the audience, can enter. There is a beginning, middle, and end. There are adventures along the way.

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