10 Storytelling Lessons for Nonprofits from December 37th, 2020

What nonprofits must learn about storytelling, narrative and causes, from the attack on the Capitol Building and four years leading up to it

Photo “Capitol Breach 2” by Brett Davis, via Flikr, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

“December 37th” was, of course, January 6th. For my own narrative and optimism purposes, however, I’m choosing to associate the day’s events with the end of 2020 rather than with 2021.

As we all watched and learned about the attempted coup last Wednesday, most people were stunned and horrified by what we saw on our news and social media feeds.

To those who understood Trump’s psychology and how he connects with his fan base, however, this was no surprise; it was predictable. The reality is that this story has played out hundreds of times throughout history under the banners of race, religion and nationalism. Lessons that we thought we learned have come back with a painful reminder.

What was surprising to some, was how many people whom we might otherwise consider rational and loving, continued to support him and his cause leading up to and even after the insurrection.

Some of his supporters went as far as to create ever greater conspiracy theories to try to resolve their cognitive dissonance. “It could be Antifa, fake news, or even actors hired by the radical left,” they rationalize. “There is no way, that what we believe and the actions of support I’ve taken were responsible for this attack on America.”

Why did so many people heed the call for insurrection? And why are so many more still unwilling to admit their error?

That is the power of story.

Donald Trump’s narrative is a near-textbook example of the hero’s journey story structure. While many books will likely be written on this subject, let’s take a look at the story elements that Trump used so effectively to such pernicious effect—and how we can use these same concepts for good.

Read on, or skip to the takeaways.

Breaking Down the Story That Got Us Here

  • The problem in the world

    From the early days of his campaign, Donald Trump began planting and tightly controlling a narrative in people’s minds; a vision and ideals that they could aspire to: a “Great Again” America, in which each person can be infinitely successful, like they believe him to be.

    The problem with America, his story said, is not his supporters’ fault. It’s government and “others” (liberals, minorities, and weak people in general) that stand in the way of greatness. The strong should be in charge, and that strength comes from self-determination, will and providence, not handouts and government.

    He created a common goal, and defined a common enemy: liberalism, socialism, and those who underminingly imposed it (Obama, Pelosi, Schumer, Clintons, other elites kowtowing to the weak) on true Americans.

    This was all lies, but they were small lies that many people wanted to believe.

  • The first calls to action

    Trump made it simple: you were either for him and the American Promise or you were for weakness, communism and American failure.

    Then came the calls to action: Donate. Vote in the primary. Raise your hand and identify yourself as someone who believes what I believe. Our identity is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

    These were small asks.

    Had he instantly asked people to come to Washington, DC, and attack the Capitol Building, perhaps a few at the furthest fringes would have come. But far from the thousands that eventually did. It would not have aligned with their sense of right and wrong… yet.

  • Joining a quest with a winning team

    Beginning with debates and primaries, every win served as proof that he was right. Winning or even just controlling the narrative by diminishing and talking over others, brought him more prominence and inflated his image of success. The more he won, the more he looked like a winner and rallied people to him.

    Most people thought he had no chance in the general election. The advanced polls lulled those who would not have voted for him into a false sense of security, keeping them at home while simultaneously energizing the base that wanted to prove the so-called establishment wrong. And prove them wrong they did.

    With Trump’s “against all odds” election victory, he defined himself as a hero worthy of legend, building on his forcefully crafted self-made-billionaire persona. He had bullied and steamrolled his way to the top, and proved to others that they can do the same. The cult of personality was substantiated.

  • Greater enemies and challenges garner greater support

    He gradually nurtured the seeds of doubt and mistrust that he himself planted or people already harbored: the media is corrupt, science has an agenda, Hollywood is all liberal elites, longtime U.S. allies and the greater establishment are misguided or downright evil.

    He no longer needed the mass media because fractured and social media, in all its variations and platforms, is a far more effective method to speak directly to any tribe.

    Then, for four years, he did everything he could to fulfill his promise of dismantling government regulation and social good programs by any means necessary. Crossing moral and legal lines was standard operating procedure for him because he had done it his entire life, and was now emboldened by the people who supported him.

    He co-opted any group that would support him, regardless of their true nature. All that mattered is that they were with him, not that he emboldened them in the process.

    From generals to attorneys and elected leaders, anyone who couldn’t do what was asked for moral or legal reasons was labeled a heretic.

    Every success was thanks to him and his supporters, and grew his base. Every failure was the fault of the enemy. Every battle was for the soul of the country.

    As the enemy kept growing larger, so did the support base, creating hitherto unimaginable allies of Jews and Neo-Nazis, freedom-lovers and totalitarians, Constitutionalists and anarchists, radical conspiracists and educated professionals.

  • The final battle for the fate of the universe

    In the end, it became not just his plight, but the plight of every one of his supporters. The narrative in their minds became their identity and was as strong as any religion. They were fully invested in their common crusade. And so, when he called on them to go to the capitol, they did. And when he asked them to take the government by force, they tried.

    Fortunately, they failed.

    And when, for some, it turned into more than they could square with their internal ethical barometer, their minds found ways to bridge the gap, blaming it on anything and everything possible. When Trump was subsequently pressured to disavow the terrorists, they felt betrayed and turned on him.

The good news for those doing good things

The good news for nonprofits is that there is much to learn that we can apply for good. As champions for change, you can (must?) use some of these same storytelling principles to make a world that Trump and his co-conspirators fear: one of equality, justice and opportunity for all.

Takeaways: 10 Storytelling Lessons for Nonprofits

  1. Frame the narrative—what does the world look like and what’s wrong?
  2. Define a common vision—the bigger the vision, the more people will identify with it
  3. Define a common villain—the greater the danger, the more allies you’ll find
  4. Keep initial calls to action small—just enough to get people started and self-identifying with the cause
  5. Identity is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves—the more we’ve self-identified, the more personally invested we become
  6. Increase the commitment gradually and commensurately with the challenges faced
  7. Show that you’re succeeding—people want to be part of a winning team
  8. Story works on our emotions, not logic—adrenaline and cortisol are incredibly powerful, so are oxytocin and dopamine
  9. True leaders lead with empathy, not fear and insecurity

With Great (Storytelling) Power Comes Great Responsibility

Storytelling is a powerful force that can be used for good or evil. For my part, my mission is to make the world a better place for all by overcoming ignorance and insecurity on all levels. That’s why I focus my energies on nonprofits, and why I am committing to focus my efforts even further.

My Personal Commitment Going Forward

  • I will not work with any organization that puts the desires of one group over the rights of others, self-interest over common good, convenient heuristic theories over fact and science.
  • I will only work with organizations that champion or otherwise strive for equality, rights, education and empowerment regardless of race, religion or any other demographic factor, and are working to make a better future for all, whether on a local or global scale.
  • I don’t care about your politics so much as your ethics, goals and actions.

If you are working towards making the world a better place for all, book a time to speak with me and let me know how I can help.