Social entrepreneurs go Hollywood: The promise of change in 25 words or less

You're the only person who listens

(It’s pretty hard to change the world, if no one wants to follow your thinking…)

Curtis Faith has been asking us all about stories. What is your story? Who is the hero? How will it end?

Good questions, because stories provide a powerful framework for spreading ideas. This is especially true if your ideas are different, challenging, and could seen by ordinary folk as a little bit “too newfangled for practical application”.

Randy Olson, the scientist-turned-filmmaker, regularly lambastes the academic/science community for getting so caught up in the pointy-headed details that they completely forget how real communication happens. Randy is the author of the wickedly brilliant and funny Don’t be Such a Scientist.

Also take a look at the work by Alex (Sandy) Petland, the author of Honest Signals.

Yet most scientists (and other big idea people) don’t get it. Despite the fact that there’s tons of “peer-approved” research demonstrating that what you say (the details) is NOT nearly as important as how you say it (your communication style!).

The thing is, if you want to move your idea from the edge into the mainstream, from the future to the present, you have to package it. Style it. Make it easy-to-get and attractive.

This is not the same thing as dumbing it down. It is more about upping the drama, raising the stakes, and making it personal! It’s all about creating emotional resonance.

That’s why, especially for the “issue entrepreneurs”, stories are the key to changing the world…

And no one is better at telling stories (that move a big audiences) than Hollywood. So maybe we should drop our guard, and our biases, and steal a few tricks from tinsel-town. Well, I have two favorite screen-writing books, Raindance Writers’ Lab by Elliot Groves, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. Both writers pull apart, and dissect the Hollywood story to show us how they are made. Here is a summary of the key components.

Hollywood Story:

  • Hero: A person on the brink of change, who realizes that the status quo is not sustainable.
  • Problem: The hero’s problem. It needs to be personal. It needs to be urgent. And the stakes need to be high.
  • Goal: The hero must have a single goal. The hero’s plans (the way they try to solve the problem) may change, but the goal never changes. When the hero achieves the goal, the story is over.
  • Flaw: The hero must have a personal flaw — ideally a psychological or moral weakness — that they must recognize and deal with, before they can achieve their goal. This flaw often points to the “theme”, or moral of the story.
  • Enemy: The hero needs an enemy who wants to stop the hero from achieving their goal. The more powerful and dangerous the enemy the better. And the closer the enemy is to the hero the better — both in terms of relationship and in terms of psychological make-up. The enemy is often the mirror image of the hero where the “flaw” has become the primary driver.
  • Action: The basic action that drives the story forward needs to be consistent with the hero’s character
  • Struggle: The hero must try and fail to solve the problem. Repeatedly. The hero learns something from each failure, and modifies the plan, getting closer and closer to dealing with core issue.
  • Disaster: Before the story ends, the hero needs to fail big-time. What Blake Snyder calls the “All is lost” moment, when the hero is worse off than when they started, and is pretty much ready to give up.
  • A Happy Ending: The hero overcomes their limitations, reaches the goal, and realizes their full potential.

Both Elliot and Snyder insist that writers figure out how to tell the story in just one or two sentences (the 25-word pitch) before working on any details. Why? Because it focuses the story and helps you figure out if it’s any good — before you get bogged down (for months!) in the details.

Going Hollywood With Your Story

Which brings us to the real challenge of this post. Can you take your big idea for positive social change, turn it into a Hollywood story, and then cram it into a 25-word pitch?

Given that all stories are really about character transformation — personal change — it is not surprising that the Hollywood story components closely fits with the social entrepreneur. Here is how the key story components can match up with a program for social change:

  • Hero: Your Customer
  • Goal: What your customer wants
  • Enemy: Whoever, or whatever, is stopping your customer from getting what they want — the status quo:
  • Struggle: What your customers learn or get from your product that helps them overcome the old limitations — your product features.
  • A Happy Ending: The new world order where your customers have transformed themselves using your service.

Is this too crass with the Hollywood ending? Not if you’re promising to change the world for the better.

Too corny with a hero? Not if you’re trying to help people with serious challenges. And not if you’re trying to engender personal responsibility.

Too formulaic? Well yes, it’s a template — a formula. But the final result, the final story, really depends on you and the uniqueness of your idea. The closer it is to your heart, the better it will be.

Okay, let’s fit these story parts into 25-word template for the social entrepreneur. The promise of change in 25 words or less…

The Template: 

A flawed hero [Your Customer]
Urgently needing change [Customer Needs]
Overcomes huge obstacles and powerful enemies [Established Limitations]
And learns how to open the door [Product Feature]
To a happy ending. [Product Benefit]

Writing the 25 words is really just a word game. But if it helps focus your thinking — and spread your idea — it’s probably worth playing.

Bottom-line: If we’re going to change things, we’re going to have to enlist, engage, and enroll people from outside our circles. Stories are a great way to do that.