Rewriting the Script – Storytelling at SOCAP and Beyond

Story Wars
Jonah Sachs’ upcoming book explains why those who tell – and live – the best stories will rule the future.

SOCAP is the world’s largest conference convening at the intersection of money and meaning. At its core, it is a storytelling platform for those who apply business principles to social change – attendees included socially conscious entrepreneurs, investors, corporate employees, philanthropists, artists and an increasingly broad array of enthusiasts who came to tell their stories in front of 1,600 of their peers.

Over three full days, attendees were educated, challenged and inspired to action. Yet amidst all the discussion of past successes and hope for the future, there was still a sense of gaping incompletion – nagging elements of frustration, regret or discouragement stemming from the notion that these life- and world-altering stories would scarcely drift beyond the SOCAP conference grounds.

Panel after panel, this concern cropped up through various phrasings of the essentially the same question: When asked of the social entrepreneur – How do you scale? When aimed at the impact investor – How do we generate returns that attract the everyday investor? When intended for the corporate thought leader – How do we shift the paradigm of traditional consumer behavior? When inquired of a cause-oriented nonprofit – How do we gain the support of the masses?

Interestingly, some of the most relevant and all-encompassing answers had nothing to do with financial spreadsheets or statistical analysis. Instead, they were offered by some of the seemingly unlikeliest sources. Jonah Sachs, producer and founder of Free Range Studios explained how “those who tell and live the best stories will rule the future.”

In a first-ever, somewhat unconventional SOCAP session, titled “The New Connectivity: Storytelling for the Digital Age,” Sachs spoke of the historical role of big business in shaping our culture. “Marketers have become our modern mythmakers,” he explained. This is a problem because, as Sachs points out, today’s corporate-induced myths are largely steeped in the idea that the brand is hero and the audience is a damsel in distress.

The problem with being the damsel in distress is that we are uncomfortably distanced from our brands and the companies they represent so that we no longer have influence over them. Instead, we are disparaged by their commercials and ads that tell us what we aren’t and attempt to convince us of what we ought to be. This is just one manifestation of the destructive relationship between marketers and their customers, yet it serves to illustrate how our audiences are demoralized and reduced to paralysis rather than empowered to become heroes themselves.

The “hero” Sachs refers to is drawn from the script of Joseph Campbell, the iconic storytelling guru and genius behind the Hero’s Journey – a step-by-step methodology tracked through history’s greatest epics from Odysseus’ journey home from Troy to Luke Skywalker’s realization of his destiny to defeat the Empire. We all desire to be Campbell’s hero, to frame our lives within our own great epic as we strive for higher actualization both for ourselves and society. But Sachs challenges us to flip the script if we wish to write the stories that will create real and lasting impact. “You are not the hero. You must make your audience the hero.”

So who are you? “You are the mentor!” says Sachs.

And what is the role of the mentor? “Stop talking about how great you are and start telling stories about your audiences and how great they could be,” Sachs advises.

Once an audience starts to believe that they are capable of great feats, they will begin to move. And if the message resonates, they will become your evangelists. By engaging with your evangelists, what Sachs calls “arming the choir,” you demonstrate an act of partnership, respect and empowerment which will dramatically shift your relationship with your audience – from traditional “broadcast marketing” toward what Sachs terms “empowerment marketing.”

So, how can we apply this concept to life on our side of the screen or page? Here are five challenges posed frequently throughout SOCAP illustrating a variety of marketers and audiences:

1. Why don’t we let our corporations congratulate and inspire our customers to make them feel better about themselves rather than shaming them into buying our products?

2. In place of simply giving away things to the world’s 2 billion people living on less than $2 per day, can’t we partner with the poor to equip them with the tools and dignity to participate in solving the problems they understand best?

3. Rather than treating our investments with an exclusively analytical mind as we do the stock market, why can’t we get to know the individuals our dollars are intended to benefit?

4. How about moving beyond the implicit economic impacts of taxes and job creation of your local business to contribute information, time, finances and other creative efforts to empower your local community to solve its most pressing social problems?

5. Or, at the very least (and yet, not necessarily any less challenging than those above), shouldn’t we all simply live out the values we strive to embody through both our companies and personal lifestyles?

Perhaps the week’s most powerful example of empowerment marketing was delivered by documentary producer Chris Jordan on the main stage on the final morning of the event. By showing the trailer of his soon-to-be-released movie, Midway – A Love Story of our Time from the Heart of the Pacific, Chris lifted the veil from a largely unknown tragedy. For nearly four minutes, SOCAP held its breath as they watched the decaying bodies of tens of thousands of dead baby albatross birds, bodies filled with plastic from the heavily polluted island.

Before a standing ovation, Jordan rallied his audience to heroism by presenting each individual with the opportunity to champion the stories of SOCAP: “Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time and allow ourselves to feel deeply enough that it transforms ourselves and our future? Come with me on a journey through the eye of beauty across an ocean of grief and beyond.”

Now it’s our turn to embrace the role of the mentor so that our audience can write the heroic stories that will rule the future.

Travis heads up strategic partnerships here at Previously, he has worked with several social enterprises including Calvert Foundation, SOCAP and Karisimbi Business Partners, a socially motivated management consulting start-up in Rwanda. He has also served in Guatemala as a Social Entrepreneur Corps Fellow and continues to support Wild River Organics, his family’s organic fruit farm. Travis received his BS in Business Administration from Pepperdine University. He can be reached at and followed on his responsible travel blog at

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