The Imperative of Now

Over recent weeks, we’ve been looking at storytelling and its place in community organising. As we arrive in the New Year, its time to finish outlining the approach to organising developed by Marshall Ganz of Harvard University. We have seen how organisers – and community leaders – need to be ready to tell their public narrative, an account of their motivation and values. So far we have looked at developing your Story of Self and your Story of Us. The final Story we need to uncover is the Story of Now.

imageThree Linked Stories

The three parts of your public narrative do not stand in isolation but rather they work to reinforce and illustrate each other. For Marshall Ganz, such storytelling is foundational to leadership. We build a community’s action from their own history and context. We give them space to uncover the deep wells of shared motivation and experience that will sustain them in difficult times. Organisers tutor the leaders who emerge from the work in their own public narrative, becoming over time the best spokespeople for the work and able to share the collective journey with all sorts of people.

Stories are most powerful when they are short and told with passion. We will look at some clues to better story-telling later in January but the organiser plays a key role in coaching the community in telling powerful stories about their shared endeavour. You can become proficient in telling your public narrative in any order and at the drop of a hat. Practice both on your own and before others is critical to improving your capacity to tell your story with conviction and humour. Keeping it to just two minutes forces you to focus on the key elements – the challenge, the choice and the outcome – and makes it capable of being reinvented for different audiences. Once you can confidently tell each of your stories in two minutes, then you can use them flexibly to tell in various setting when you can learn to expand and embellish them with a purpose.

So what’s this Story of Now?

It’s all well and good describing the problem and focusing attention on the consequences of no action but leadership is about identifying the next practical step and motivating others to join you in tackling the issue together. The Story of Now is all about action in the immediate future and helping those you are talking to to recognise their responsibility for taking that action.

imageThe Story of Now follows the same pattern as the other Stories but with a twist. There’s a challenge, but instead of being in the past, it’s in the present. There’s hope, but instead of something that happened in the past, it’s in the future. And there’s a choice, but instead of being a choice we once made, it’s a choice we must make now. And that’s why it’s a “Story of Now”.

The Story of Now follows the familiar structure but in the present and future. The strategy is a fundamental part of the Story. How will we achieve the goal we want? The choice is about what the individuals in your audience need to do today, before they leave. It offers a hopeful option that directs energy toward a collective solution. And finally there is a vivid description of what we can achieve together if we act now.

Working on your Story of Now can be challenging. It can cause us to think again about what we want and how the goal will be reached. It can ask us deep questions about the solution we have chosen and whether the Story of Self and the Story of Us provide the motivation and energy to deliver the collective action that is now needed. It can help us gauge whether the action we are asking of our people can build power and do so in a way that shows our values in the best light.

There are stories in every community about why we need to act now. We also have stories about our challenge and its urgency. We can tell those stories to offer hope in the face of the challenge and picture the future when we have overcome it. The challenge needs to be made particular by appealing to the sounds, smells and images of the situation. The choice needs to be stark and compelling, now or never. Your vision needs to be concrete and evocative, speaking of the new reality that action together will deliver.

Moving Stories by Het Nieuwe Instituut CC FlickrNo story is complete without an audience. Your Story of Now – like your Story of Self and your Story of Us – needs to resonate with your listeners. In your choice of images, the characters in your stories, your language and metaphors, you need to judge carefully how they will be heard by your intended recipients. A great story can lose credibility if it does not relate to the experience of your audience. Give them your very best links so they can see how what you are telling them has immediacy for their situation, how it motivates them specifically for this action now.

Frames, memes and myth

In building your public narrative, organisers need to be aware of the frame of their stories. As we have already explored, changing frames can change it’s meaning entirely. What you put in the foreground of your narrative can place in the background a range of factors that your audience may for example be more aware of. Such a frame can mean that your audience is confused or unsure what point you are making. Make sure you put the emphasis on the most potent elements of the story for your audience.

The role of your public narrative is to offer back to the community a myth of their own making. Myths draw on deep human drives and dilemmas and to make a really powerful narrative, any storyteller needs to create tension and resolution, adventure and return, heroines and persecutors. The so-called ‘narrative arch’ is important to any story and for public narrative it points to the future shape of the solution.

Pulling on the current memes of your community – be they soap story lines, adverts or current box office hits – and subverting them to tell your own story can deliver a really creative and powerful sense of the moment. Memes are small units of cultural life that are duplicated, shared and reused but which also develop their own life as people shape and reshape their meaning for different purposes (Think how the Stay Calm and Carry On slogan has been reinvented and transformed for many purposes.) Creativity is often about using such memes with skill and dexterity. Look for opportunities to give your story currency and immediate appeal.

imageCreating your Stories

For the community leader, the Story of Now is setting the scene for action. It draws on motivation from the past but also the challenge of the future. It impels the audience toward a hopeful outcome and presents a tangible choice in strong contrast with the present. Whether it is where you start or the final flourish of your public narrative, your Story of Now makes the case for collective action that builds the power of the community and gives everyone a role to play.

Next Time: As organisers we are faced with stories that undermine our communities, that fragment them and leave them without hope. We need to recognise some of those stories and work to develop alternative narratives that serve our goals. We need to tell ourselves, each other and the wider world empowering and authentic stories of hope and resilience.


Jonathan Gottschall (2012) The Storytelling Animal – how stories make us human Mariner

Crafting your Public Narrative – from a climate change perspective Available as a pdf here

Marshall Ganz (2011) ‘Public Narrative, Collective Action and Power’ in Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee 2011 Accountability through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action World Bank Available as a pdf here  Single chapter also available here

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream” (speech, Washington, DC, August 28, 1963) available here

John Capecci and Timothy Cage (2012) Living Proof: Telling Your Story to Make a Difference Granville Circle Press

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1 Response to The Imperative of Now

  1. Joe Taylor says:

    Hi Mark
    I read this one years back
    You brought it back to mind.

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