How telling better stories can change the world

I just finished reading an intriguing book about storytelling, “Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell—and live—the best stories will rule the future,” by Jonah Sachs.

Sachs takes a different route than most of what I’ve read about storytelling. His book is about myth making. The real story wars in today’s world, according to Sachs, are about how we interpret the world and ourselves. They’re about values and morals, archetypes and heroes.

To give you an example, let’s talk about Annie Leonard and Glenn Beck.

I bet you have seen Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff,” a 20-minute video about, well, STUFF: the things that we buy, use and turn into garbage. Leonard turned abstract economic theory into a simple story, populated by stick figures, that’s easily understood. (Sachs’ studio produced “The Story of Stuff” for Leonard.) Here’s the video.

The video went viral and has reached over 15 million people. It spawned a best-selling book and a nonprofit with more than 300,000 fans. The film has been shown in more than 1,500 classrooms.

You also likely know Glenn Beck. Beck is an influential figure and a very successful media brand. In 2010 he earned $13 million a year from his books and magazines, $10 million from radio, $3 million in events and (while still on Fox) $2 million from TV. And he was instrumental in helping the Tea Party movement claim some major victories in 2010.

According to Sachs, Glenn Beck tells his followers that “The Story of Stuff” is evil. He’s talked about the video at least two dozen times on his show.

Why does this brand behemoth care about a little stick figure video? Because Leonard challenges Beck’s myth about how the world works.

On the surface, “The Story of Stuff” is about the enormous and invisible price tag of consumption. But the moral of the story is bigger than that. It’s about looking out for each other instead of just getting as much stuff as we can. According to Leonard, that will lead to a better quality of life.

Beck’s moral is the opposite: Freedom is pursuing the good of the individual. Pursuing the good of the collective is tyranny.

Here are how the two mythologies compare in meaning, explanation and story, according to Sachs.

Annie Leonard:

Explanation: This is how our materials economy works. (It may have been invisible to you before.)

Meaning: The system is not bringing happiness, so it’s time to look for meaning beyond consumption.

Story: No longer just abstract economic theory, but a world with villains, heroes (all of us who care to act), conflict and high stakes: the survival of human life on the planet.

Glenn Beck:

Explanation: The battle for America is a battle between progressive elites and real, freedom-loving Americans. Think big city elites vs. rugged frontiersmen, the state vs. the individual.

Meaning: Fighting this battle is the most patriotic and satisfying activity Americans can engage in. (Beck says that he himself was saved from alcoholism and suicide by this greater purpose.)

Story: The drama is embodied in compelling characters, conflict and incredibly high stakes.

Higher purpose

‘While their stories couldn’t be more different, both Leonard and Beck share a core belief “that average Americans yearn to be part of something more than a quest for status or comfort or convenience. . . . They invite us to get involved in a grand, unfolding drama much larger than ourselves.” [Sachs’ emphasis]

All wars are story wars, Sachs says. It’s an “ancient pattern of powerful worldviews colliding.”

Many of today’s wars are being fought by marketers: from causes to candidates, brands to movies. Sachs’ call to arms is for marketers to reshape the media marketplace and orient it to ideas that call people to help create a better world.

This is the power of myth making. Watch for more blog posts about Sachs’ book.