When we watch characters on the screen, why do they make us laugh or cry? And why does one story make us want to support a charity or social cause? It turns out compelling human stories trigger a chemical response in our brains. Neuroscientist Dr. Paul Zak has been studying the neurochemical oxytocin for years, and learned that humans have a chemical response similar to animals when we find another human trust-worthy: a spike in our oxytocin makes us feel connected to another human being. Even when watching the human on a screen, this response is triggered—what Dr. Zak calls the golden rule response: “if you treat me well, in most cases my brain will synthesize oxytocin and this will motivate me to treat you well in return.”
Most recently, Dr. Zak conducted a study with several short films from St. Jude’s Hospital. When viewers connected with the characters in a short film about a father whose young son is dying of cancer, they had an increase in cortisol and oxytocin. That chemical boost ran parallel to feelings of empathy with the characters, which was increased when there was a strong “narrative arc”—a powerful dramatic rise and climax to the real people story line.
This doesn’t come as a big surprise to those of us working in nonprofit direct response and impact story-telling. We know that to get donors to give and communities to care, we have to tell powerful stories. We know that viewers must connect emotionally with our characters, just as they would with characters in a fiction film. We do this through not just their words and images, but through lighting techniques, music scoring and the pacing of our edits. But building empathy isn’t enough. We have to create a dramatic arc that builds to a climax. We have to create suspense around some kind of obstacle that the characters must overcome, whether it is in their past or present. And our viewers have to relate to that obstacle, even if it is not precisely the same for them.
This is why pre-interviewing potential characters is so essential for documentary-style stories based on real people. Before they go on camera, we need to understand what will be compelling, what will not be relatable, and what will build suspense for our viewers. And now it turns out that what we’re also doing is triggering those chemical responses in the brain that will make our subjects and their story connect to the brains of our viewers. In the case of nonprofit storytelling, we need those chemical responses to be strong, because we are usually looking for a response that extends to well after the video ends: we want a viewer to get involved in a cause, donate money, write to their elected officials, or change some previous behavior (stop smoking, lose weight, etc). So it turns out that all these years I thought I was an English major-turned-filmmaker, it turns out that I’m in the neuroscience business: triggering a brain response that helps people act on the golden rule, and do great things for others and the world.
Amy DeLouise is a director and producer who tells real people stories to help viewers connect with causes and take action.
Just about every week, a client asks me if we can use a famous person’s video clip or voice in one of their productions. The much talked-about “Come Back to the Sea” Carnival Cruise lines Superbowl Spot brings up yet again this topic much discussed among creative media-makers: what rights are involved, even for public domain archival materials?
So-called “rights of publicity” are often something to consider when you are using a person’s image or voice to endorse a product or brand. In an interview with PR Newswire, the Carnival spot’s Director Wally Pfister (Dark Knight, Inception) seemed to be saying that an implicit product sale wasn’t the point of the ad (“we aren’t just asking consumers to purchase a product or widget, but instead, we are hoping to move them to feel a certain way about cruising.”) While the JFK’s “we are tied to the ocean” 1962 speech made to the Ambassador of Australia and delegation might be considered public domain because he made it while serving in public office, the audio could be considered to fall under rights of publicity when it comes to promoting a cruise line. (Disclaimer: I’m not an attorney. I don’t play one on TV. And I have no personal knowledge of whether or not BBDO requested these rights from the Kennedy estate.)
As creative content producers–whether commercial ventures or nonprofit enterprises–we should always be wary about this issue of the rights of people to their own voices and images, even when they are deceased. A few relevant cases come to mind. Ford Motor Company used a “sound-alike” voice in a commercial and Bette Midler sued. The appellate court ruled in favor of Midler, saying that her voice was protected against unauthorized use. The ad agency who came up with the creative (Young & Rubicum) was also named in the suit. A similar situation occurred with the estate of Erol Flynn when a photo of him was used in car ad.
Well, these are famous Hollywood stars you might say. JFK was a public servant. True enough. But the family of Richard Nixon raised a big fuss with Disney over Oliver Stone’s movie “Nixon”. On the other side of the ledger, the makers of “Selma” completely avoided using the actual words of Martin Luther King in his famous speeches, presumably because of the highly litigious reputation of the King family when it comes to MLK rights of publicity. That’s really too bad, as a generation of film-goers might never read or hear the real speeches.
So it’s a dilemma, and one you can’t always determine with full clarity in advance. As media makers, we always need to be mindful about archival clips, why we choose them, and how to use them properly. That often means running creative ideas by attorneys (as if EP and client reviews aren’t enough!). Defending our creative choices in the courts isn’t really what we have in mind when we’re designing storyboards, so it does need to play into our thinking.
Amy DeLouise is not an attorney nor does she play one on TV. She is a creative producer and director, and speaks and writes about the issues faced by other creative types trying to earn a living making interesting content.
In philanthropy, the saying is that people give to people, not causes. Connecting at the level of hearts and minds has always been critical to building long-term relationships with donors, and also with grassroots supporters. And the best way to do that is through storytelling. Now that YouTube, Vimeo, and other Web 2.0 tools are giving so many nonprofits a “channel” for their stories, personal narrative is being rediscovered. But to tell a compelling story requires critical elements.
What makes a compelling story about mission?
1. Focus on outcomes. Everyone loves a success story. Reality TV is filled with them: obese person becomes thinner, aspiring chef wins the prize, talented singer gets a record deal. Think of the success stories in your organization, but instead of listing them as bullet-points, express them through anecdotal stories.
2. Focus on people. The people who make it happen and the people whose lives are changed. Who are the people who made a difference in students lives? What are those students doing today? Who is the volunteer who went into a community and changed it for the better? What is happening in that neighborhood now? What would have happened to that child without a medical intervention paid for by others? What kind of life does this child have today? Interview-driven narratives are highly successful at building the case for donors and volunteers.
3. Show why your organization matters. Somewhere in the narrative, you need to show viewers why your organization made a tangible difference in the outcome. It wasn’t just random acts of kindness that led to this success. It was your people, your dedication, your/their dollars at work.
4. Engage viewers in their own narrative. Make sure there is a call to action somewhere in your story, usually at the very end. “How can you make a difference just like Alice did?” “With just 20 cents per day, you can change the life of a child like Shawn.” “Join us at our XYZ event to make your voice heard.” Think about what story viewers want to create for themselves after watching yours.
5. Provide follow-up options. If a viewer is moved by your narrative, they should easily be able to click somewhere next to the video or case study to do something–sign up for the conference, make a donation, become a member. Despite the tendency to want sheer numbers—hey, our video got 20,000 views!—you really want qualified viewers. And viewers who will ACT once they’ve heard your story. So be sure you provide a way they can engage other than passive viewing. The framework around the video should have clickable links. And if you are participating in Youtube’s nonprofit program, you can embed links to your nonprofit site directly in your video content.
Telling and hearing stories is our oldest human instinct. Web 2.0 just makes it easier to share.
Amy DeLouise helps nonprofits tell their stories, strategize about their futures, and influence the world around them.