The role of stories in organising

Early in 2015 I completed a course in organising with Marshall Ganz: Leadership, Organizing and Action. Ganz’ deconstructs organising into five crafts: public narrative (covered in this post), relationships, structure, strategy, and action. In this post I summarise and explore Ganz’ treatment of public narrative. All unsourced quotations come from the course.

Story is fundamental to organising. This isn’t surprising. Story, or narrative if you prefer, is fundamental to being human. According to Jerome Bruner, 85% of time parents spend with children is spent storytelling. It is through story that we understand happenings, communicate our values, and make sense of our choices. As leaders, organisers can explain why they are called to lead, can describe the shared values and purpose of their community, and can show the urgency of now – all through story.

Organising requires moving others to act. And moving others to act requires answering two questions: how do we do it? and why does it matter? Strategy, win numbers, timelines – they engage with this first question. But if we want to get people to change their routines, to shake up their lives, to give up their weekends, to challenge themselves, it’s not enough to just tell them what to do. Nor is it enough to tell them that it matters. Instead we must make them feel the importance in themselves. In organising, writes Marshall Ganz, a narrative “both instructs and inspires – teaching us not only how we ought to act, but motivating us to act.”

“You have to claim authorship of your story and learn to tell it to others so they can understand the values that move you to act, because it might move them to act as well.” [1]

This sort of narrative is the “Story of Self” and it allows the narrator to give a public account of themselves. Leaders have a responsibility to explain who they are – not just in terms of their pedigree or education, but in terms of their values, their motivations, their calling. This helps potential followers to understand a leader’s message, and to decide whether their own values ask the same action of them. It also prevents the leader’s story from being told by somebody else.

What is this narrative, though? Like a poem, it should be moving, not through its length or precision, but by offering “an experience or moment through which we grasp the feeling or insight”. Leaders don’t tell their life story, but their life’s stories: those experiences or moments that have made them who they are: ‘This is why I first decided to take action against injustice.’

“The initial challenge for an organizer…is to figure out how to break through the inertia of habit to get people to pay attention.” [2]

Leaders want people to change their routines. This is disruptive. Lives are lived, more or less, in autopilot. The brain only switches out of autopilot when it identifies a change to the environment, an incongruity – “Dude, where’s my car?” In the case of organising, such an incongruity might be between the world we want and the world as it is – or between how we are acting, and what our values ask of us.

“It is only when the routines break down, when the guidelines are unclear, when no one can tell us what to do, that we make real choices and become the creators of our own lives, communities and futures. Then we become the agents of our own fate.” [3]

This challenge to the status quo is the first part of the story. Something interferes with the trajectory. The path forward isn’t clear – there’s a need for a “real choice”.

This choice is the second part of the story. The narrator – facing uncertainty – makes a choice. But why did they make this choice? Because of who they are – their values. Our moral choices are tied to our emotions. In story, decisions convey values and provoke an emotional resonance.

The final part of the story of self is the outcome. What results from the choice? What was learnt? A good story has to mean something. It has to have a point. What’s the point? In the outcome, we find out.

This sequence – challenge, choice, outcome – makes up the story of self. The narrator tells of a disruption to the status quo, a deliberate choice about how to respond, and what that choice led to. The story demonstrates the narrator’s values – the audience is shown, rather than told, what the narrator values. It doesn’t need to be said. It’s stronger in not being said.

This sequence is at the heart of all narrative so, unsurprisingly, also makes up the story of us, and the story of now. The narrator describes a community’s challenge, the community’s response, and what that means. And then we reach the now, the present moment, this instant, and we understand what we need to do.

So that’s the why and the what of narrative. As for when, there are probably two key moments. One is when meeting one-on-one with a potential volunteer, at the start of a relationship. The second is in the service of a group, interpreting and making sense of external events. Indeed, Ganz argues that “the interpretation of the movement’s new experience is a critical leadership function.”

Finally, how. The how is about as hard in practise as it is easy in theory: just do it. Tell your stories again and again and get feedback about what is memorable or moving and build on that and work with it. Your stories and how you tell them will change. But always keep practising, revising, iterating. For, after all, social movements are like tall buildings – they are made up of stories.

[1] Ganz, M. (2009). Why Stories Matter. [online] Sojourners. Available at: [Accessed 2 Nov. 2015].

[2] ibid.

[3] Ganz, M. (2007). WHAT IS PUBLIC NARRATIVE. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Nov. 2015].


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