Winning the Internet

Why Screenwriters Make the Best Organizers: Using Storytelling to Build Empathy

After a great run, the Winning the Internet blog has been retired. However, you can still keep in touch with New Media Mentors here.

Kate Stayman LondonAs we gear up for Netroots Nation 2013, we’re taking a closer look at some of the convention’s hottest training sessions. We’re interviewing the trainers and taking you inside some of online activism’s most popular and elusive topics.

Today we’re interviewing Kate Stayman-London, who’ll be leading Why Screenwriters Make the Best Organizers: Using Storytelling to Build Empathy.

NN13 Training Session

Why Screenwriters Make the Best Organizers: Using Storytelling to Build Empathy
When you watch that six-minute silent montage at the beginning of Pixar’s UP, you probably start sobbing like a small child. But why? Great storytellers know how to build empathy between a character and an audience, and they know how to do it quickly. This training will break down storytelling technique used by screenwriters and teach you how to apply that same technique for more effective organizing, from email to fundraising to video. Instead of using boilerplate messaging like, “Demand blank now,” this training will teach you to tell riveting stories with clear stakes that will move your audience to action.


Q: Tell us about your storytelling experience.

A: I live a dual life as a screenwriter and political consultant, and storytelling plays a huge role in both of those arenas. I got my Master’s in Screenwriting at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, and since then I’ve written videos for folks like Cher and the cast of The West Wing. I never imagined my screenwriting experience would be so relevant to my work in politics, but I’ve found that applying the principles of screenwriting to creating content for political groups has completely changed the way I work.

Q: Why is storytelling an important part of organizing?

A: I believe that the core concept behind effective organizing is empathy — the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, imagine that her life is your life, take action to help her as if she were you or someone very close to you. You’ve probably read a progressive email that says something like, “Imagine if this were happening to your grandma.” With great storytelling, you don’t have to force that comparison, because your audience is already feeling that connection.

Think about your favorite movie — you probably really care what happens to the main character. No one had to convince you to care about that person, because the screenwriter used storytelling technique to get you feeling empathy for the characters. People have so much capacity for empathy and compassion, and storytelling is how you can tap into those emotions and help your audience understand why the issues that are important to you should also be important to them.

Q: What are two of the most important things to consider when telling stories?

A: There are two core concepts behind any story — structure and character. The structure is about setting up an attainable goal with clear stakes, and character is about enabling your audience to connect to the person who’s trying to achieve that goal. Creating structure and character is easier than you might think — there are very simple rules you can follow, and that’s a big part of what I’ll be covering in my training. First I’ll show you how some of the best storytellers in the world (the folks at Pixar) follow these rules, and then I’ll teach you how to apply them to your campaigns.

Q: Why should folks attend your session at Netroots Nation, and how can they connect with you?

A: I hope folks will attend my training because it’s going to be really fun — I’m actually not exaggerating when I say you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll have a great time. But more than that, I hope people will attend because I think we in the progressive movement need to be committed to great storytelling. Conservatives hope people will focus on their own needs, but progressives know our strength comes from caring about each other.

If you want to get in touch with me, you can find me on Twitter @_ksl, or you can learn more about me and my work at Hope to see you in San Jose!


To attend this training, or one of the 39 others at Netroots Nation 2013 in San Jose, register now.

About Melissa Foley

Melissa is the Director of Training and Mentoring for Netroots Foundation and New Media Mentors. She aims to use her MBA + nonprofit background to teach organizations to use new media tools strategically.


  1. Netroots Foundation | Netroots Nation 2013 Training Roundup | Winning the Internet - July 10, 2013

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