How to Build Engagement With Story, Strategy, and Structure

POSTED ON Aug 19, 2013

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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I was listening to Bill Moyers interviewing Marshall Ganz on his Moyers and Company radio show. Ganz, who is one of the most influential organizers for political campaigns, unions and nonprofit groups, from working with Cesar Chavez and grape pickers in the 1970s to helping create strategy for Barack Obama’s historic 2008 run for the presidency.

Ganz, who is now a lecturer on Public Policy at Harvard University, was talking about the framework that helps build successful movements. Every one of his ideas started with story, a narrative, that drives everything else.

When it comes to the problem of finding and engaging people who share our own passions and interests, I find this kind of activity online all the time. It might be someone blogging and advocating for a social position, an author with a subject matter specialty building a community in her niche, or a trainer or consultant tasked with moving a social group of some kind to a new level of effectiveness and committment.

We’re all, in a way, creating these movements all the time.

Think about the last time you launched a book, and the way authors try to bring people into their own circle of interest and influence. A successful launch is, in its own way, a short-lived but active movement, based around the subject of the book, the author’s connection with her fans, or the agreement of a group of people who all want to see the same kind of change taking place in society.

Ganz’s 3-Part Framework for Advancing Engagement and Change

Ganz explained his framework this way:

  1. Story
    Everything begins with the narrative, because it explains the “why” of the situation. Why is a change, or a new way of doing things, needed? How did I become the prime mover of this situation? The story contains the backstory, the explanation for how we arrived at this point. It might also include specifics about how people or society have been adversely affected by the status quo. All our motivation to act comes directly from the story, and the crafting of stories that can cause groups of people to take action is a central concern for anyone who wants to bring people together to effect a change.
  2. Strategy
    Now we have to decide how we’ll work toward change. Having an environment in which people who have been brought together can work out effective strategies is a crucial step in this process. When we take strategies into the real world and try to actualize them, we set up a feedback loop that constantly brings us information about how effective our efforts have been. But clearly, without a strategy, nothing will take place. Even at the level of an internet marketing campaign for your training program, you need to have a fully-articulated strategy to bring about the end result you’re looking for. Although your goals themselves are stated or implied in your story, strategies always look toward the eventual completion of the aim.
  3. Structure
    Every group, movement, or cohort needs a structure that will enable the strategy to be implemented. These structures may involve establishing a membership-only group, a loose confederation of people bound only by their participation in your movement, or a formal organizational structure established according to laws and with specific legal responsibilities. Having a structure gives participants a place in the order of things, and clear lines along which strategies can be developed.

Each of these elements interacts with the other two, and an organization is likely to experience organic change as it evolves over time.

More than anything else in this formulation, Ganz’s insistence on the primacy of the story is a reminder that before anything else can happen, people need to be motivated by a clear problem (not enough readers, more money needed to lobby government figures, greater attention brought to problems that don’t break into the news cycle) and the aspirational statement of the solution to the problem.

For all of us who hope to build community, drive followers or fans to take action, or bring about change on any level, keeping this simple idea in mind can be really helpful.

For instance, a powerful exercise for authors who blog is to put time and energy into telling their own “origin story.” This can be an amazingly powerful exercise, but that’s a topic for another day.

Do you have a story that encapsulates your own “big why”—the real driver behind what you’re trying to do? I’d love to hear about it.


Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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