How to Build Engagement With Story, Strategy, and Structure

by | Aug 19, 2013

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.


tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Carol Fragale Brill

    “Everything begins with the narrative, because it explains the “why” of the situation”
    Joel, I value the reminder of the importance of a good story in the above quote.
    For me, what drove the desire to write my novel, Peace by Piece, was the belief that women are ready for a realistically drawn woman with an eating disorder in fiction. Not a character who was only a character with an eating disorder, but a woman with everyday relationships and challenges who happens to also struggle with an eating disorder.

    • Susan Bailey

      Carol, has your novel been published? I would really be interested in reading it as my family has a history of anorexia and bulimia. Lately I’ve been researching it, first reading Little Girl Blue about Karen Carpenter and then Cherry Boone O’Neill’s book, Starved for Attention. I found a fascinating history on the disease by Dr. Joan Brumberg called Fasting Girls A History of Anorexia Nervosa, and I found a novel by Goethe called Elective Affinities where one of the characters suffers from an eating disorder. So as you can see, I am very interested.

      • Carol Fragale Brill

        Hi Susan, thanks for asking about my novel, PEACE BY PIECE. It was published earlier this year and you can find out more about it at
        Like you, I read other fiction and non-fiction about Anorexia and Bulimia. I found they were often more clinical or focused almost exclusively on the character’s eating disorder. With Peace by Piece, I wanted Maggie to be a character women would relate to because she had the same day to day joys and struggles as them–family, friends, relationships, an unshakable first love. Her eating disorder is a critical part of the story, but it is far from her only story.
        Thanks again for your interest

        • Susan Bailey

          Thanks so much. I see too it’s available for the Nook which is cool. Looking forward to reading it.

          • Carol Fragale Brill

            Thanks Susan. Glad the Nook version works for you. carol

    • Joel Friedlander

      Carol, that’s exactly the kind of “big why” I was talking about in the article, and there’s no more compelling way of communicating it than through story.

  2. ABE

    I got tired of reading about ‘normal’ people.

    People with disabilities (and that covers a lot of ground) live in the cracks of the system. The Phantom of the Opera can’t have the girl at the end. The Hunchback of Notre Dame has to be happy to watch from afar as his love is made happy by someone else.

    Or worse: the Beast must be redeemed and become normal before he is good enough for Belle. He must be cured.

    What if your heroine has a disability – visible or otherwise? Is she not allowed to want? What if the world has so indoctrinated her that she buys into it, and removes herself from ‘competition’ before someone else will do it for her?

    There are stories there, of people who have ‘something wrong with them,’ and yet are still valuable human beings, with the same dreams as everyone else – and a chance to fulfill them. WITHOUT being cured first.

    Pride’s Children is one such story. (I’m serializing it on my blog as I write it.)

    And then there is the marketing: how do you sell the story to ‘normals’? And how do you hook readers who are themselves disabled, when the tendency is for readers to want to invest their time in escaping from their own problems by temporarily identifying with a hero or heroine who is young and healthy and good-looking?

    I hope the answer is to write a good book.

    It’s still going to be one interesting process to market and sell.

    • Joel Friedlander

      ABE, that’s a great “reason why” you need to bring these insights to a larger audience. I think the 3-part process outlined in the article could actually be of help to you. You already have stories that create motivation and outline the problem, your challenge will be to come up with strategies to introduce these themes to readers and a structure from which to deliver them. Since many of our themes devolve from classic human predicaments, I think you’ll find a ready audience once you find solutions to those issues.

      • ABE

        Joel, Never fear – I bookmark these things very carefully, because part of my strategy is to not leave things to chance, but LEARN how to do them correctly.

        I’m not there yet – but I’m also not finished writing. I HAVE started the blog, and educating myself about everything under the sun that is now the indie author’s responsibility – even unto being open to the idea that self-publishing MAY not be the way for a particular book to go.

        We live in interesting times – the good way.

  3. Susan Bailey

    I feel like I have a mission to fulfill in the project I am working on. As a devoted student and fan of Louisa May Alcott, I am very much into her family as well as they were the primary reason for her success for several reasons. Her middle sister Elizabeth whom she immortalized in Little Women as Beth March is the least understood of the family members and little has been done on her life. Yet she has been derided for not having the will to live as she died young at age 23. It is considered that the fictional character of Beth March is Lizzie Alcott but Lizzie was far more complex. There are many people in the world like Lizzie who are dutiful, self-sacrificing, loving people who are often overlooked and under appreciated. I want to give Lizzie a voice so that these people too will have a voice.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Susan, you have an interesting task, but if you can make the lessons of Alcott’s work and life relevant to readers today, you’ll be well on your way.

      • Susan Bailey

        That is the real challenge, making this viable for today’s reader. People that are fans of Little Women and Louisa May Alcott create a niche group these days as the book is not as universally popular as it once was. However that group is very passionate as evidenced not only by the number of visitors to Orchard House but the type of visitor (knowledgeable, passionate). I do think if I can somehow get across the general sense that there are many people in the world like Lizzie Alcott/Beth March (women and men) who are ignored but contribute so much, and that they too deserve a voice, then I will have accomplished my goal.

  4. Venkatesh Iyer

    How does a budding author who is also a budding blogger build a community?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Venkatesh, I suggest you start looking through the posts in the Author Blogging 101 category, there’s a lot of information on how to build trust, attract an audience, and engage with them, more than I could squeeze into this comment field.



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