Leading the Story in the 21st Century

Narrative HeaderStar Wars and Narrative

I recently bought the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD.  Together, the people in my household have been watching them one by one.  Unbelievably, everyone under my roof have not seen these movies up until now, except for me.  I have had to explain how one could not truly understand American culture until a person has seen—no experienced–those movies.

Most Americans have not only seen the Star Wars movies, they have memorized them.  But I’ll even take it a step further.  Most people have in some way become a part of the Star Wars narrative.  They have bought the merchandise, dressed up as a character a time or two, had some sort of light saber battle, and/or had some sort of theater experience.

My Mom was pregnant with me when she saw the first movie.  I saw the re-releases at a giant theater in southern California at midnight, where most people were dressed up and reciting the lines with the characters onscreen.  Star Wars is a part of my story.  It’s in my blood.

The reason why this is compelling is not because 1970’s special effects are still cutting-edge, or because no movies since have come close to that level of dialogue and character development.  It is because Star Wars is great narrative, or maybe even the best narrative.  That is what compels people to see it.  But I’m not just talking about the story on screen.  The greatness of the narrative has surprisingly little to do with the plot of the movies themselves.

Yes, the actual story in the movies is great, which is part of what fueled the original success, but there is far more than that.  There are the special features-type stories of where the characters came from, how the ships were built, and even how Lucas came up with novel ideas for filming.  People knew these stories long before home movies were even around.  But beyond that there are stories of “where I first saw…” and memories of all the times that each person somehow interacted with the idea behind Star Wars.  Star Wars is not a movies series, or even a brand.  Star Wars is a story…and it is all part of our stories.  And that is what sets Star Wars apart.

Star Wars is not peculiar in this regard, it is just a great example.  There are other movies, TV shows, books, and even events.  Nor is this a new phenomenon.  What is new is how communications technologies have transformed the popular consciousness and ways of processing information to make this concept of narrative far more important than ever before.

The Revolution in Culture

But the same point about movies is true about companies, products, and political candidates.  Truly, the world is nearing the end of a revolution in communication, a revolution that has changed very fundamental parts of the way people think and act, and ultimately is very good.  But, like any revolution, those who can’t evolve and those who refuse to understand will be left far behind.

You can see the revolution all around you.  You see it when you realize that movie blockbusters get people to wait in line for hours to sit through a brief film that won’t affect their lives all that much, while no one waits in line to hear a sermon on Sunday morning.  People flock to Lady Gaga concerts, when no one would suggest that she is the best musician on the scene.  But beyond these examples, the viral videos and memes of the Internet all become part of the lingua franca of our culture.  The evening news reports of riots in Egypt have been largely replaced by youtube videos and tweets of the average people there.  Story has become not only the message, but the way that messages are communicated, and the way they are absorbed.

Why is this the case?  It is because people crave the narrative.  People think in story.  A good story will draw people much better than a sermon about “3 ways to be a better dad.”  People love the narrative of Lady Gaga much more than her music.  Story motivates, enthralls, and ultimately inspires action.  And it is this concept that will either be a key to success for future leaders and motivators, or guarantee failure in the new social setting of the 21st century.

The 2008 Election

This is why people like Barak Obama and even Sarah Palin have seen success in the last few years.  The election of 2008 was a lock for Obama long before any votes were actually cast.  It had nothing to do with race, or even hatred of Bush.  It was really all due to one simple fact: Barak had a compelling narrative that people felt a part of, and McCain had none.

Remember the election?  Barak Obama stood for hope and change.  He stood for people chanting “Yes we can!”  He was the mixed-race son of an immigrant.  He talked a lot about what he believed and what we could achieve, and seldom talked about how we could do it.  What was his economic plan?  What was his health care plan?  How was he going to extricate us from Iraq and win in Afghanistan?

This isn’t to put him down.  It wasn’t that he didn’t have a plan, or even that his plan wasn’t any good.  Those issues don’t matter to his success, and didn’t matter to those voting for him in the election.  He wasn’t elected on his ideas.  He was elected on his narrative.  That is also the reason why people react to criticism of Obama with such rabid ferocity.  To attack his idea is to attack the narrative, and the narrative is not just his story, it is theirs.  That is why they wear his face on T-shirts, buy magazines and books with him on the cover, and give him Nobel Peace prizes before he’d accomplished anything.

What was McCain’s narrative?  He actually has a great one.  He’s a warrior from Vietnam who spent years being abused in a POW camp.  He is also a long time warrior with results in the Senate.  But during the election, he suppressed all of that in order to focus on the whats and hows of the issues.  When the recession hit hard, he suspended his campaign to come up with ideas to fix it.  That was very admirable, but it further removed him from the story.  Further, although the memory of Vietnam is still rather fresh for many Baby Boomers, it is not the narrative of the last 20+ years, and it certainly could not have been the central narrative of the 2008 election.

When election day came, people did one of three things.  Some voted for Sarah Palin’s narrative.  They marked McCain’s name, but it was the narrative of Sarah Palin that motivated them (look at the polling for McCain before and after her entry to the scene).  Some voted against Barak Obama, for one reason of another.  But many more than either of those two groups joined in the Obama narrative.  Barak won decisively.

Narrative in 2010

In the 2010 election, the story was reversed.  The narrative now was all about a “Tea Party.”  New leaders had arisen, talking about fiscal responsibility, and tying their stories to the story of the founding of the country.  They adopted the American story as their own, and called people back to the ideas that America was originally built on.

Speakers for the Conservative movement started talking about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Constitution.  The message was pretty simple, American exceptionalism as a kind of gospel, the Founding Fathers as apostles and martyrs, and the Tea Party leaders as evangelists of this new gospel.

Average Americans were showing up at rallies and speeches, joining the new narrative with their own.  No longer was the message about what one was being told by Rush Limbaugh.  Now people were calling Rush Limbaugh to tell what happened in their city, and they were posting photos on Facebook and hash-tagging it on Twitter.  The Mainstream media and liberal commentators were trying to stop it by using terms like “Tea-baggers,” but they were playing into the very hands of the movement.  They were simply adopting the narrative.

The Democrats had no counter.  They had no narrative.  Health care reform had passed.  They were in charge.  There was no compelling story to sell, and no story was told.  The base was barely engaged in the election.  Even Liberal veterans in states like California were afraid, and digging their claws in to hold on.

The election was a landslide.  The story was believed and it motivated people to go to the polls and vote for their favorite story that now included them.  The incredible momentum of 2 years ago now seemed like a political eternity.

He Who Tells the Story…

Narrative is now the main force in American politics.  In a way it always has been, but now the image-makers and strategists cannot ignore it.  The winners of elections and the leaders with true influence will be the ones who control the narrative, and even more importantly include the average voter in that storyline.  The money and power of elections will be not the ones who spend the most on TV ads and bumper stickers, but the ones who leverage social media, viral video, and who tell the most compelling story.

This is because these media are where the narrative is being communicated, and further where the whole tale goes viral, where it joins with the people’s own story.  Facebook for instance, will not be nearly as important as just another type of billboard or position statement, but as a way to interact, and hand the baton of the story off to the community.  Successful leaders must think conversation more than TV ad.  For when Sarah Palin puts up a message on Facebook, people hear it.  But when someone comments on the message she just put up, in a real way now they feel as though they have entered into the conversation with Sarah Palin, and their friends are all now included.

This is not to say that money on print and TV ads will not be important.  On the contrary, those who don’t get their story told to the biggest possible audiences will have no ability to control the narrative or include others in it.  Nor does the focus on social media mean that money can simply be thrown into these technologies in the same way that they are thrown into TV and print.

The real center of power, and money-making potential will be in crafting the narrative and handling the exchange between one way communication and conversation.  The challenge will be in making the message  become a story, and making the candidate’s story become the people’s story.  And the ability to control and manage that narrative will be the difference between the future John McCains and the Barak Obamas. -Ryan

For further research on this, watch this incredible lecture by Simon Senek on Ted.com

Adventures in High School – Part 2

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This is part 2 in a multi-part series.  Click here to read the beginning of the story.

Note: While I have kept as many details as possible completely honest, I have changed all of the names of the people in these stories.  I didn’t think it would be fair to write about them in the way that I have if I hadn’t protected the real people a bit.  In the case of one particular person, I don’t remember his real name anyway.  Also, please don’t take anything I say in this story to be tacit approval for the way I or anyone else acted.  I was in High School, and sometimes acted like quite a punk.

Mr. Grady fixated at the back wall each day apparently in order to spare him from staring at faces who would mostly be populating our city’s jails in the near future.  We did not have to guess at this fact.  He told us this once toward the beginning of the semester.

This did have a benefit for some of these very students he was trying to avoid.  About mid-point in the summer, one of the students, Shane, discovered that he could belly-crawl out of class below Mr. Grady’s field of vision shortly after he took roll in the morning, and then spend the rest of the day doing whatever he wished.  Shane was getting valuable experience, in something that would soon be of greater help to him in prison than his knowledge of supply and demand.

Shane and his friend Eduardo were my second source of entertainment during the summer.  Eduardo was the older brother of a classmate of mine since the sixth grade.  Truthfully, I had never liked either of them.   They were never nice to me.  In fact, his little brother Paco was probably one of the worst bullies I had ever encountered.  I didn’t have to put up with Paco for too many years, as he disappeared from school early in our Freshman year, which probably meant he got expelled.

Eduardo remained in school though.  He played trumpet in band, and made rude comments at me whenever I was near.  I mostly ignored him, not out of fear, but because I felt him to be somewhat insignificant.  I had enough friends who wouldn’t let him bother me seriously, anyway.

Eduardo showed up to band camp the summer before his Senior Year* with his shirt off sporting an entire chest tattoo of a bull’s head.  To complete the look, his nipple was in the middle of the bull’s nose, and he had pierced it, giving the bull a sort of 3-D look.  It was the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen.

So, Eduardo had failed Economics the first time through, and was in class with me that particular summer as his last chance to graduate High School without having to get a GED.  Fortunately for him, this Econ class was a guarantee.  I got over 100% without ever doing any homework or studying, not because I didn’t care, but because I could do it all in class each day.  People passed simply by proximity to the classroom.

One day before class Shane and Eduardo were in the back talking about some caper that they were about to embark on, when Shane got up to go to the bathroom.  Shane always kept a bottle of water on his desk, the kind with a big plastic bendy-straw in a neon color than stuck through the lid.  I always had assumed that he just had a high value for hydration.

Eduardo reached across to Shane’s desk, deciding that he would sneak a sip of Shane’s water before he returned.  I saw the liquid move up the straw, into his mouth, and then seconds later comes spewing out, like he was some surfacing whale.  Eduardo started gasping and choking, and ran out the door.  Whatever was in that bottle was not water, for sure.  No one ever touched Shane’s bottle again.

Epilogue: Shortly after these events, Eduardo missed his third day of class.  In Summer School that means that you are given an automatic F in the class.  Since I knew that this was his last chance to actually graduate High School, I was able to argue and plead with Mr. Grady to not count him as absent.  Mr. Grady finally reluctantly agreed to do that.  That afternoon I was able to track down Eduardo’s phone number and tell him that he wasn’t counted as absent, and would be able to finish and graduate.  He said “OK,” nonchalantly, and never came back to class.  -Ryan

Stay posted for further episodes.

*This was the year prior to the Economics class.

Adventures in High School – Part 1

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I have often thought that real life stories are much funnier than sitcoms or jokes most of the time.  This seems to be mainly because the bizarre events of our lives are too strange to be funny if it weren’t for the fact that they actually happened.  The following is a true story from my days in High School, many years ago.  Well, it is true to the best of my memory. This is the first in series of posts about the events of the summer prior to my Senior year.  Stay tuned for more posts in the series.

Note: While I have kept as many details as possible completely honest, I have changed all of the names of the people in these stories.  I didn’t think it would be fair to write about them in the way that I have if I hadn’t protected the real people a bit.  In the case of one particular person, I don’t remember his real name anyway.  Also, please don’t take anything I say in this story to be tacit approval for the way I or anyone else acted.  I was in High School, and sometimes acted like quite a punk.

In High School I was really, ridiculously into music.  I was in Marching and Concert Band (Fall/Spring) and Jazz Band.  These 2 classes justified the energy it took for me to drag my teenaged self out of bed each morning, do homework for classes like Physics, and navigate the intricate social workings of High School society.

Also added to the mix was choir, which I didn’t really particularly enjoy, but it did succeed in getting me closer to the band room for one more hour of the day.  It also had other benefits.  For one, I could secretly laugh at the egos of the choir divas,* ninety-nine percent of whom all band members considered to be pretend musicians.  Also, I had the opportunity to continually enjoy the mannerisms of our choir director, Mr. Saxton, who seemed to be one of the few people I’ve met who are complete caricatures of themselves.  Finally, this class allowed me to have half of my entire schedule comprised of music classes.

The downside to this arrangement was that it required me to take some of the non-music classes that were required during the summer.  At that time and place there were two types of people who took Summer School classes: students who were far more concerned with building up their disciplinary record in order to give them street cred than they were in actually holding a High School Diploma, and students like me who were taking core classes in advance in order to free up their schedule.  These classes were about 70% full of the hooligans, and therefore were staffed by teachers who had somehow left certain sins un-atoned for, landing them in pedagogic purgatory.

One particular summer, prior to my Senior year, I took Economics, a class that I passed easily with a 102%.  I was never a super-genius student, but I did take advanced classes and could always get high marks if I decided that I wanted to actually apply myself.  I was however, friends with all of the super-geniuses, which made me feel slightly less brilliant than I suppose I could have felt.

The teacher of Economics was Mr. Grady, who had been teaching Economics since before printed currency.  He once told me that when he first started, the class was called Collecting Shells and Pretty Beads.  His brother was a Math teacher at my High School, as well.  Their nephew was the High School quarterback, who was dating the head cheerleader and prettiest girl in school.   Her dad was the Football coach.  Basically, it was Mayberry, or some perfect setting for a Friday Night Lights episode.

Mr. Grady was a nice enough man I suppose, but undoubtedly past the point of being able to handle a class of High School students.  We tortured him mercilessly.  First of all, since he had been teaching the same class for the last 50 or so years, his lectures were completely memorized.  He would begin the morning by standing up from his desk, finding a point on the back wall to stare at, and then launching into his talk in a flat monotone.

Unfortunately, the years of practice did not help him to speak this memorized lecture quickly.  Instead, every word was labored, and offset by an uhhh.  Sometimes his uhhh’s were offset by their own uhhh’s.  We soon began to count these over the course of his lecture.

Each day a new student would be assigned to tally the day’s uhhh’s.  It was determined by vote prior to his arrival (always at the exact moment of the bell) and no student could be handed the position twice.  Double uhhh’s were celebrated by the students out loud by lightly slapping our desks for a few moments.  His record for the summer was 243 uhhh’s and 81 double-uhhh’s during a single class.  The class erupted in applause at the end of that lecture.  -Ryan

Stay posted for further episodes.

*If there is a male form of diva I don’t know what it is, or if it matters.  But I secretly laughed at the male divas even more than the female ones.


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I’m preaching in church this weekend.  I always love this opportunity.  To paraphrase Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, ‘when I preach I feel His pleasure. ‘

As often is the case, I have little advance warning of this opportunity.  Officially, I have 7 days to put it all together, which is certainly less than I’d like.  I’m not really complaining, but at this point my brain is a jumble of thoughts.  I’m going to use my little blog this week to highlight the process that goes on inside of me as I prepare.


I’ve had a growing frustration over the last few years as to what exactly is happening in the Western Church.  Over this time I’ve had the constant allegory of The Emperor’s New Clothes, by Hans Christian Andersen, in my head as an example of what I think most people feel about Church.  Books like Simple Church, The Essential Church, and a host of others talk about the mass exodus going on in this segment of the church, particularly among young people.

What these books highlight is that growing amounts of young people are seeing the Church as being superfluous  to their lives, good but not all that important.  There is also a constant secular assault saying, “You are deluded, worshipping an imaginary God.”  Much of this is happening while we parade around regally in our nakedness.

I have recently been reading a book called The Naked Gospel.  The thesis of the book (so far) is that the Church is failing because we are not really teaching proper doctrine.  I had to put the book down.  I could not disagree more.

I have no desire to abandon the Church, any more than I desire to disown my own mom, but what I have experienced in the Church in the past few years is a dedication to doctrine, and a disconnect between living out that doctrine in a powerful spiritual life.  God has become ceremony, even in our low-church commonness.  Christianity is what happens on Sunday and midweek services.  What happens on Sunday morning doesn’t seem to affect much outside of the Church.  But even worse than this, there doesn’t seem to be any sense that it is designed to.  In short and in the words of many teens, “it’s boring.”

I know I sound negative, and in a real sense I am.  But all of this comes from love, because I don’t believe that God is boring, and I don’t denigrate the Church, it is the freaking Bride of Christ, after all.

Now that doesn’t mean that plenty of people don’t take their faith seriously.  I would say that majority of them do.  But we sing songs about victory and we speak of miracles, we pray for them, but we don’t really believe they’ll happen, do we?  Well, at least not every day.  We believe in miraculous healing, but we don’t pray for the guy in the wheelchair at Starbucks.  I say that evangelism is good, but I walk by throngs of people everyday who don’t believe, and yet I have no intention of embarrassing myself in front of them.

This gets communicated in every part of our popular thinking.  In the media we speak about “religious extremism.”  The real problem is not Islam, but people who take the Koran really seriously.  Christianity is not seen any differently.  Believe all you want, just don’t let it affect any visible part of your life.  Read the Bible, just don’t ever quote it in public.  Talking about Jesus is OK, only if it is a vulgar interjection.

How antithetical to all of Christianity is that?  The message of Jesus is supposed to permeate every pore.  Christ wants to be lord of your life, not just our Sunday mornings.  The problem in Church as I see it, is not that there is no proper doctrine.  The problem is that we don’t believe that doctrine should do anything.

What if this Holy Spirit actually could give us gifts to do wonderful things?  What if we could actually tell people about Jesus and they’d believe?  What if that guy in Starbucks actually got up and walked?  I wonder if Christianity would be boring then.

This is some of what God has been working inside of me.  I don’t know how much of this will make it into my message.  We’ll see.  -Ryan