I’m definitely cheering for Texas political candidate MJ Hegar, but her new video is not “a masterpiece of storytelling.” Sorry. Warning, this particular blogpost is not for blind worshippers of the Democratic party — it’s for people who want to improve the success of the party. It’s not for people who felt Al Gore’s movie was a masterpiece. This is for people who want to learn something about how narrative/story structure does and does not work. The viral video by Texas political candidate MJ Hegar was forwarded to me last week by five people — all basically saying the same thing — “This is a masterpiece of storytelling … RIGHT?” Sorry, but it’s not. It’s an example of reasonably good “singularity of metaphor” and non-narrative structure, but not overall storytelling. Which doesn’t mean it’s not a good piece of media — it’s just not a masterpiece. Understanding why is a useful exercise.
DOOR TO DOOR SERVICE: A fun video, but missing a clear over-arching narrative.
FIRST, THE CRITIQUE: WHAT’S THE CENTRAL NARRATIVE?
Great video, lots of fun, and strong because it has a singular visual metaphor of “doors” that it repeats. If you read the bestselling 2012 book,“The One Thing,” you’ll appreciate the importance of having your content be about one thing. So it’s singular in those terms.
What’s the core narrative?
– Discrimination against women?
– The fight against corrupt politics?
– The need to defeat Tea Party candidates?
If it’s about the need for more women candidates, then it should have begun by addressing that issue — why it’s important to have plenty of women politicians, what the consequences are of not having enough women politicians, how bad the problem is today.
Or if it’s about corrupt politicians, it should have begun with that — how bad things are today, how much money is lost due to corruption, how many scandals have plagued politics lately.
Once the problem is established, then it would be time to lead us on an (ideally emotional) journey to the solution, meaning this political candidate.
LISTEN TO NICHOLAS KRISTOF AND DAVE GOLD
Don’t take my word on this stuff — read the powerful and short articles by Nicholas Kristof (“Nicholas Kristof Saves the World” in Outside Magazine in 2009) and Dave Gold (“Data Driven Campaigns are Killing the Democratic Party” in Politico last year).
Nicholas Kristof tells you about the cost of changing a story about one little girl suffering in a village to just two little girls. Just that tiny change — going from the singular to the dual — which you’d think would make it more compelling because there’s more people involved — actually dilutes the narrative, making it weaker.
Dave Gold offers up the simple metaphor of a Christmas tree as the central narrative with everything else being ornaments. These elements are where the Hegar video does not have a good grasp on narrative structure.
It could have been built around the question of, “How are we going to get women through THE DOOR of the Capitol building?” or could have posed the question of, “How are we going to throw corrupt politicians out THE DOOR of the Capitol Building?” One or the other. And THEN, after setting up the question in the context of “a door,” it could have cut to the helicopter door with her saying, “I know a few things about doors …”
IT’S SO SIMILAR TO “THE AL GORE MOVIE”
For over a decade I’ve tried to explain (with endless apologies) how the 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” did not tell “a good story” and thus, in the long run, was not the piece of persuasive media that the climate movement needed. I did it in all three of my books.
Most of my words fell on deaf ears. If you don’t understand story structure, you’re not going to understand a critique based on story structure. But the sad bottom line is that almost nobody wants to watch that movie today, a decade later — it didn’t stand the test of time (and the 2.0 version in 2016 flopped).
Neither Gore’s movie nor Hegar’s political video lay out a clear three act-structured problem/solution dynamic to take us on a journey of exploration/solution. Both are focused, first and foremost, on the person, rather than the issue.
In the end, both are very impressive resumes of accomplishments, but a resume is rarely a story — it’s more like a laundry list — which is NON-NARRATIVE (as defined by the neuroscientists Sanford and Emmott in their 2013 book, “Mind, Brain and Narrative”).
Effective use of narrative structure is all about context — meaning set up — meaning the AND part of the ABT triad. Starting with the helicopter door is certainly attention grabbing, but you’ve skipped the set up and thus the context.
THE SOLUTION SHOULDN’T COME BEFORE THE PROBLEM
This is such a common mistake of Democrats/the left wing/the highly educated. It’s the mistake of starting with the solution, which is what this video does. Before it gives us a chance to connect with a serious problem for which Ms Hegar is the solution, it begins with the solution — Ms Hegar. It opens by presenting a series of her accomplishments (combat heroism, surviving domestic abuse, professional accomplishments, overcoming gender discrimination) before it identifies the problem that everyone can agree upon.
I’ve watched this happen for decades with the environmental movement — smart people, deep in their fox holes coming up with brilliant solutions that they present to an audience that they just assume knows what the problem is. I gave an entire talk on it in 2010 titled, “Dude, Where’s My Climate Movement” for the WWF 50th Anniversary that a lot of people didn’t appreciate.
It’s exactly what the climate movement did, post-Gore movie, by presenting their cap and trade solution to climate change to a country that did not yet feel there was a problem worth acting on. Hundreds of millions of dollars were squandered on that failed effort (as itemized bravely by Matt Nisbet in his “Climate Shift” report), which I view as primarily a failure to grasp the narrative dynamics at work.
In the end, this stuff is ALL about the problem/solution divide. Tell us the problem in simple terms, then offer up your solution — namely the candidate. That’s not the structure of this video.
Which means in the end, it’s a fun piece of “preaching to the choir” — just as Al Gore’s movie was good for uniting everyone on the same team. But don’t confuse it with the eternal and boundless power of storytelling. Telling an engaging story has the ability to tap into irrational forces that can override logic. This video is a great presentation of an amazing resume, but it’s largely non-narrative and thus not a great piece of storytelling.
IF YOU HAVE A DEEPER INTEREST IN NARRATIVE STRUCTURE: COMPARE THE VIDEO WITH OPRAH’S GOLDEN GLOBES SPEECH
If you want to get more technical about it, below is my ABT analysis of the script of the video. Take a look at the color coding. You can see 7 ABT cycles.
1ST ABT – Combat door
2ND ABT – Domestic abuse
3RD ABT – Military gender discrimination 1
4TH ABT – Military gender discrimination 2
5TH ABT – Military gender discrimination 3
6TH ABT – Crooked politics
7TH ABT – Republicans must go
These “narrative loops” are why it feels like good storytelling. And it is on the fine scale. But on the larger scale, which is essential for long term impact, it’s lacking the overall clear and singular ABT structure.
In contrast, look at the amazing speech Oprah gave earlier this year at the Golden Globes. The NY Times called it “a story about stories.” And there’s your difference.
Oprah’s speech was “a story of stories,” Hager’s video is “a list of stories.”
Oprah’s over-arching ABT was clear and simple — that women and minorities are on a journey BUT have not yet reached the designation, THEREFORE we must keep at it. It was the same ABT as Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Both of them used their first paragraph to lay out the over-arching ABT.
Hager opened with the helicopter door, basically cutting right to the chase. Plus there was never any clear interpretation of the combat experience — anything like, “nearly losing my life that day caused me to realize women are willing to make the same risk for their country — their lives — as men, yet are not given equal treatment by the country.” That could have been the over-arching ABT that connects with the combat experience, but it wasn’t in there.
So I don’t want to diminish the power of the video — it’s already scored well over a million views on Youtube (unfortunately, too late to be in Joe Romm’s great new book on “How to Go Viral”) and is far better than most political ads, but when Daily Kos says it might be “THE BEST we’ve ever seen” they’re just showing a lack of understanding of narrative structure.
And that’s been the Achilles Heel of the Democratic party for a long time now.
THE ABT FRAMEWORK ANALYSIS OF THE MJ HEGAR VIDEO
To see the narrative structure more clearly, here’s the entire script of the Hegar video, assigning each piece to the three fundamental forces of narrative:
“This is a story about doors — a lot of them — and that’s me, I’m Jane Hegar — an air force combat veteran and a mom — this door behind me is from my helicopter, and all that’s left of the aircraft I was flying that day.
I was on a rescue mission in Afghanistan as a combat search and rescue pilot. I heard the windshield crack and realized I’d been shot, but continued the mission and airlifted the patients out. After taking even more fire, we crashed a few miles away.
But my story begins much earlier. One of my first childhood memories was of a door, but it was my dad, throwing my mom through a glass door.Three years later, mom got the courage to walk out the door, and she opened a new one for my sister and me, here in Texas. And it was here that I put my foot on the gas and followed my dream to be a pilot. And that meant opening, pushing — sometimes kicking through every door that was in my way.
I signed up for ROTC at U.T., and then I was commissioned as an officer in the air force. I served five years in aircraft maintenance, working on the F-16 and the B-2. I managed to get one of only a handful of slots for flight school, then I spent a year training to fly. I flew water drops over wildfires in California, and eventually served three tours in Afghanistan. And then, the crash.
Two army helicopters rescued us from the wreckage. I strapped myself to the skids and returned fire on the Taliban, while we flew to safety. That got me a purple heart, and I became only the second woman awarded the distinguished flying cross with valor.
But after that, the door closed. Injured and unable to fly, I was barred from my next career choice because I was a woman. So I came home. Iworked in healthcare and business. I got married and started my family. WAIT — barred because I was a woman? That’s ridiculous. SO (THEREFORE) I sued the Pentagon — not just about that job — about the ban on women serving in all ground combat jobs
AND I went to DC to lobby congress, BUT door after door was slammed in my face — I heard things like, “My boss agree with you, but you aren’t in a position to do anything for him,” “You’re not one of our donors,” — (implied BUT I kept working) THEREFORE: well, eventually —
PANETTA CLIP: We are eliminating the direct combat exclusion rule for women”
We won, and that opened the door for hundreds of thousands of women to compete for elite ground combat jobs — a major victory for our military.
Hold on — back up a minute — not one of his donors? That’s not how this is supposed to work.
One of those closed doors was my congressman, Tea Party Republican John Carter — apparently being one of his constituents and a veteran wasn’t enough to get a meeting — I guess I also needed to be a donor — SO (THEREFORE) now I’m running against him — taking on a system that cares more about campaign donors and political parties than protecting our country.
Congressman Carter hasn’t had a tough race his whole career, SO — “ “We’ll show him tough, then we’ll show him the door.