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Nonprofit Storytelling Lessons From GoPro

Posted by Andrew Littlefield on Mar 5, 2015 7:30:00 AM

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Do you want your nonprofit to be memorable in an online world with viciously short attention spans? Than you'd better be a good storyteller.

Storytelling is all the rage in the nonprofit world. Storytelling in appeal letters, storytelling on your website, storytelling in your videos.

And for good reason: stories drive engagement.

The problem is, “telling a story” ain’t that easy. People spend years crafting that skill.

Telling a story is not good enough; you’ve got to tell a good story. And thankfully for you, there are some tried and true storytelling devices out there that make that task a whole lot easier.

Hang on folks, cause we're about to get really nerdy.

Enter Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth

American writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1949 described the “monomyth,” or Hero’s Journey. This narrative, according to Campbell, could be seen throughout all of mythology, religious texts, great novels, and more. It is a basic plot pattern that many of history’s most well known tales follow.


Let's use Star Wars as an example:

Luke Skywalker lives in a familiar world at home with his aunt and uncle. He experiences a call to adventure in the form of a message from a beautiful princess. With the help of a supernatural aid (The Force) and a mentor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), he enters a strange and unknown world. He faces trials and tribulations, falls into great depths of sorrow and struggle, experiences a transformation, and returns home a hero. 

It really is a bulletproof plot device. And all of us are absolute suckers for it. We can’t get enough of the Hero’s Journey! The more psychologically minded among us might say that we’re projecting our own desire for adventure and acclaim from our peers.

But trying to work this narrative into your nonprofit marketing materials can be challenging, especially when you don't have two-hours to tell an epic tale. Maybe you only have a few minutes of video or a single page of a brochure.

This is difficult, but not impossible.

In fact, one brand does it so skillfully that there’s no way you’ll convince me it’s coincidental.


GoPro is all in with the Hero’s Journey.

For crying out loud, the tagline in all their videos is “Be a Hero.”

Let’s take a look.

Death and Rebirth

This one is so easy, it feels like cheating. In a traditional dramatic arch, the action in the story peaks at the climax. In the monomyth, the climax is held at the “death and rebirth” stage.

In this video, we get the first-person perspective of a firefighter searching a house after a fire. As he seems to look for important documents for the homeowner, he happens across a dead kitten. At least…it seems dead.

The firefighter picks up the tiny animal, puts an oxygen mask over it, wraps it in a blanket, and lo and behold, the kitten comes back to life.

Beyond the cute, warm-fuzzy factors that a firefighter saving a kitten has, this is a powerful example of a small piece of the Hero’s Journey being used to draw viewers in.

Like I said, we’re suckers for these plot devices!

Return Home from the Unknown

In this vertigo-inducing partnership between GoPro and Red Bull, we see daredevil Felix Baumgartner smash world records by skydiving from 24.2 miles above the Earth (that’s almost an entire marathon!) at speeds reaching over 800 miles per hour. 

Some of the parallels to the Hero’s Journey we can see right away: the video throws us into the strange and foreign world of the stratosphere. It’s eerily silent and deadly cold, with a dark black sky. By all accounts, the viewer is thrust into outer space.

One of the defining features of the Hero’s Journey is the return home from this strange world, and this is where GoPro really drives the point home. Right before he takes the leap, Baumgartner says, “I’m coming home.” Perfection. 

“Meeting With The Goddess”

I love this video. It’s a great example of a simple story that doesn’t tell you much, but it’s told so beautifully that you simply can’t look away. Similar to the other videos, it features a character descending into an unknown world (a feature of most GoPro videos). However, there is a nod to the Hero’s Journey in this video that we haven’t seen yet in the other videos.

The second stage of Campbell’s monomyth (not pictured in the simplified graphic above) is the initiation stage, which involves a “meeting with the goddess.” Now hang with me, this may seem like a stretch at first: at this stage, the hero of the story encounters a welcoming, unconditional love; the kind of love that makes him or her feel safe and secure.

And what happens at the 4:10” mark in the Shark Riders video? One of our divers takes a trip to the “happy place” in his mind; the place he escapes to when trouble lurks. In his happy place, he’s in a calm tropical pool. A mysterious, beautiful woman hands him a delicious looking cocktail, as he gently floats in the water.

Behold, the “meeting with the goddess.”

Applying the Hero's Journey to Nonprofits

Remember, we're not trying to cram the entire Hero's Journey into one video, just pieces of it.

Some idea:

  • If you run a camp, tell the story of your campers leaving the familiar story of their everyday lives and embarking on the grand adventure of camp.
  • Does your organization help someone undergo a transformation? Highlight the story of how they overcame the odds and made a positive change in their lives.
  • How has a mentor played a role in the lives of one of your beneficiaries? How has that mentor helped their pupil overcome the odds?

These methods can be used in any communication with donors, not just video. Take a look at how Heather Daphiny from It's a Nonprofit Thing weaves donor stories into a bi-monthly newsletter in this post on The Storytelling NonprofitThe point is, your communications don't have to be as slick as GoPro's videos are; it's the content that matters.

These are storytelling devices that have proven to be compelling to humans for centuries. Why reinvent the wheel? Steal a few tricks that people just can’t help but be drawn to. 

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Top image credit: Flickr user Axion23

Hero's Journey image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Topics: Nonprofits, Nonprofit, Storytelling,

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