THE BLOG

#Selma50, Storytelling Strategies and Social Change

03/10/2015 04:38 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

I can be a real cynic when it comes to politics, but watching President Obama's speech in Selma moved me to tears. The speech acknowledged the progress that we have made as a nation, honored the sacrifices in spilled blood and lives cut short that got us to where we are today, and inspired us all to continue the long march towards a more equal and just society.

Why did this speech move me so much? I tapped into my understanding of rhetoric and storytelling structures to understand how the speech works.

Obama's speech uses what I describe in my storytelling workshops as an Opportunity-Obstacle-Choice (OOC) structure. Using this OOC structure can be an effective way to invite participation and engagement. This OOC structure contrasts with the Problem-Solution (PS) storytelling structure, which can be good at conveying information in a logical manner, but does not always work so effectively to move people to action.

First, let's see how this Opportunity-Obstacle-Choice structure applies to Obama's speech, and then see how it would be different (and less effective) if it were rendered as Problem-Solution.

Opportunity-Obstacle-Choice

The following two excerpts from the core of Obama's speech at Selma summarize the essence of the opportunity at hand and the obstacles that hinder us from further progress.

Opportunity

We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing's changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing's changed. Ask your gay friend if it's easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress, this hard-won progress -- our progress -- would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.

In other words, things HAVE gotten better.

Obstacle

Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that racism is banished, that the work that drew men and women to Selma is complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the "race card" for their own purposes. We don't need the Ferguson report to know that's not true. We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation's racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character requires admitting as much.

But we haven't reached full equality, yet. Incidents like Ferguson are stark reminders of that obstacle. Complacency is also an obstacle.

Choice

Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word "We." "We The People." "We Shall Overcome." "Yes We Can." That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.

Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished, but we're getting closer. Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation's founding our union is not yet perfect, but we are getting closer. Our job's easier because somebody already got us through that first mile. Somebody already got us over that bridge. When it feels the road is too hard, when the torch we've been passed feels too heavy, we will remember these early travelers, and draw strength from their example, and hold firmly the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on [the] wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint."

We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country's sacred promise.

Fifty years ago, the marchers in Selma laid the foundation for the society we live in today. Today, we have a choice, to rest on those laurels, be complacent and declare "mission accomplished" for equality, or we can chose to continue the long march towards making America the best it can be.

Problem-Solution

Now that we have seen how the Opportunity-Obstacle-Choice structure worked to make Obama's speech effective, let's look at how the story might have gone with a Problem-Solution structure:

Problem

Even almost 100 years after the Civil War and the constitutional amendments that ended slavery and granted African Americans citizenship and the right to vote, things were still really bad for black folks in parts of the U.S. Segregation, lynchings, systematic denial of the constitutional right to vote.

Solution

Some brave people from all over, including Dr. Martin Luther King, decided to do something about this, so they chose to march in Selma as a non-violent protest to to get real equal rights. People get beat up, and some people get killed, but eventually President Johnson sends in troops to protect the protestors, and Congress gets its act together to pass civil rights legislation.

The End.

Now there isn't necessarily anything wrong with this account of the story. It serves as a quick history lesson and an effective summary of what happened. But it doesn't do much to move me or to invite my participation. As a reader, I might think, "That's great that people made sacrifices and struggled for freedom, but there is nothing in it for me." As a story, it may educate me about the facts, but I might just treat it as past history, rather than part of a long arc of historical struggle for freedom and equality that is just as relevant today.

By presenting a problem, and then a solution, it may leave the reader thinking that the problem is solved, but of course it is not solved. We have a choice to make, to continue the march towards a more just society, or to rest on the laurels of past victories. Problem solved. Case closed.

The choice is ours.

What are you doing to continue the march towards equality?