Story Structures with IJM
A couple of weeks ago we shared Part-2 in a 4-Part series exploring the ideas and topics discussed in our podcast interview with Brittany Baker from IJM. Sorry for the delay in this article, COVID-19 put a bit of a pause in our content output, but we’re back today with Part-3. Today, we’re going to discuss story structures. Specifically, we’re going to explore the story structure that IJM is currently using in their marketing strategies and then walk through The Hero’s Journey and how you can apply it to your ministry’s marketing strategies. Spoiler, the title “IJM and The Hero’s Journey” gives away what structure they are using.
Now, you might be asking yourself, why are we exploring story structures? Why should you care about story structures at all, especially in relation to ministry marketing? Before we get into story structures, I want to spend some time answering this question.
The Value in Using Story Structures
We encourage ministries to use story structures in their marketing efforts for a couple of reasons. First, story structures will help you communicate on a more regular basis. When you have a structure to follow, it makes storytelling with regularity easier. Anytime we are writing content or creating a script for a film, it’s important to start with an outline, right? What if you had your outline pre-built and ready to go? It would free you up to tell stories on a more consistent basis. It’s important for ministries to always be on the lookout for efficiencies. Having a story structure you can follow will help you tell more stories, more often, and with greater efficiency.
Second, if done right, story structures can help you create engaging content that is more relatable to your audience. How many times have you told a story that didn’t perform as well as you had hoped? This is because, for whatever reason, your audience could not relate to the story. We’ll discuss this further in the article, but story structures help your stories relate to your audience because they are based on the story structures of our own lives.
Now, let’s walk through the story structure that IJM uses in their storytelling. Brittany generously outlined the structure they follow when creating content of any kind.
How IJM tells Stories
During our conversation, I asked Brittany if they use any storytelling structures and she said that “Over the years we’ve used different story structures, but we’ve remained pretty consistent with this one story arc. We introduce a character or a survivor, and we communicate very early on in the story that this story will be hard to hear. These are stories of terrible evil and we want to be transparent upfront. Once we’ve introduced the character, we introduce the problem and follow that up by introducing the donor by simply saying something like ‘this is not possible without your support.’ Immediately, and unapologetically, we communicate that they need to continue to step in for this work to be possible. Will you give? We make that ask upfront. ‘Here is how you sent IJM to step into the problem.’ We then share how IJM is able to work with local police and law enforcement and ultimately aftercare programs to restore the people that we rescue. So, we’ve communicated a solution to the problem. And that’s the general arc. Introduce a character and theme (survivor). Communicate it will be hard. Introduce the problem. Share how the donor solved that problem and then ask that the donor would continue to solve that problem. Here’s the important thing to notice. We don’t go into detail on our strategies. We advise staying away from technical details. ‘Here is this one person, that was experiencing something, that is no longer experiencing that thing because you stepped in. Let’s make that happen for more people.”
So, to break down IJM’s storytelling model they tell stories with the following structure, and they tell their stories while following this structure with regularity.
- Introduce a Character (Often a beneficiary child rescued out of some form of slavery)
- Introduce the Theme (Survivor)
- Communicate the Problem
- Introduce the Donor or the Hero in the Story (Your investment made this rescue possible)
- Communicate the Solution
- Call the Donor (Hero) to Act
There are two things to note about what Brittany shared. First, IJM does not talk about their strategies in their storytelling. They don’t go into detail on their strategies and statistics. If you’re trying to communicate your stories to the mass public, strategies and statistics will never be as effective as great storytelling. Obviously, if you’re speaking to a major donor or a grant foundation, you’ll be required to share your strategies. But, even in those circumstances, we would still recommend supporting those strategies and statistics with engaging stories. Now, let’s explore IJM’s story structure a little further because they are following the story structure that we encourage all ministries to follow. IJM’s story structure is rooted in The Hero’s Journey. Remember the title of this article, IJM and The Hero’s Journey?” IJM is using a simplified version in its marketing strategies.
The Hero’s Journey
So, what is The Hero’s Journey? I’m glad you asked. Joseph Campbell is the creator of The Hero’s Journey. While researching Native American storytelling structures, Campbell realized that many of the oral tradition structures used by Native Americans were similar to the story structures found in the Bible. The interesting thing was, he was researching story structures that pre-dated any Native American interaction with other cultures. After coming to this realization, Joseph Cambell spent the better part of his life researching other ancient civilization’s storytelling structures and found similarities throughout every culture he researched. He summarized his findings in what he called the Monomyth, and he called it The Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell stated in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, that this story structure is ingrained in the DNA of all humans. How else could ancient cultures follow the same storytelling structure without access to those other cultures?
As believers, it’s not far fetched to think this storytelling structure was hardwired into humanity from our Creator. God chose to follow this structure with Moses’ story, and even Jesus’ own ministry follows the Hero’s Journey structure. Here are two great articles that show how Moses and Jesus’ ministry follow this structure. So, if God chose to speak to us using this structure, and it’s a structure that was hardwired into humanity by our Creator, then why wouldn’t it relate to us as well as it has throughout history? Think about it, we keep telling this story over and over again and it doesn’t get old. It relates to us because this is the story of our individual lives. It always has related, and it always will relate. Hollywood will continue to follow this story structure as long as Hollywood exists because we love stories we relate to. We can easily place ourselves in stories we relate to. Here are a handful of stories we all love that follow The Hero’s Journey.
- Star Wars: A New Hope
- The Matrix
- The Lion King
- The Lord of the Rings
- The Hobbit
- Finding Nemo
- Batman: Christopher Nolan’s Trilogy (The Best Batman Series Ever)
- The Wizard of Oz
- The Goonies
- The Chronicles of Narnia
- Star Trek
- Harry Potter
- Superman: Man of Steel
- Iron Man
- Fight Club
- The Silence of the Lambs
- The NeverEnding Story
- Rain Man
- The Princess Bride
- V for Vendetta
- Indiana Jones
- Wreck-It Ralph
- Kung Fu Panda
- The Karate Kid
- Field of Dreams
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Pride and Prejudice
And the list goes on and on… and … on. I want to share so many examples because I want you to see just how successful this storytelling structure is and how powerful it can be for your ministry.
Your Donor is the Hero
So, what does this mean for your ministry? How do we apply this storytelling structure to our storytelling? First, I think we can take note of IJM’s structure. They are using a simplified version of the Hero’s Journey. Remember, the donor is always the hero. So, we introduce a character and theme, communicate the problem, introduce the hero (donor), share the solution the donor is supporting, and call that donor (hero) to action. This is a structure that can be used across many forms of donor communication. If you follow IJM and subscribe to their emails you’ll see that they use this structure in many of their emails. They used this structure to great effect during their Esther story rollout. When we walk ministries through a website redesign, this is a structure we follow when laying out a homepage. I’ve included a helpful image to show this process visually. You can use this structure in your newsletters and when developing the structure of information shared during a gala fundraising event. But, I think you’ll see your greatest engagement if you apply this storytelling structure to your videos.
Video provides the single greatest opportunity for engagement online. But, instead of telling your ministries “About Us” videos, let’s create content that engages your audience with greater effectiveness.
Tell your beneficiaries stories and as you script out their stories, look for ways in which their story follows The Hero’s Journey. You’ll be surprised at how closely their stories follow the structure because all of our stories follow The Hero’s Journey. We relate to the Hero’s Journey and we love the films that follow this structure because we live that story over and over again in our own lives. This is why it relates so well. I, as the viewer, relate to the Hero in the story because I am overcoming things, learning from my experiences, and applying those newly learned skills the next time I come up against a similar struggle. When you tell a beneficiary story and follow the Hero’s Journey, your audience (donor) is going to relate to that story because they see themselves in that beneficiary’s story. Again, the donor becomes the Hero is the story because they relate to that story and place themselves in the storyline. They relate to that beneficiary because the audience experiences and overcomes struggles in a similar way. No, not everyone has been rescued out of human trafficking. But, everyone has come up against a challenge they thought they could not overcome, they learned from the experience, and when they came up against a similar challenge later in life, they had new skills learned from the last challenge that they could apply to this new challenge. So, even though you’re telling a beneficiaries story and the beneficiary is the hero in that story, really the donor is the hero again because they’ve placed themselves in that storyline.
Every ministry I come across has incredible stories of how God is working in and through their organization. God is doing incredible things around the world to rescue and redeem humanity back to Himself. We need to tell the stories of how He is working on a more regular basis. I believe this will serve two purposes. First, it brings God glory when we share what He is doing. Second, it will serve to increase our support because the Church and God’s people want to be a part of what God is already doing. Tell your stories often and use a storytelling structure that relates to your audience… one that relates to all audiences across all cultures.