Independent Filmmaker | Austin

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Mr. Rogers and Starting With Why

I recently gave a talk to the Association of Fundraising Professionals entitled Impactful Storytelling for Nonprofits. In it I shared successful frameworks I’ve developed over the years of how to tell a good story to an audience that influences emotion - because if you can influence emotion, then you can inspire them to action.

While the talk was designed for nonprofits, the storytelling frameworks are applicable to startups, writers, activists, large companies, small businesses, and anyone who wants to inspire someone to join their cause. I am sharing content from my talk in three blog posts in hopes that it can be helpful to others, using the recent documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” as a lens to explore narrative.

Stories are like flight simulators for the human mind. There is no greater joy for me than telling stories to connect with people. To gain empathy. To get them to remember the moral of a story.  

My film-making team helps clients share their why through sincere, heartfelt communication. At our core, we know that authenticity captures audiences, being real provides the opportunity to tell stories that matter. We tell all sorts of stories, largely through one of the most powerful mediums: film and video. We make documentaries, short films, web series, authentic branded content, and more.

Here are my three guiding principles to telling a good story:

  1. Start With Why

  2. Make it Personal

  3. Problem, Pathway, Hero

The most important thing is to start with WHY when you’re telling your story to anyone. By that I mean, what is your purpose, cause, or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care? Most organizations try to sell us WHAT they do, but we as humans actually buy WHY they do it.  

Starting with WHY is a framework I’ve adopted from Simon Sinek. Sinek calls it The Golden Circle and he gave a TED Talk about it; it’s the third most popular TED Talk of all time. Oh, and he also wrote a book about it. Needless to say, it’s an incredible framework that applies to all types of storytelling: from fundraising, to pitching, and even dating.

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So when you’re telling your story, you should start with WHY. Sounds simple right? But most organizations do their marketing backwards. They start with their WHAT and then move on to HOW they do it. Many organizations neglect to even mention WHY they do what they do. More alarmingly, many of them don't even know why they do what they do!

At the Association of Fundraising Professionals workshop we asked attendees to write down their nonprofit’s story before walking them through The Golden Circle. The majority of attendees wrote WHAT they do. For example, one nonprofit wrote “we host coding workshops for girls.” That's a WHAT, not a WHY.

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Mr. Rogers and Starting with Why

I recently saw Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a fantastic documentary on Mr. Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers is a human I aspire to be like; Rogers cared deeply about children and he wanted to give an expression of care everyday to each child to help them realize they are unique. Every decision he made for his television show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (which ran for 31 years) was based around that WHY.  Mr. Rogers influenced emotion and inspired action by sharing his WHY.

On May 1, 1969, Mr. Rogers testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce Subcommittee of Communications to defend $20 million in federal funding proposed for the newly formed non-profit, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which was at risk of being reduced to $10 million. Subcommittee chairman, Senator John Pastore (D-RI), unfamiliar with Rogers, is initially abrasive toward him.

Every single testimony before Rogers was swiftly shut down by Senator Pastore. It seemed inevitable that PBS’ funding would be reduced to $10 million. So how did Rogers disarm Senator Pastore? Well, first he didn’t focus on budgetary minutia. He disregarded the WHAT, and instead focused on the WHY. He talked about the meaning and purpose behind his show.

This is what I give. I give an expression of care every day to each child, to help him realize that he is unique. I end the program by saying, “You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you. There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.” And I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger ― much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.

Rogers is not saying anything new or particularly groundbreaking in the above statement. He spoke in simple words and sentences to get his point across. The difference is that he believed in the importance of his WHY. When a WHY is clear, those who share that belief will be drawn to it and maybe want to take part in bringing it to life.

Over the course of Rogers' 6 minutes of testimony, Pastore's gruff demeanor gradually strips away to a childlike expression of awe and admiration, as he intently listens to Rogers speak and even sing his WHY. Pastore, who again had never seen Rogers’ show, was visibly touched, “I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goosebumps for the last two days. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”  If you want to see this transformational argument yourself, watch the clip below.

Common wisdom tells you to focus on the facts when giving a testimony: the data, costs and profits, etc. He’s in court after all, right? The word is law. However, Rogers was convincing precisely because he didn’t get bogged down in the numbers.

At the end of the Association of Fundraising Professionals workshop, the nonprofit mentioned before reworked the opening of their story: “the future is tech, STEM, engineering; and our girls are being left out.” The first story you tell to an audience is an important one because you’re letting your audience know who you are. This is the story most audiences use to decide if they like you and want to get to know you better. You won’t convince everyone when you share your why, and you don’t need to. You just need those who believe what you believe to listen. When you’re telling a story, start with why.

In my next blog post  I will go deeper into telling your WHY, I will share the example of Charla Harris’ Learning By Design School on how to make your story personal to influence emotion and inspire action from your audience.


Jon Galpern