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4 Min Read

Jack Bauer Can Teach The Social Sector About Storytelling


  • Don’t shy away from communicating the high stakes of your issue.
  • Keep your audiences in suspense to keep them engaged and willing to take action.
  • Use graphic and sound design to signal your organization’s “story brand.”

Can I tell you something? I love “24.” Yes, that “24”—the hit show on FOX that, since 2001, has followed counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer as he shoots, runs, yells, cajoles and, oh yeah, tortures his way into foiling plots to nuke America or kill the president.I love it even now in its ninth and possibly last season, which wraps up this Monday, as Kiefer Sutherland, the actor who plays Jack, looks old enough that he could barely withstand bouncing a grandchild on his knee, let alone being beaten up by a gang of Russian agents.So, how could I love a show that has dubious politics (though not as bad as you might think) and an increasingly preposterous premise? Fact is, the writers and producers know how tell a good story—and maybe a thing or two that social sector communicators can learn from!

The stakes are clear.

Right from the very first episode of each season and continuing until the end, we know what’s at stake. In the opening minutes of the current season, which takes place in London, we learn that visiting U.S. President Heller is the target of a terrorist plot, and Jack Bauer comes out of hiding to save his life, which is especially cool of him, because Heller kinda screwed Jack over before. That all happens before the first commercial break! From there, the stakes and plot complexities only deepen. Contrast that with a lot of nonprofit storytelling, which is often so concerned with nuance and balance that it qualifies itself right out of existence. You, dear reader, are no doubt dealing with conflicts every bit as dramatic and high-stakes as those on “24”—are you communicating that powerfully enough?

The show is consistently suspenseful.

Viewers of “24” are kept in almost continuous suspense. What will happen to President Heller’s daughter Audrey in the season finale, since at the end of the last episode she had an assassin’s gun trained on her? And will Audrey and Jack rekindle their love of old?

[pullquote1 align=”center” variation=”deepblue”]Nonprofit storytelling … is often so concerned with nuance and balance that it qualifies itself right out of existence.[/pullquote1]

Suspense doesn’t have to hang on the cliffhanger conventions of action thrillers, like on “24.” The larger principle here is, viewers are invested in what’s happening to the characters, we don’t know how things will resolve, and that’s precisely why we keep watching—and that’s a notion that applies to stories of 3 minutes or 3 seasons. Nonprofit communicators who are too quick to resolve conflict, or never even introduce it in the first place, run the risk of boring their audiences. (See3 Communications teamed up with producer Mike Lee for a webinar on serial storytelling for nonprofits. That’s one way to develop investment in your organization over time.) More nonprofits could also stand to leave their audiences in suspense at the end of a story—the way audiences resolve that suspense is to take action, to donate, to volunteer.

It’s got an excellent logo, musical score and sound effects.

Fans like me will start to salivate when we see the logo of the digital clock and hear the clanking sound it makes as the seconds tick by before and after a commercial. And the music, if you pay attention to it, is remarkably effective at multiplying the drama in a scene. Yes, “24” has a big budget and can afford top-price sound designers and composers, but even small nonprofits, if they’re collecting and sharing stories on a regular basis, can use graphic design and music to heighten the emotional impact of those stories, and build “brand recognition” over time.

[pullquote1 align=”center” variation=”deepblue”]… we don’t know how things will resolve, and that’s precisely why we keep watching.[/pullquote1]

While viewership has dropped off in recent seasons, “24” sparked some strong public debate in its time about the efficacy of torture in extracting reliable intelligence. (The verdict from experts, if not audiences, was a strong “no.”) Part of the reason that people are still talking about “24” is that it dramatizes strong conflicts, doesn’t resolve them before audiences have a chance to get invested in the story, and creates anticipation.

Can you say the same thing about your communications?

Paul VanDeCarr is the Managing Director of Working Narratives, and a regular contributor to the Communications Network. Write to him at, or follow him on Twitter at @wnstory.


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