Video

How to format your screenplay’s title page

Notes: So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Fellowship and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing. Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing. And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

How to sell a screenplay

Notes: So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Fellowship and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing. Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing. And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

 

Four reasons why COBRA KAI completely obliterates THE KARATE KID

Unless you live in an ice cave, you’ve seen THE KARATE KID—and by that I mean the classic from the ‘80s, not the remake with Will Smith’s kid and Jackie Chan which had the same title, and sort of the same plot, except it was set in China, was about kung fu instead of karate … and was just an achy breaky big mistakey of a movie.

COBRA KAI isn’t just another cheesy remake or TV spin-off.

It’s actually better than the original movie.

Let’s say that again: COBRA KAI is better.

Here’s why:

1) A dark, gritty treat for adults

Go back and rewatch the original movie, even for five minutes. Daniel LaRusso is the good guy and Johnny Lawrence and his buddies are the bad guys. There are no shades of gray.

What makes the film work is this isn’t a traditional action movie where the hero is tough and sexy from the first minute of the movie and doesn’t really change or grow by the time the movie ends. The only thing that changes is the pile of dead bodies created by the traditional action hero in the process of saving the world.

ROCKY and THE KARATE KID are the rare exceptions where the hero is a loser in the beginning, a total underdog. The joy in both films comes from their struggle and sacrifice to climb up from that gutter.

COBRA KAI isn’t simple. It’s dark, gritty and complicated, and that’s what makes it great.

2) It’s much, much funnier

Sure, there are cute moments in the film, and some jokes that’ll make you laugh.

COBRA KAI, though, will make you snort milk through your nose.

3) Even minor characters shine

THE KARATE KID doesn’t give minor characters much to chew on. They’re part of the scenery. Pop quiz: can you name any of Johnny’s gang? I can’t. Interchangeable thugs.

 

COBRA KAI fleshes out as many characters as possible, and it does this with efficiency and grace.

4) Crossing character arcs, as rare and beautiful as a triple rainbow

In most movies or novels, the hero suffers, sacrifices and grows. The mentor, the love interest, the villain—everybody else typically stays the same. They serve as catalysts and examples (good or bad) but they don’t change.

Back in THE KARATE KID, Daniel definitely suffers, sacrifices and grows through the catalyst of Mr. Miyagi’s teaching, but Mr. Miyagi doesn’t go from nasty curmedgeon to sweetie pie. Same thing with the evil sensei who runs the Cobra Kai dojo in the movie: he’s bad in the beginning and bad in the end.

COBRA KAI tries something bold and amazing with multiple crossing character arcs. They’re juggling chainsaws here, and they pull it off.

Season One shows us the redemption of Johnny Lawrence as he moves from bad to good. You root for the man.

His protégé Miguel actually moves from good to bad, and it hurts you to see a good kid turned into a jerk. In the final episode, Miguel winning the tournament should be a moment of triumph. It’s what Johnny wanted and worked for—yet it’s ashes in his mouth. And the writers know they don’t need dialogue to do this. It’s all there in Johnny’s face and it slays you. Miguel gets what he wanted, too, and finds out he cares less about the championship and more about the girl that got away.

There’s a similar contrasting journey with Daniel LaRusso, a fallen hero turned villain, using his power and money to torment his old high school karate rival.

It’s only through teaching Robbie, Johnny’s son, that Daniel finds his balance again and returns to acting like a hero.

Robbie has the opposite journey, suffering and sacrificing to move from bad to good through his new relationship with Daniel and the LaRusso’s.

The writers and showrunners went further by giving minor characters real, meaningful arcs. The best example is Hawk finding his confidence, then taking it too far and becoming a villain, while bad girl Moon finds redemption by ditching the mean cool kids to hang out with Hawk and the dorks.

Finally, it’s a nice tough that the big bully at the start of season one, Kylar, falls from Big Man on Campus to loser after being beat down in the cafeteria by Miguel, his previous victim.

The only other show I can remember with this many deep, crossing arcs for major and minor characters alike is BREAKING BAD, a tragedy where Walter White is the hero and the villain, going from good to bad while meth cook Jesse climbs up from the gutter to redemption.

VERDICT: Put a gun to my head and I would have never expected the folks behind HOT TUB TIME MACHINE to pull off an amazing series like this. The structure of episode one is strong, supple and fascinating. Just a thing of beauty. If you haven’t seen it, give it a shot. Here is episode one, which you can watch for free.

Remember this Iowa college kid, the Eagle Scout with two moms? He just won a primary for the state senate

Zack Wahls was 19 when he came to the Iowa legislature to testify.

Now he’s 26 and a likely state senator after winning the primary last night.

It’s worth rewatching his speech and why it went so viral. Take a look, then we’ll take it apart.

A few thoughts:

He obviously practiced this speech a good amount, enough so he didn’t need to refer to his notes except for a couple of times early on.

There were a few spots where he stumbled, but those were also early. That’s an important point. If you make a few mistakes early, the audience often hopes you finish better. They root for you. And if you deliver on that, and don’t just smooth things out but finish quite strongly–like Zack did–that contrast between the beginning and end makes the speech stronger. It feels less slick.

In this speech, delivery mattered far less than the structure and emotion. As a speaker, you want to feel and express what you want your audience to feel. It would be easy and natural for him to show up angry, given the proposal he was testifying against. Anger wouldn’t be persuasive. That kind of speech wouldn’t have been effective or gone viral.

So: this speech isn’t memorable for impeccable delivery or for having beautiful phrasing, line by line.

It’s great because unless they removed your heart and replaced it with stone, you feel proud of this young man and the obvious love he has for his moms and sister.

Sweep the leg, Johnny! The genius of COBRA KAI

For good reasons, THE KARATE KID is a classic movie—not just in terms of the perfect casting. To be clear, we’re talking about the ‘80s original starring Ralph Macchio, not the remake with Will Smith’s kid and Jackie Chan set in China with kung fu instead of karate… and yes, that begs the question, WHY????

Structurally, the classic movie runs circles above your typical action blockbuster where Tom Cruise, Dwayne Johnson or Charlize Theron play a hero who’s tough, sexy and amazing the first second you see them on screen…and that hero doesn’t suffer or change one flipping bit after two hours of mayhem and blood.

THE KARATE KID gave us real characters with actual character arcs. Daniel Larusso is a loser in Act 1 and keeps getting his butt kicked by the gang from the Cobra Kai dojo. He’s a skinny underdog. And if you really watch, the real villain isn’t blonde tormentor Johnny, but his evil sensei.

So it was a fun surprise to learn about a new series, COBRA KAI, catching up with Johnny 34 years after that kick to the face in the All Valley Karate Tournament.

I watched the first episode before seeing the trailer, and it’s fun to see things from Johnny’s point of view. You don’t get a glimpse of Daniel Larusso until the end, where his eternally young mug pops up on in a TV commercial for the Larusso chain of auto dealerships. Seeing this makes Johnny trash his old tube-style television.

It’s a great scene, making me smile to think, “Hey, they got Ralph Macchio to do a cool cameo on this series. It’s like like Walter White showing up to buy a Cinnabon from Saul.”

Except if you watch the second episode (also free on YouTube), or check out the trailer, it becomes clear that Ralph Macchio isn’t popping in to shoot a few seconds of cameo goodness, just for old times.

Ralph is co-starring in this thing. I KID YOU NOT.

And he is glorious.

Here’s the series trailer:

The first episode is a slow burn. Yet those early setups are worth the payoff.

What’s interesting, in terms of the writing, is how complicated and gritty they’re going with this. Even though Johnny is the villain again, he’s sympathetic. You feel for him and understand his motivations. I kept rooting for the whole time. Daniel Larusso’s life couldn’t be more different, with money, a beautiful wife and a giant house–yet he’s not presented as perfect, either.

Making these two characters complicated and deeper than you expect is a smart choice.

This entire series feels like an extension of the old Funny of Die video that made fun of Ralph’s ageless looks and scandal-free history. His family on this series feels a lot like the wife and family in this fake mockumentary. (Warning: this clip contains some bad words, if you avoid that sort of thing, and it will also make you snort milk from your nose.)

VERDICT: If you watched THE KARATE KID and have a pulse, check this thing out. DO IT NOW.

Powell’s City of Books is packed with people, ideas and goodness

Whenever we’re in Portland, we hit Powell’s, the biggest indy bookstore in the known universe.

And it never gets old.

Today, the place is packed. But there’s none of the stress and bad manners of crowded places with long lines.

Because book people–writers and readers, editors and artists–are good people. 

Here’s to the staff and customers at Powell’s.

Writing prompt: Bob the Butcher puts his thumb on the scale

Character is revealed by choices–and not regular old choices. Decisions under stress.

There’s a good bit from philosophy about looking at this, because it’s binary choices don’t describe the real world.

“Brave” and “cowardly” doesn’t cover the range and complexity of humanity.

A five-part scale does a better job: cowardly – meek – measured – brave – reckless

So here’s a little writing prompt where the goal is to have a character–a hero or villain you love–respond to conflict in their unique way, in a single line of dialogue.

 

The problem: You’re in line to buy steak for a big summer BBQ, and Bob the Butcher just put his heavy thumb on the scale.  

A normal person might ask Bob to try again, which is expected and somewhat boring.

A meek person would maybe raise and eyebrow and hope Bob sees the error of his ways. A coward would simply pay to avoid confrontation.

A brave person would refuse to get cheated and walk out unless Bob the Butcher did things fairly, while a reckless character would start a fist-fight with Bob in the middle of the butcher shop.

But we all know characters who’d react far differently than even those basic examples, which is what makes fiction fun. I did four quick ones just now. Have at it.

 

Four one-line responses

Hannibal Lecter: Bob, I’d love to have you for dinner.

 

Obi-wan Kenobi *waves hand*: That’s not the price you’re looking for.

 

Bruce Wayne / Batman: Bob, I won’t be paying for these steaks, or this basket full of other goodies I grabbed, because I just bought your store.

 

Darth Vader: Pray I don’t cut off your other hand.

 

This sort of situation is the acid test for a truly memorable character. Is their response clearly different than other characters we all know, or are they pale copies and stereotypes of what heroes and villains are supposed to be?

Robin Boyes: ‘The heart must be moved’

Robin was brilliant. That’s the first thing to know and remember.

The second thing to know is this isn’t an obituary, where you list facts like the dates a person was born, where they lived and when they died. I’ve written plenty of obituaries for newspapers. This is different. It’s about what Robin meant to me, to his coworkers and the lawmakers he helped.

And we all agree on this: he was brilliant.

I’d bet my house there are fewer than five people on the planet with as much knowledge about speech coaching, speechwriting and Greek rhetoric.

Four, now that he’s gone.

He translated ancient and obscure texts from Greek into English on his website, which we kid around he wrote in machine code. (Visit classicpersuasion.org to see his work.)

Except we’re not really kidding. Robin did things like that.

Because he could.

Because he felt like it.

And for almost twenty years, he taught me everything I know about speechwriting and rhetoric as we worked together in the House of Representatives.

This place was his home, and we were his family. That’s how he treated staff and lawmakers alike: like brothers and sisters in arms, working for a noble cause.

And in Robin, you could see the nobility of it.

He didn’t work here for so many years because of the money. State workers don’t get rich, and Robin could have made a lot more if he’d remained in the private sector, flying across the nation to do speechwriting and coaching.

He stayed here to make a difference. This wasn’t something he said out loud. It was something you saw, every day, when he popped in your office to talk over a speech he was sweating over.

And he sweated them. He’d bug a lot of us about the latest oped or speech. Day after day. I used to make him swear at me by writing a bad first draft of an oped in ten minutes, just to show him the merits of turning his giant brain off and getting some words on paper without driving himself mad. Didn’t matter if they were perfect. Just get some clay to work with.

Robin wasn’t like that. He wanted perfection on the first draft. Maybe it took him a full week, but by God, that first draft was beautiful.

We wrote a booklet together on rhetoric and speeches, a guide for lawmakers and staff. There’s a line from Robin that still resonates in me every day, when I walk into my office, which was Robin’s before he retired: “Before statistics can prove, the heart must be moved.”

Robin swore by that. Despite his addiction to data and numbers, he never forgot that if you didn’t make your audience care, the finest statistics and facts would have zero impact.

The heart must be moved.

He was stubborn and prickly, generous to a fault and always, always thinking of how to fix the latest problem. If he didn’t pop into your office to talk about his latest speech or oped, he’d stand in the doorway and sigh until you stopped banging on the keyboard to turn your chair.

Then he’d ask, as if we were already in the middle of a conversation, “What are we going to DO?”

And of course you had to ask what he was talking about, which was always a problem facing the state or the nation.

That was his instinct. No matter how many years he’d worked in politics, he’d never gotten the memo about becoming cynical or selfish.

“What are we going to do?”

He wanted to fix things. Every day.

There are special quirks unique to him: when lawmakers weren’t in town and we didn’t have to wear suits, Robin always, always wore a Beatles baseball cap. We joked that when suits and ties were required and hats verboten, Robin got a haircut once a year, whether he needed it or not.

Despite his prowess with programming in Java and working with computers, he still called making copies “photostats.”

If he said something particularly witty, which happened often, he’d slap his hand against his mouth to make a loud pop. His version of an exclamation point, or dunking the rhetorical basketball.

Nobody in the office has figured out how to replicate that Robin pop. We’ve tried. Dan Frizzell comes close, but he’s not quite there.

I miss that noise.

I miss Robin’s intensity. It was his weak spot and the source of his strength. He focused on things. Obsessed about them, really. And it’s hard to be truly great at something you don’t care about and don’t spend time working on.

Robin took the time. He put in the work, and it showed. When he was a college debate coach, his team won the national championship.

When he taught me rhetoric, I soaked up more from him in a day than any of my years doing speech and debate. The man’s brain was sharper than a Ginsu.

He was easy to tease because he cared. Robin may have weighed 100 pounds after getting caught in a rainstorm, but that small frame packed a giant brain and an even bigger heart.

Another thing to know about Robin was his loyalty. Earning it wasn’t easy. He didn’t get impressed by many people. If you were his friend, or one of the lawmakers he wrote for that he truly clicked with, that relationship was for life.

Now he’s gone, and if this were an obituary, there’d be a lot of nonsense about funeral arrangements and donating to Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the American Cancer Society—but this isn’t an obituary, so I don’t have to pack it with all that dry nonsense.

Here’s the thing: Robin was larger than life and now he’s gone. That sucks.

The heart is moved, and this one hurts.

I wish we’d been a little tougher in trying to get him to socialize after he retired. I wish we could have more time together, to bullshit and learn and tease each other.

I wish.

And I know wishes along with $4.50 will buy you a latte.

The only way to honor the man is to remember him.

So here’s to you, Robin.

Chapter 5: Resisting Oppression

This is the last of five chapters from TRUTH AND LIBERTY: 33 WAYS TO FIGHT LIES, PROPAGANDA AND OPPRESSION.

Oppressive regimes react predictably to protests and opposition movements: they instinctively crack down on any dissent.

The methods used are brutal, but aren’t that surprising or creative. Non-violent resistance and smart messaging can make this instinct backfire on authoritarian rulers.

Step 28. Know their playbook

Protestors will be painted as paid thugs and traitors, with riot police blocking their movement. If protests continue, a regime may use tear gas, fire hoses and mass arrests—or simply outlaw mass protests altogether.

Judges and lawmakers who don’t go along with oppression will get marginalized, replaced or charged with bogus crimes.

Whistleblowers who leak documents to the press or opposition will be tracked down, if possible, and arrested and jailed.

Journalists who reveal the truth about the regime will be threatened, attacked or arrested.

Opposition figures who try to run against the ruler may be disqualified from the ballot or charged with bogus crimes.

If there are local and state police operating with local control, the regime will try to nationalize all police and law enforcement under their direct control.

To combat the manufactured threats generated by constant lies and a sustained propaganda campaign, the regime will seek greater powers, possibly via martial law or states of emergency, to combat these fake threats.

The true reason for this is to remove any checks and balances in the system, whether it’s the courts or lawmakers.

Law enforcement that used to go after criminals and spy agencies that focused on foreign threats will be redirected against lawmakers, judges, journalists and opposition leaders.

Insulting the ruler may become grounds to be sued for defamation or charged with a crime.

Censorship of the media, radio, television and internet will be justified as necessary to safeguard the nation against terrorism and foreign threats.

 

The recipe for populism is universal. Find a wound common to many, find someone to blame for it, and make up a good story to tell. Mix it all together.

Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen.

Caricature them. As vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers, you name it. Then paint yourself as the savior.

Capture the people’s imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a tale. One that starts with anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.

Populism can survive only amid polarization.

It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy.

—Andrés Miguel Rondón

 

Step 29. No singular leader or movement

If the opposition is united under a single banner with a singular leader, that makes it easy for the regime to focus all its firepower on that one opposition group and leader.

A single leader can be smeared, compromised, arrested or imprisoned. A united, national opposition group can be infiltrated, attacked with police raids and depleted by lawsuits.

Let the opposition grow organically and be leaderless, so there’s no one person or group as the regime’s target. Making the opposition leaderless also allows for the most flexibility and local control.

Everyone can feel like they can make a difference rather than being a cog in a machine.

Step 30. Protect whistleblowers, journalists and protest leaders

Peaceful protestors aren’t doing anything unethical or wrong. That won’t stop the regime from trying to use censorship and oppression.

Protect whistleblowers and journalists: Decades ago, authoritarian regimes kept tight control of copying machines because they knew a single copier could be used to spread the truth.

Today, it’s much, much harder to prevent average citizens—or patriotic government officials—from leaking documents revealing how the regime is corrupt and undemocratic.

Anyone with access to such information should carefully leak it to the free press and make sure, once the story breaks, that other copies are safely out of the hands of the regime.

Don’t trust encryption.  Assume the regime can trace anything you do using a smart phone or computer. Instead, use couriers and dead drops.

Use go-betweens. Whistleblowers with access to information should not be one who leak that information directly to the press or opposition. Use a series of go-betweens to protect whistleblowers.

Make copy after copy. Regimes will try to censor or confiscate leaked material and anything embarrassing.  Make multiple copies of important documents in different formats—digital, paper—and keep them safe in different locations.

Dead drops are a time-tested way to safely get documents and information to others.

Never have a face-to-face meeting to transfer sensitive information.

Put the document or thumb drive in an innocent, waterproof container and hide it in a public place, such as taped beneath a parking garage stairwell or beneath a shelf in a public library. Don’t tell anyone where the dead drop is until after the item is already there and the person who placed it is long gone.

Step 31. Use old-fashioned tools

Regimes will put opposition leaders, journalists and whistleblowers under surveillance.

These are some simple precautions to protect against this and to make the regime waste time and resources.

Don’t make it easy. If you suspect you’re being watched, don’t keep a regular schedule that lets a small team keep watch.

Keeping one person under surveillance takes a team. Doing work at odds hours of the evening means the regime has to add a night shift.

Meet with friends at restaurants or bars after midnight and they’ll need another team to work the graveyard shift.

No one-on-one meetings: Don’t meet one-on-one with important whistleblowers, journalists or opposition leaders. Talk with them, briefly, as part of a large group or event: a dinner party, a concert, a wedding or a soccer game.

Mix your real message in a sea of fakes. If something is truly important, send a flood of fake messages in different formats with different dates and details along with the one real message.  Even if all these messages are in simple code, or no code at all, there’s no way for the regime to know the fake from the real.

Watch for infiltrators and instigators. Regimes will send undercover agents to known meetings of the opposition, to gather intelligence and to instigate possible violence to discredit the opposition.

Switch channels. To communicate securely with journalists or other opposition leaders, don’t use the same channel every time. Switch whenever possible.

Book codes. Digital encryption can be broken. If you need to send encrypted messages, book codes are unbreakable, no matter how many supercomputers are thrown at the problem.

Instead of codes referring to letters, a book code refers to the specific page, line and word of widely-available books.

To make it even more secure, continually switch the book used as the key to the code.

Adapt faster than the regime. Above all, continually adapt and change. Use the vast size and strength of a nation-state against the regime, which can’t innovate and adapt as fast as a loose collection of opposition groups.

Step 32. Find safe harbors

Some regimes have massive operations to block media sources from overseas and censor the internet, while others use jamming signals to block radio and television broadcasts from outside their borders.

Modern technology change has made form of censorship this much, much harder.  But it’s not impossible. Some regimes employ a great number of people to censor the internet in their country, with various degrees of success.

What remains impossible for any regime, no matter how rich and powerful, is censoring censor newspapers and opposition leaders based entirely in other countries.

Journalists, whistleblowers and opposition leaders should therefore find and establish places which they can use as a safe places in other countries.

Use safe harbors to:

  • Talk to the media in countries where the regime has no leverage against the free press
  • Keep vital information and secrets safe
  • Spread leaks to the foreign press where the regime can’t apply pressure
  • Cultivate non-profits, friendly political leaders and ex-pats who can speak for the opposition

Step 33. Turn every target into a hero and symbol

Successful non-violent oppositions can turn each act of brutality and oppression into a chance to create a new hero.

Rosa Parks became an American icon for the simple act of refusing to give up her seat to a white man on the bus in the segregated South.

Srjdja Popovic’s brilliant book, Blueprint for Revolution, describes how in Serbia during the protests against Slobodan Milosevic, getting arrested turned people into famous symbols.

Protestors sang songs outside jails and chanted the names of those arrested. When protestors got released, they got rock-star receptions. Only those who got arrested 10 times earned a black Optor! opposition T-shirt, which became a token of respect and status.

Whoever the regime targets for threats, beatings or arrests, turn that person into a symbol of courage and resistance.

Share their stories, and tie it back to tales of people like Cesar Chavez, Malala Yousafazia, Mahatma Gandhi, Guo Feixiong and Nelson Mandela.

 

Download the full PDF by clicking here or on the photo below. The guide also has a permanent home at 33ways.org

 

Power is not a means, it is an end.

One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.

—George Orwell

Chapter 4: Winning the War on Truth

This is the fourth of five chapters from TRUTH AND LIBERTY: 33 WAYS TO FIGHT LIES, PROPAGANDA AND OPPRESSION.

Chapter 4: Winning the War on Truth

An authoritarian regime uses lies and propaganda are used not only to generate far and smear opponents, but to distract the press and public from their larger strategy: consolidating power and accumulating wealth.

The main front of the War on Truth is an attack on independent sources of information and truth, primarily the free press, to prevent that corruption from being uncovered.

A second front is propaganda, fake news and misinformation.

Step 22. Support and protect the free press

A free, independent press is crucial to shining a light on corruption and oppression. Only the independent press has the credibility to perform this role.

If opposition lawmakers or protest groups discover corruption and try to inform the people about it, their ethos—their credibility—is weak, because they’re obviously biased.

The free press is the only real institution with the credibility to shine a light on corruption, oppression and injustice. That’s why authoritarian regimes relentlessly attack the press with smears, lawsuits and violence.

Fight back against any attempts to pass laws that crack down on freedom of the press and freedom of speech, including laws making it easier to sue the press for libel. Also watch for new laws that punish journalists for refusing to reveal sources, such as government whistleblowers.

Support independent newspapers acting as a check on the regime by subscribing to key newspapers and media outlets, advertising with them and getting friends and allies to do the same.

When individual reporters are attacked—in public, on social media or with lawsuits and arrests—rally to their defense.

Make smears backfire by treating every attacked reporter as a national hero. If  a regime tries to stage police raids on newspapers or TV stations, blockade the entrances, hold sit-ins and do what you can to make those raids painful and publicized.

Step 23. Attack the heart of propaganda outlets

Anonymity is the beating heart of propaganda.

Unlike journalism, propaganda hides both who’s writing and producing their material and who’s paying for it all.

Attack the heart of propaganda by depriving it of that shield of anonymity.

Unmask the writers and creators of propaganda. Shame is a powerful tool, and the last thing the people who make their living writing and producing this material is for their friends and neighbors to know what they really do for a living.

More importantly, find the funding sources. If the regime itself is entirely funding a propaganda operation, use that to discredit all that they say.

When propaganda is coming from a media outlet with any sort of advertising funding, start a #grabyourwallet campaign to boycott businesses that advertise on propaganda outlets until they remove their support.

 

The rulers of backsliding democracies resent an independent press, but cannot extinguish it. They may curb the media’s appetite for critical stories by intimidating unfriendly journalists, as President Jacob Zuma and members of his party have done in South Africa.

Mostly, however, modern strongmen seek merely to discredit journalism as an institution, by denying that such a thing as independent judgment can exist. All reporting serves an agenda.

There is no truth, only competing attempts to grab power.

By filling the media space with bizarre inventions and brazen denials, purveyors of fake news hope to mobilize potential supporters with righteous wrath—and to demoralize potential opponents by nurturing the idea that everybody lies and nothing matters.

― David Frum

 

Step 24. Ignore fake news and faceless trolls

Kings, emperors and dictators used rumors and whisper campaigns against journalists, judges and the political opposition.

Modern technology has simply shifted those techniques to the digital realm.

Nation-states have the resources to design and deploy elaborate misinformation campaigns:

  • Fake news stories and websites
  • Doctored documents and photos
  • Armies of faceless trolls on the internet
  • Manipulated video and audio

Debunking this flood of fake news and smear attacks is a waste of time.

You can’t refute lies and smears without repeating them in some fashion, spreading them wider.

The only real strategy to deal with trolls is to starve them of the attention they seek. Never engage, no matter how hard they try to provoke you.

Step 25. Turn propaganda against itself

Instead of words, propaganda relies on images, photos, audio, posters film and music.

Propaganda tends to crop up during wartime, even in free democracies, then disappear in peacetime.

What authoritarians do is maintain a permanent campaign of propaganda during war or peace. If you glance at war propaganda posters, this becomes immediately clear: the enemy is depicted not as human beings, but as rats and monsters.

Propaganda is also used to boost the ruler’s perceived strength. It’s no accident authoritarian regimes puts portraits of the ruler everywhere you look, making them seem omnipresent.

A final role of propaganda is to rally the population behind the ruler while portraying any sort of opposition or protest as treasonous.

Don’t give in to the notion that fighting back means using the same techniques as the regime. Spreading your own lies, propaganda and misinformation isn’t smart because it undermines the credibility of the opposition. You’d sacrifice the moral high ground.

And you can’t win by mirroring the regime’s tactics, because this will never be a fair fight.

No opposition can ever match the money and resources of an entire nation-state. It’s like a heavyweight boxer taking on random civilians on the street, including young children and grandmothers. While cheating.

Any battle against propaganda has to be fought with asymmetrical guerilla tactics. Turn the overwhelming presence of propaganda against itself. Take all the time, money and effort the regime spends on posters, slogans and messages and subvert them in creative ways.

Portraits of the ruler posted everywhere are targets for rebellion and mockery. All it takes is a marker and some creativity.

Videos and songs meant to rally the people behind manufactured enemies, and behind the ruler, are easy to satirize by anyone with a laptop and time. Even if the regime tries to censor such videos and songs on the internet, they can’t stop marchers from singing the same words.

Finally, don’t focus satire the subverts the regime’s propaganda on the foibles of ruler, because rulers don’t last forever, while their ideology and methods will continue unless they’re stopped.

Aim mockery at the actual policies of the regime.

Step 26. Send the right messengers

Talking, marching and organizing with people who already agree with you may feel good, and can help the opposition get organized. Staying in that bubble can’t win the day.

Any successful fight against the War on Truth has to focus its persuasive efforts on reaching and persuading supporters of the regime.

Authoritarians gain and sustain power through extreme populism. They appeal to the working class while painting educated professionals as the enemy. By contrast, the natural base of any opposition movement is typically educated and urban.

The working class base of support for an authoritarian regime is typically afraid because they’re struggling economically and desperately want change. They don’t trust the educated elite to give them the change they want.

Listen to supporters of the regime first, and understand their fears, before trying to persuade them with the right message and local messengers.

A powerful message—The opposition’s narrative has to be just as simple and emotional as the regime’s story of a nation united against dangerous enemies.

A real political message is more than a slogan.  It’s a narrative that explains what causes problems in society, how you solve those problems and what an ideal society would look like.

Facts won’t defeat the regime’s powerful, fear-based message.

You need a counter-narrative that explains what causes problems in society (corruption, lies and oppression), how problems are solved (clean, honest government, freedom of speech and fair elections) and what an ideal society looks (a safe, open society where people can be free and prosperous).

Local messengers—Whoever shares the opposition narrative should be from the same demographics and region as the audience you’re trying to reach.

Don’t send anyone who looks or sounds like a member of the educated elite to working class neighborhoods, because they’ll be seen a politician who can’t understand their daily life.

Cultivate fresh voices who get their hands dirty doing the same jobs, every day, as the people you’re trying to reach.

Those new voices, no matter how effective, shouldn’t parachute in and out of places.

Opposition voices and leaders should be found and supported locally, in the very places where the regime’s support is the strongest.

Step 27. Weave stories into everything

Plato feared stories more than anything else.

More than logic. More than facts.

Stories are how we naturally process information. It’s the most powerful form of communication.

Narratives come in many forms, and there’s an art to doing them on a high level. But you’re not trying to write novels or screenplays for a living.

You can, and should, structure whatever you do in terms of a simple, strong narrative.

The biggest difference between narrative stories and the stories you see in newspapers is structure.

Journalism typically uses the inverted pyramid, which is a fancy way of saying “put the exciting bit in the headline and first paragraph, then make it more boring until it peters out at the end.”

There are good reasons for newspapers to use this structure, because it gives people the most important information first and lets editors cut the end of a story if they ran out of room on a page.

This journalistic style of writing is pretty typical for public relations, especially press releases.

Yet it’s terrible for the purposes of persuasive writing and communication, which is what you’re doing as an opposition movement.

Instead, use a narrative structure for everything you do. Everything: speeches, letters to the editor, videos, protest songs and even posters.

The basics of narrative are simple.

Villains, heroes and stakes: Every story is a conflict between villains and heroes. The villains are the most important part of a story. What if the villain wins? Show what’s at stake for the people in the story and for the greater public.

Curiosity and surprise—Narratives are strong because they’re the opposite of the inverted pyramid. They make you curious, build up that tension and only reveal the answers at the absolute end of the piece.

Maximum emotional distance—The best stories, speeches, books and movies maximize the emotional distance the audience travels.

If the ending is up (happy, excited), the beginning should be down. If the ending is down (sad, upset), the beginning should be up.

Never write flat. If the story you tell is down the entire time, or up the entire time, there’s no velocity to what you’re doing. The audience is lost.

Think of a roller coaster. That’s the kind of structure you want, with emotional velocity.

Concrete imagery—Don’t tell people something is wrong or unjust. Talk about real people, about what they saw, touched and heard. Make it real.

End with stories of action—Subtext is more powerful than text. It’s never persuasive to beat people over the head with your message. That’s a lecture.

Instead of telling people to act, find ways to end every speech and message with an example of a person who stood up, spoke up and took action. Inspire them to action.

 

Next week—Chapter 5: Resisting Oppression

Download the full PDF by clicking here or on the photo below. The guide also has a permanent home at 33ways.org