Storytelling your way to a better project

17 Dec 2014
Author: Robert Precht


The New York Times published an article recently on the uses of storytelling to increases the chances that people will invest or donate money toward your project or new organization. Scientific studies suggest that effective storytelling has a physical impact on the human brain, inducing the flow of certain chemicals that can enhance feelings of generosity. The article concludes: 

PowerPoints are the bane of storytellers, but here are a few bullet points to keep in mind when developing a good story:

■ Know who your audience is.

■ Have a beginning, middle and end. (That sounds obvious, but people often forget that.)

■ Use concrete details and personal experience.

■ Don’t self-censor.

With these guidelines in mind I have attempted to write the story of Justice Labs. Here it is (and please write me with ideas for improving it):  


The Story of Justice Labs

I decided to become a public interest lawyer when I was a Jr. High School student. I was falsely accused of painting graffiti in the girl’s restroom.  The teachers forced all the students to give examples of their handwriting. They determined that my example matched the graffiti. When I protested that I had nothing to do with the offense a teacher looked me in the eye and said, “Rob, I don’t believe you.” Later in the year the real culprit was caught, but nobody apologized to me. I realized the awesome power of Authority to accuse and determine the guilt of people. Nobody stood up for me. That day forward I determined to stand up for the underdog and I became a defense lawyer. 

I serving 13 years as a defense lawyer in New York City and I was lucky to have several mentors – senior lawyers who took an interest in helping me develop my skills and conception of myself as a lawyer. In 1995 I was recruited by the Dean of Michigan Law School to create an Office of Public Service. One of the prime goals of the Office was to help idealistic students and graduates launch public interest projects. During my more than eight years there I experienced great satisfaction helping students translate their dreams into reality. I gave them career counseling, worked with them apply for public interest fellowships, and put them in touch with mentors drawn from the university’s distinguished network of alumni. At the same time I felt regret when I thought about young people in the world who had ideas for improving society but were without the resources of a place like Michigan to help them implement their ideas. What would happen to their dreams? 

When I left Michigan and moved to Beijing to head up a rule of law program I was struck even more than I expected by the lack of resources available to young people to start new projects to improve society. Even in Hong Kong there were relatively few career counseling resources for students. These two experiences – witnessing the power of mentoring at a place like Michigan and seeing the lack of resources in places like China and Hong Kong – led me to conceive the idea of Justice Labs: a website-based school to help public interest entrepreneurs launch their projects, a school unconstrained by brick walls or a fixed location. 

The mission of Justice Labs is to nurture and support public interest innovators globally. Our signature program is the Startup School. The Startup School provides public interest entrepreneurs with online training, mentorship, and a platform to create, develop, and launch innovative new ideas that measurably improve the lives of poor and marginalized people or tackle underrepresented causes. 

The backbone of the Startup School – as it was at Michigan – is our network of mentors. Our mentors are distinguished experts in their fields who also have the ability to counsel and inspire students. They know what it’s like to start a new project and to undergo the self-doubts that any pioneer has from time to time. Students admitted into our program become Justice Labs Founders. Each Founder is paired with a mentor who will help him or her develop the project and encourage them through challenges. When I look back on my own career I recognize how much mentors helped me.  Above all I hope Justice Labs will be a mentoring resource to idealists.