Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has been a fixture of my Sunday nights for years now—helping me cope with, or at the very least, hold space for laughter throughout the collective trauma of the 2016 election, mass shootings, Trump presidency, police brutality, and the COVID-19 pandemic. It wasn’t until recently that I realized it’s not just the jokes that keep me coming back for more. It’s the series’ expert handling of storytelling that’s kept me a regular viewer for eight seasons. Its use of systems stories, data, humor, and audience engagement provides a praiseworthy framework that all storytellers, particularly those in the social impact storytelling space, can put to use in their own communications.
Before I dive into that framework, here’s a quick rundown of what Last Week Tonight is all about in case you’re unfamiliar. The series host, John Oliver, begins each episode with a short monologue about the most recent or relevant news of the week. After a lighthearted break for the “And Now, This” segment, he moves into the meat of the episode: “the Main Story.” This is where my analysis of the show’s storytelling chops begins and it’s where, every week, I’m impressed with the show’s use of the following storytelling strategies:
Systems act as the main characters
If you were to look at the Last Week Tonight Youtube page you’d notice that almost every “Main Story” is about a system—with the exception of a few episodes dedicated to people who have done some exceptionally horrible things. This fact points to the show’s knowing or unknowing commitment to “systems storytelling,” which is the technique of making a system one of the main characters in a story. Police raids, long-term care, the national debt, and bankruptcy are some of the most recent systems John Oliver and his team have interrogated for the benefit of its viewers. And while these systems act as the main character in each episode’s story, they are not the only characters.
Personal stories play a supportive, but essential role in Last Week Tonight. During any given episode, multiple personal stories are highlighted to demonstrate the ways in which a system impacts peoples’ lives and as a method of advancing the overall narrative. In the clip below (at the 3:12 timestamp), a couple shares that they “can’t afford to go bankrupt.” This personal anecdote enables John Oliver to move into a deeper conversation about the costs of filing for bankruptcy and the systemic causes for those costs.
Social impact storytellers, take note. Centering a story around a system as well as the people it impacts is one of the most effective strategies for building support for systemic solutions. A personal story without a system implicated doesn’t just miss an opportunity to inform about systems change–it can also advance the harmful narrative that individuals are responsible for solving entrenched, systemic inequities.
Data plays a supportive and contextual role
Last Week Tonight also employs data and statistics to tell a compelling story. “Main Stories” never lead with statistics; rather, they’re incorporated into the narrative much like personal stories are—to support and demonstrate the urgency of the point being made. While that might seem like a small detail, this use of data points to a bigger principle of narrative framing that this article on SSIR explains: ”Countering misinformation with fact-based rebuttals rarely works. In fact, a good deal of research into the psychology of persuasion finds that yelling louder from an entrenched position doesn’t just fall flat, it can actually be counterproductive.”
When social impact storytellers lead with data—usually with the best of intentions—audiences who might be unfamiliar with, or skeptical about, the issue at hand can become defensive, looking for explanations of the data that fit their existing belief systems. But when it’s incorporated contextually within a narrative, audiences can better grasp the concepts the numbers relate to. In short, they aren’t given the chance to explain away the data presented.
Humor disrupts hopelessness
The systemic issues John Oliver covers, and those that social impact organizations are working to solve, are urgent issues that in many cases are highly emotional. As a result, it can be tempting to frame these issues as crises inflicting immeasurable harm on people and the planet. And while this might be true, an overreliance on crisis-framing in storytelling actually depresses support for issues. It forces audiences to assume that their efforts to support issues would be hopeless in the face of such an enduring crisis. A story intended to be inspiring becomes, well, exhausting.
Last Week Tonight avoids the trap of crisis-framing by incorporating humor into its storytelling. Well-timed jokes break up the heavy emotional appeal of the show’s stories, helping hold viewers’ attention without overwhelming them. When paired with suggesting solutions—which I’ll detail next— this strategy turns a hopeless problem into one that’s possible to solve.
For most social impact organizations, humor isn’t an effective communications strategy. But there are other ways they can break up heavy content, particularly on social impact websites. Peppering in success stories, data that shows what’s possible, or video content can also disrupt the overwhelming nature of the issue being communicated about.
Actions end the story with a sense of what’s possible
Finally, one of the most unique and effective elements of Last Week Tonight’s storytelling is its commitment to solutions. Every “Main Story” segment ends with tangible actions viewers can take to support the topic issue. These actions range from individual actions like buying John Oliver-branded stamps to support the USPS, to systemic actions like supporting proposed policies. Sometimes, Last Week Tonight even facilitates a more organic movement for change on social media, by suggesting viewers tweet about the issue with a unique, and usually witty, hashtag. Whatever the method, ending a story with potential actions and a vision of what success looks like helps turn passive audiences into active advocates for change. Even if viewers don’t take the suggested action, awareness that solutions exist is a win in itself—further dismantling the view that change is hopeless.
By ending a narrative with concrete actions or systemic solutions, social impact storytellers ensure that their audiences feel inspired to take action. And since social impact organizations often create or advocate for the solutions proposed, this practice also provides an organic opportunity to promote the organization’s work and ask for support.
Social impact storytelling is now ubiquitous. But that doesn’t mean everyone’s getting it right all the time. Heck, it’s still a work in progress for our team! From ethical storytelling to weekly TV series, I’m certainly finding inspiration all around me. I hope the ideas Last Week Tonight incorporates, from systems storytelling and data to crisis-framing and solutions, help advance your organization’s perceptions of what makes a story “good.”