Deconstructing a letter from a Birmingham jail

Martin Luther King’s historic letter about civil rights has inspired millions. It clarifies when and how we must work towards justice. But why is his language so compelling? Can computers help explain it? I put the text through my story analysis tools to see what my program would say about it on a meta level.

Function Word Patterns

How much more or less often do they appear than expected?

Relationships words appear 81% less often
Exclusives words appear 87% more often
Black White words appear 3X more often
Tentative words appear 4X more often
Positive Emotion words appear 22% more often
Question words appear 7X more often
Discrepancy words appear 2X more often
Analytical words appear 75% less often
Negative Words words appear 35% less often
Organization words appear 87% less often
Aspirational Words words appear 3X more often
Negative Emotion words appear 3X more often
Cognitive words appear 17% less often

Computer rewritten synopsis

- We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.

- I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

- But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.

Pronoun usage (point of view)

Overall, 6.9 percent of the words in your text were pronouns. Typical reports have 5.6% pronouns and stories have 7 to 9% pronouns.

The point of view mostly shifts between “I” and “WE.”

Note: “I” = first singular, “you” = second, “we” = first plural, “he/she” = third singular, “they” = third plural, and various words organizations used to decribe themselves are “fourth” person point of view.

How many times does each type of pronoun appear?
first singular:169
first plural:111
third plural:73
third singular:40

letter from a birmingham jail


Full text

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]“

16 April 1963
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.

But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained. As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?” We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.

Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.”

I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the “do nothingism” of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood. And I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself, and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright of freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of Asia, South America and the Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice. If one recognizes this vital urge that has engulfed the Negro community, one should readily understand why public demonstrations are taking place. The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides -and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some -such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle–have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as “dirty nigger-lovers.” Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful “action” antidotes to combat the disease of segregation. Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue. I commend you, Reverend Stallings, for your Christian stand on this past Sunday, in welcoming Negroes to your worship service on a nonsegregated basis. I commend the Catholic leaders of this state for integrating Spring Hill College several years ago.

But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation -and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy two year old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: “My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest.” They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Published in:
King, Martin Luther Jr.

A Rosetta Stone is now available for NGO sentiment analysis

Until the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799, no one could read Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Because the inscription on this stone is identical in three languages, we were able to decode this ancient script.


By analogy, I am publishing a dictionary that allows us to understand what people on the receiving end of international aid really mean when they are given a chance to tell stories about how organizations have affected their lives. It works because the GlobalGiving Storytelling Project collected such a large sample of beneficiary feedback about every sort of community effort that we can reverse engineer what people mean in other contexts.

Building the word-tone dictionary

  1. Starting with the over 60,000 stories we’ve already collected from Kenyans and Ugandans about NGO work, I pulled a dictionary of 100,000 English words and queried the collection for stories that contained each word.
  2. Each story is associated with a series of mapping questions about what happened. Was it positive or negative? These outcome mapping questions allow me to associate specific words with specific outcomes on a range from positive to negative. For example, if everybody who tells a story about “measles” assigns the outcome to negative (the person wasn’t cured), the word “measles” would generally be a negative word in other NGO contexts.
  3. There are many kinds of positive and negative outcomes in the data already. We asked, “Who Benefited?” nobody? the wrong people? or the right people? Or “who did you feel about your story?” So even with just 100 stories that use a word, we often have several hundred data points averaged. As you would expect, most words are not strongly positive or negative.
  4. I then filtered out any word that wasn’t used in at least 100 stories, so that the remaining 1944 words (of 100,000) are pretty reliable as a reference dictionary. I will probably publish a larger dictionary with the remaining words if people ask for it in comments below.
  5. I then normalized the scores on a range from roughly -500 to +500, centered around zero by “turning up the gain” on the negative feedback. (Ask me how in comments in comments if you care). This step allows the data set to be used in other contexts, such as the import your own text analysis tool, where we don’t know whether stories had happy or sad ending.

This reference dictionary allows anyone to take a quick glance at the overall sentiment in any unstructured language from people who are affected by international development, based on how tens of thousands of people have used the same word previously.

Download your free word-tone dictionary

Click to download the 1944 word dictionary either as a CSV or a python pickled dictionary.







(Rename the files afterwards)


If you plot all the words in excel and their sentiment scores, they look like this:

normalized word distribution from tone dictionary

If you turn that plot on its side, it will become a normal distribution, like this:


The corrected plot is centered around zero. That’s good. It means that these words are a good mix of positive and negative sentiments. I chose to adjust the raw positive-negative scores because there is such a huge positive-bias in all NGO feedback that it becomes ridiculous just how skewed the stories are, compared to how much peoples lives are really affected by these efforts.

If people really benefited as much as they say they are, we would have no poor people left.

Case in point: What word is outlier at the top of the chart?

full scale normalized word distribution from tone dictionary

Give up? This word has a positivity score of 10,125 after I corrected the data. The score of +10,125  is a measure of how consistently that word appears in positive success stories versus negative failure stories. A word with a score of zero is neutral, or used in stories with mixed positive-negative outcomes. And because only words used in at least 100 stories are used, these dots are not like to switch sides (or signs) if we repeated this experiment a different story collection from the aid world.

Still don’t know the mystery word?

Here is the answer:

annotated full scale normalized word distribution from tone dictionary

The outlier is the word ‘organization.’ People are very eager to tell positive stories about organizations. Literally thousands of times more likely to be positive in stories with the word ‘organization’ than in stories that contain the words that fall along the zero line of the chart.

Previously, my other means of measuring positive bias in stories concluded that people tell 10 to 30 positive stories for every negative story, across all 60,000 stories. By this measure, the positive sentiment in stories that include the word ‘organization’ is even higher still. Positive bias is a real problem. But using the word dictionary I’ve published, you can find the negative sentiments within a sea of rosy feedback.

My interpretations:

  • The most negative words were “came” and “time.” As in, “one time these people came to our village…” That meta pattern is quite alarming. I just finished reading Bill Easterly’s “The Tyranny of Experts” yesterday, which is all about getting the outsiders to leave people alone and instead focus on advocating for the rights of poor people. This pattern is consistent with the failure of outsiders to come into a place on a “one time” basis and make any sort of lasting positive change.The implications of these outlier words should be a wake up call to the aid sector.
  • People are more honest in Kibera and Uganda. Slum life in Kibera is poor, and people are ready to honestly talk about it. But across Uganda, people are almost as positive about everything as are people who talk about an “organization.”
  • Narratives are positively biased in the development world, but there is no reason to believe that numbers are somehow free of this bias. In any kind of survey, when some asks the citizen, “how much money do you make?” or “how many kids do you have?” they get back wrong answers, and always wrong in the direction of what a person knows the organization wants to hear. There are documented examples of women under-reporting the number of kids they have to Millennium Development Goals surveyors in Uganda because they knew the “smaller families” was the outcome measure outsiders were looking for. Likewise, people lie about income and say they are poorer when money might have handed out, or overestimate their income in surveys from micro-loan foundations that use this “success metric” as the basis for granting them larger loans.
  • You could throw up your hands and blame other people for lying, but I prefer to treat this as a symptom of the larger disease: Our programs are generally not making life better, and the only way to make life better is to play the game to get as much immediate aid as possible. No one has ever proven that putting money in a person’s pocket makes them poorer in the short-term. Yes, in the long term, they could become poorer, but poverty has a tendency to focus people on short term gains.
  • The difficulty is that there are two kinds of positive stories – the ones where things really turned out great, and the ones where they are saying good things but they’re still not happy about the outcomes. This one method alone doesn’t do enough to tease out these two kinds of positive, but when combined with other lines of evidence, other structural aspects in the narratives, it is possible to tell the difference between authentic praise and manufactured praise. For example, check out my first attempt at this.

Quick scan of the most positive / most negative words

Most negative words

came -3189
kibera -2540
time -2406
two -2244
kenya -2094
take -1755
come -1755
really -1478
place -1380
long -1375
decided -1368
years -1339
person -1292
lack -1265
mother -1208
green -1206
father -1182
able -1138
man -1116
ago -1092
brought -1081
certain -1040
things -1029
bad -979
told -943
water -923
belt -908
saw -907
going -907
hard -902
bring -867
see -848
young -848
girl -839

Most positive words

organisation 10128
uganda 4192
provides 2774
providing 2652
children 2501
standards 2286
done 2194
development 2110
poor 2050
helps 1901
living 1899
support 1882
community 1808
orphans 1707
giving 1595
improve 1548
district 1446
aids 1409
agriculture 1373
health 1362
education 1349
farmers 1312
gives 1309
counselling 1293
mbarara 1284
provided 1274
given 1272
helping 1250
association 1245
materials 1241
women 1219
vision 1202
world 1190
role 1169
town 1113
seeds 1113
scholastic 1052
care 1038
save 1025

Examples of organizations using Story-Centered Learning in their work


GlobalGiving has got a new crop of partner organizations trying out our storytelling method and adopting it to their local context. In every case, they try to get two stories from each person, and one of these stories can be on a narrower subject. The second story is very opened ended, about some community effort they know about. Here are examples of how each organization is adopting the storytelling method to their needs.

  • Center for Peacebuilding (Bosnia): We develop peacebuilding programs to foster peace and reconciliation among different ethnic and religious groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our activities are designed to bring about comprehensive social change focusing on youth.

Their story prompt: Talk about a time when a person or organization tried to help someone of change something in your community. What happened?

Reflections from the organization’s peace ambassador (copied from her blog):

“I thought that many community organisations would not have the capacity to do so much work… particularly since we already have our own internal evaluation system. On the other hand…  this made me even more committed to find local capacity for CIM to fundraise on globalgiving… In this way, we can ensure that feedback collection will happen on the ground, and I can still handle the communications and analysis from anywhere in the world.

I see globalgiving raising the bar by raising the standards for local organisations in terms of programming. So indirectly and slowly, globalgiving could create a network of grassroots organisations that have a professional level in fundraising, evaluation, and programme development. The tools they need are easy to use. The points based system is somewhat competitive. The rewards they get are too good to move away from. Those who will be serious about development work, will have adapt, improve and sustain an impact on the ground in order to keep getting the benefits.”

  • Encompass – the Daniel Braden Reconciliation Trust (UK): Encompass works to bring together young people from different cultures and backgrounds, supporting them to become more understanding and tolerant of each other while giving them the skills and confidence to promote intercultural understanding in their communities. This storytelling project is carried forth by youth in the UK, US, and Gaza (Palestine).

Their story prompt: Please tell a story about a time when a conflict arose because you had to work with someone from a different background (religious, cultural, ethnic etc.) to yourself.

Their revised story prompt: Please tell a story about a time when a person changed someone else’s perception of them or challenged a prejudice or misunderstanding.

  • Guitars in the Classroom (USA): Since 1998, Guitars in the Classroom (GITC) has been inspiring, training and equipping classroom teachers to integrate music making across the academic curriculum through “song-based instruction” so students of all ages have educational, musical access & opportunity at school every day. Our work prepares educators to lead music, employing it as a dynamic tool for reaching all learners, teaching all subjects, and building character, creativity and community.Programs & materials are free.

Their story prompt:  We are excited to learn about how your experience with Guitars in the Classroom has affected you personally and, if you are an educator, professionally. We also hope to learn about other experiences you have had as a volunteer or participant with another charity. Thanks for participating!

  • La Reserva Forrest Foundation (Costa Rica): La Reserva Forest Foundation is a Costa Rican non-profit working to restore and preserve native tropical forests, dedicated to creating “tree bridges” linking isolated forest islands using volunteers and the local school communities, and fighting global warming through various carbon neutral projects.

Their story prompt: Please tell a story about a time when you had to choose between protecting the environment and maintaining a livelihood. Include if/how individuals or organizations were involved in the conflict.

  • Partnership for Every Child (Ukraine): Our vision is the world where every child grows up in a lovely and secure family. Mission. We professionally assist families, communities and governments in their work to ensure the rights of every child to live and develop in safe and secure family environments. Our main focus until 2015 is to prevent separation of children from families and placement in institutional care; support and strengthening parental capacities of vulnerable families; support to children leaving care.

Their story prompt: (They plan to use the standard story question to learn about youth needs in their program)

  • Tanzania Development Trust (Tanzania): The Trust Deed of 1975 says “The objects of the Trust shall be to relieve poverty and sickness among the people of Tanzania by means of the development of education, health and other social services, the improvement of water supplies and other communal facilities and the promotion of self- help activities.” Interpreting the Trust Deed for the needs of the 21st Century we add: “In making grants, the Trust tries to promote equal opportunities and projects which improve the environment”.

Their story prompt: Standard story prompt

  • Vacha Charitable Trust (India): Our mission is to focus on issues of women and girls through educational programmes, resource creation, research, training, campaigns, networking and advocacy. Our vision is of a world without exploitation, oppression, discrimination and injustice against women or any other section of society.

Their story prompt: Standard story prompt

  • Vijana Amani Pamoja (Kenya): VAP’s mission is to integrate social and economic values through football/soccer by creating a proactive health environment.

Their story prompt: Standard story prompt

  • London Youth organization helps thousands of teens in the city. They measure impact as improved self-confidence, educational attainment, and long-term community involvement. Their programs help young people get “back on track” and help them find fulfilling careers.
Their story prompt: Please tell a story about a time when a young person tried to change something in their area
  • An NGO in Botswana works in many communities to curb gender-based violence. Instead of asking about the issue directly, they are trying an indirect way to learn about underlying issues through storytelling.

Their story prompt: Please tell a story about a time when a person or an organization had a conflict or disagreement or problem with money.

  • In Japan, IsraAid is running a storytelling project to gather stories about the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, and how areas are recovering.

Their story prompt: Standard story prompt

Globalgiving Storytelling Project-Bosnia Edition

Originally posted on almondsasdiamonds:

Over the past three years storytelling has become central to most of what I do. I never paid too much attention to it before, but since first coming to Bosnia I have begun to purposely acknowledge how both myself and others around me used it. I had positive experiences: listening to inspirational stories that in one way or another changed my life and the path I followed, and negative (but constructive) experiences: witnessing hopelessness, trauma, anxiety, anger, disillusionment.

From an academic point of view, this conflict transformation approach was ruined for me, and I surprised myself that despite my very negative experience with that specific module, I have not given up on it yet, on the contrary, I am eager to learn both in formal and informal ways.

I happen to be back in Bosnia. Together with the CIM directors, we agreed to apply for a grant from Globalgiving for a…

View original 971 more words

Understanding street children: What can you do with narratives?

Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to present findings about street children at the University of Manchester in UK. Eleanor Harrison (GlobalGiving UK CEO and former director of a street children program in Kenya) yielded her time to me, and I gave this presentation, virtually analyzing all the data on the spot.

Not being able to prepare in advance was a blessing. It helped me emphasize that we’ve come a long way in our quest to build simple, instant, intuitive tools for analyzing narratives and their meta data. These images are screen shots of the tools I’ve described previously at and

What can you do with noisy, minimalist, or totally unstructured narratives?

A demonstration with stories about street children 

street children headerimg

First, it provides a top level visual summary

You don’t even need to know much English. Just look at the pictures and you’ll get an overall idea. Everybody talks about street children, but kids talk about it a bit more than the rest.

street children summary 1173 of 61000

Analyze the point of view:  “Actor in the story” versus “Affected by events”

When people tell their own stories, they turn out more negative. But young boys are more positive and young girls are more negative.

compare street children actor vs affected

A story’s point of view affects the depth, nuance, detail, and likely “data” that can be extracted:

Street children stories have more “I” stories that we would expect, pulling stories from our collection of 60,000+ at random, so the “I” is bigger.

street children affected pov map

A Wordtree is an unsupervised algorithm that works with any text generates these for ANY search result in seconds. Here are branches from hundreds of street children stories.

street children street kid run away ran away

Zooming in you can see how words and phrases connect to form ideas: An old man frequently interacting with a young girl, with money being part of that sentence in the story.

street children wordtree man did street children wordtree food life

Food and life also form two branches of the story.

We can look at how stories intersect with mentions of specific organizations.

jitegemee drill down

Contrasting stories with different endings can yield more program-level design insights. (Using stories about success or failure we map outcomes)

This is the most interesting snapshot of them all. Failure stories are more complex than success stories. Wordtrees look for associated words within sentences. Success stories have branches that fan outward because the concepts are simpler, less interwoven. Failure stories are a chaotic birdsnest of interwoven social issues.

In failure stories, each storyteller tends to describe the events using similar words but in a different order so the map is simply more complex, more interesting.

As organizations, too often we focus on learning from the success stories – but it is the failure stories that offer us the keys to understanding the problem.

street children success vs failure stories

Compare two story collections

Side by side: Stories from Pennsylvania (N= approx 60) and East Africa about street children / run aways are remarkably similar in the issues they address.penn state run away narratives N=118

And here is a map of about 50 blogs posts about street girls in Cairo form Nelly Ali’s blog:

nelly ali street girl map

You can do this yourself. Go to and type

"street children" or "street kids" or "run away" or "ran away"

in the search box, then hit “fetch stories.”

street children search box

Note: you can export the narratives and meta data as a CSV file, for further exploration in a tool such as SAS, SPSS, or

Postscript: What MORE can you do with narratives? Try

I imported hundreds of stories that mention ‘child abuse,’ ‘child labor,’ or ‘child protection’ into and used their version of a text-mining function to build trees that map outcomes in stories. The types of outcomes are how people felt about the story they told, such as ‘inspired’, ‘horrible’, or ‘happy:

Horrible stories

bigml child abuse inspired

Inspiring stories

Have mixed outcomes, and don’t mention your aunt. But more importantly, they are not from people who were “affected” by the events in the stories they share.

bigml child abuse inspiring

Important stories

Are commonly organization-centric narratives.

bigml child abuse important

Happy stories

Have a very long pattern of words in them. This example begins to demonstrate the true scope and nuance of “success” that lies in narratives, and which cannot be captured with a simple “did the right people benefit” question.

bigml child abuse happy

Changing your point of view to tell a more compelling story

For years I’ve wanted to write an algorithm that would predict whether a story is emotionally compelling or not. This would be a major breakthrough for natural language processing. It would also allow us to automatically rate most of the narrative content on the Internet.

While I am not there yet, I am making progress. Using the wisdom of James Pennebaker from The Secret Life of Pronouns I was able to write a story point of view detector that seems to finally work. Not only does it tell what the story’s point of view is, it can also assign a confidence score to its prediction, as well as reliably detect stories that lack a dominant point of view (result is “none”),  or share two alternating points of view (result is “mixed”).

That’s what goes into any good algorithm. If asked to decide between A or B (the simplest choice), there are actually four possible answers: A, B,  Both, or Neither.

Storytelling: Seven Points of View

After many rounds of testing, I discovered 7 points of view:


This may come as a surprise to anyone who was taught about only three point’s of view (POV). Based on the evidence that people respond differently to these different points of view, they are distinct.

Emotionally Compelling: Mixed or “I” stories

The most powerful point of view if you want to tell an emotionally compelling story, according to The Secret Life of Pronouns is the “mixed” perspective, followed by first person singular (“I”) stories. “Mixed” perspectives alternate between two points of view. And after you realize this, it’s obvious. If you want people to connect with you, and find your point of view credible, you need to spend a little bit of time telling the story from their point of view.

What 98,447 stories can teach us

Below is a chart showing what fraction of stories are told from each of these perspectives for three large bodies of narratives. GlobalGiving requires that every project leader report back to donors four times a year for every project. The report is supposed to be informal, conversational, emotionally engaging blog-type writing. And since 2010 we’ve been collecting stories in East Africa written by regular citizens about some specific community effort they witnessed — the Storytelling Project.

Lastly, for the last two years I’ve been getting a “story of the day” by email from a project of my favorite Artist, Jonathan Harris of I want you to want me” fame. His storytelling site,, manually curates good stories from the thousands of submissions. Their 812 stories are a positive control group in this experiment, answering the question:

“From what point of view should an emotionally compelling story be told?”

It stands to reason that all of the 812 cowbird stories are good, and their point-of-view (pov) patterns are reflective of what makes for good storytelling as a rule. Let’s compare these three groups:

GlobalGiving Project Reports (N=35,689) East African Community Stories (N=61,946) Story of the day (N=812)
fourth “this org” 0.35 fourth “this org” 0.29 first singular “I” 0.514
first plural “we” 0.268 third plural “they” 0.197 third singular “he” 0.112
third plural “we” 0.126 None (no pronouns) 0.18 fourth “it” 0.108
third singular “he” 0.098 third singular “he” 0.117 None (no pronouns) 0.078
second “you” 0.069 first plural “we” 0.084 first plural “we” 0.07
first singular “I” 0.046 first singular “I” 0.078 second “you” 0.057
None 0.04 mixed 0.049 third plural 0.033
mixed 0.003 second 0.007 mixed 0.028

As you can see from the table, there are dramatic differences. A graph of this makes the differences clearer:

pov chart project reports vs community stories vs cowbird

How POV affects story quality: Three major conclusions

oneFirst, 51% of Cowbird stories are first person singular (I, me, my, mine), compared to 4.6% of GG project reports and 7.8% of East African stories. If you want to reach people emotionally, only your own story will work. Instead of you telling his story, have him tell his own story with “I” pronouns.

two_2Second, Not enough (only 1 in 300) GlobalGiving project reports are told from a mixed point view. About 4.9% of East African stories and 2.8% of Cowbird SotDs have a more complex, mixed, alternating point of view. Had these reports been written to better reflect the beneficiary’s viewpoint, they could have raised 50% more money from donors (see below).

threeThird, too many GlobalGiving project leaders have a “fourth person” pov perspective. “Fourth person” is my name for stories that lack any pronouns at all, or contain a lot of definite articles (a, an, the). They tend to focus on objects over people and relationships. Fourth person (in my algorithm) also uses more organization only jaron (such as the words “ngo”,”cbo”, and “foundation”) than pronouns. All of these make for reports that read like cold blooded reports and not warm, personal, emotionally compelling stories. And if you read on, you’ll see these report raise 30% less money.

Since the point of communication is to affect each other’s lives, we should drop the old style reports in favor or just telling the truth and being authentic. But changing your pronouns won’t make your story better, if it was never your story to begin with. You need to actually help people tell their own stories, and be a steward of their words. For too long we’ve let organizations harvest the words of others to further their (organizational) objectives, and this algorithm will finally allow me to out the worst of the bunch and force them to shape up.

chart how point of view POV affects emotion in story

Your English teacher mistaught you; get over it.

When we want to inspire, engage, comfort, challenge and connect with each other, we use short, personal, evocative writing, with a good deal of “I” words. Yet from an early age we are exposed to bad writing, reflecting outdated “beliefs” about what makes writing good. The evidence here shows that good writing is less “professional.”

Which world do you want to build today?  “Professionalized” language gave us global poverty, a financial crisis, and broken politics?

Creative and informal language gave us The Muppets, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Doctor Who.

Follow-up conclusions:

give_nowChanging your point of view really DOES affect your ability to raise money with a project report

I took those project reports from thousands of GlobalGiving partner organizations and compared the dominant point of view in each report with the amount of donations that came from people clicking on the GIVE BUTTON in those reports. The results were striking:

 Effectiveness of project reports in raising money None third plural (they) fourth (this org, it) first plural (we) third singular (he) first singular (I) second (you) mixed
Total $$ raised 78 220 267 292 302 329 421 567
Donations per report 0.9 2.5 2.8 3.1 3.5 3.8 4.8 6.5
Average $$ per donation 24.9 46.7 53.9 55.8 52.4 51.9 58.0 60.5
Number of reports (N) 611 2519 7413 5881 2184 1056 1449 98

Notes: N = 25,337 published reports. Data includes cases where nobody gave any money after reading reports (23% of total). While reports don’t generate a ton of revenue (50% of reports raised less than $100) $1,077,000 was raised between 2007 and 2014 in precisely this way. This data represents the best example of giving tied directly to feedback loops in international development that I know of.

The results show that the best POV ‘mixed’ is more than twice as effective as the most common POV ‘fourth':

Project reports with a “mixed” perspective raise 111% more money and get 160% more donations than reports with “fourth” org-centric point of view.

Some caveats: These are not true “controlled” experiments. Nobody forced these organizations to adopt a first or third person perspective. Nor did we randomize what donors saw, as a true researcher might do. It could be that people who are naturally better at raising money tend to choose to use pronouns differently from those who don’t. And it turns out that women write these reports 2:1 over men. And what people talk about has a big influence over how much money one can raise. Here’s an estimate of how project theme affects donor giving after they read a fresh report:

animals gender disaster children hunger finance health climate edu rights econ devt sport
total $$ 1707 1656 1194 1044 1079 944 809 806 757 700 375 578
Reports (N) 928 2820 1315 4542 226 544 3397 712 4502 618 1185 284

The smartest way to fix your point of view is to talk to others and share their stories, instead of only writing from your perspective. And Globalgiving has for years been helping organizations listen, act, learn better. In fact we’re giving away money to encourage organizations to do this.


The Gap

There is a huge gap between how most organizations speak and what donors respond to. The green line near the center shows what fraction of stories have each of 6 points of view. The blue and red lines represent more donations and more money raised from a “you”, “I” and “you and I” mixed perspective.

(2) Humans are not very good at determining a story’s point of view

In order to validate the accuracy of this algorithm, I ran 406 of the 813 Cowbird stories through an experiment on Crowdflower. Crowdflower is a distributed tasking site where you pay people a few pennies to do a bunch of simple tasks.

In my task, the person would read two Cowbird stories, select the point of view for each, and then choose which story was the more “emotionally compelling” one. The secret life of pronouns predicts that “mixed” perspectives and “I” stories are more compelling to readers than “you” | “we” | “he” | “they” stories. So I tested our data set and had three people do the test for each comparison. Inter-subject agreement is an important part of seeing whether this task is easy or hard for humans.

Now I know from reading Cowbird that most of the stories actually are “I” stories, and my algorithm predicted 51% of these stories to be first person singular as I expected to see. The “mixed” perspective was much lower – only about 2%. But these are very short stories, and switching perspective isn’t as easy in 100 words, so 2% sounded reasonable.

The results from 406 human story comparisons:

Q: Select the story’s point of view (POV) from these 6 choices:

“I” –FS 118 0.29 vs algorithm: 0.514
“we” –FP 100 0.25 vs algorithm: 0.07
“he” –TS 64 0.16 vs algorithm: 0.112
“they” –TP 79 0.19 vs algorithm: 0.033
“the org” or “it”–4th 35 0.09 vs algorithm: 0.108
“mixed” –mixed 10 0.02 vs algorithm: 0.028

  • The humans were 40% LESS likely to choose first person singular than the algorithm, and three times MORE likely to assign first person plural to stories.
  • Both humans and the algorithm agreed when assigning “mixed” and 4th person perspectives.
  • Humans tended to want to assign stories to each POV more equally than a computer. (If given 6  choices, we seem to think that the stories SHOULD match up with categories equally. Same bias is seen on standardized tests.)
  • These humans were not very reliable, because the humans only agreed with each other 11 out of 406 times. 2 out of 3 agreed 50% of the time on what the perspective was.

Q: Of these two, which story was more compelling?

Same result. They agreed with each other 36% of the time. If choosing randomly, they would agree with each other 33% of the time, so that confirms that these Crowdflower humans are really very random and not worth the $16 I paid to test this data set on them. Had I asked 5 interns to do this, I would have gotten more agreement, because they care about agreeing with each other more than the $0.05 I was paying these folks to do a simple (though enjoyable) task.

It also confirms that seeing a story’s point of view is not so easy. If it was trivial, they would have agreed with each other more. Agreeing on which of two stories is more emotionally compelling is much harder, and likely impossible for any algorithm well at predicting what humans like. Even “human algorithms” are terrible at doing it.

A good story is more a matter of taste than of process, but people DO give to projects more often when stories are told from the right point of view – the beneficiary’s.

BigML cluster analysis

Afterwards, I tried the new cluster analysis tool from BigML (who as of today allow you to analyze data sets below 16MB for free) These are the patterns that they found:


Click to enlarge

The largest cluster was reports written by men about education projects in Asia with a first person plural “we” perspective. The keywords in these reports are shown here:


Try it yourself!

I created a simple tool for anyone to use. Paste your text into the box and it will analyze your point of view.


screenshot-by-nimbus (21)

Practicing what I preach

Old habits die hard. I ran my own algorithm against this blog post and it predicted that I am writing from a “fourth person” perspective with an 80 percent confidence rating.

OUCH! I soooo suck as a writer. Or so my computer tells me.

So I went back into this and changed some of my “you” and “we” statements to “I” statements and ran it again.

The Result: “fourth person”, 92% sure, 108 pronouns,  6.3% of text is pronouns

Pronoun counts by POV type:
[('fourth', 40), ('first singular', 31), ('second', 17), ('first plural', 10), ('third plural', 7), ('third singular', 3)]

The reason why I failed? I used too many “its” and “these” and “those” and not enough “I”s in it.

Oh well. [I'm] Hitting the publishing button now.


Who’s Who of Organizations Ranked by Website Traffick ranks all internet websites in the world based on how much traffic they get. I pulled a list of 3600 organizations and looked at their rankings in Alexa. These are the top 70 sites:

(Lower is better. i.e. Face = 2 and Google = 1)

Alexa Rank Site

That list is a little different than the typical who’s who lists for international development organizations. You won’t find BRAC or CHEMONICS or a whole host of UN agencies, or basically any organization that depends primarily on government support. This is a who’s who list of organizations that depend on the public for support.

Five Holy Books in five images

Since it is Holy Week, here are some rather intriguing visuals of the Quran and three competing perspectives on Jesus (The Canonical Gospels, Paul’s attributions, and The (non-canonical) Gospel of Thomas):

The whole Holy Quran as a wordle

whole quran wordle

The Gospel of Thomas
gospel thomas wordle

The Gospel of John

gospel john wordle

All sayings attributed to Jesus in Paul’s Letters

pauls letters - all sayings attributed to jesus - wordle

The Gospel of Mark gospel mark wordle

A while back I wrote a simple python script that would perform differential wordles (like I used in these two rape-prevention programs) but I lost it. If I rewrite it, you would be able to see an adjusted view of what these different stories emphasize about God, Allah, Jesus, etc.


Or you can read my series on how the Passion Narrative relates to international development:

One: Empire – and the hierarchy of aid power

Story-centered learning: Gather “big data” before hypothesis testing

Reblogged from my ThinkNPC guest post:

In the last half-century thousands of scientists have rigorously studied the causes and risk factors in heart disease, but a single longitudinal experiment has revealed more about this disease than any other approach.

In 1948, researchers began tracking health records from all participants in the town of Framingham, Massachusetts. This was an observational study; they did not formulate causal theories or test specific hypotheses, but simply let nature take its course and observed what happened.

In 1960, they found a link between smoking and heart disease. In 1961, they found a link with cholesterol. And in the coming decades, they also found correlations with obesity, exercise, high blood pressure, hypertension, stroke, diabetes—virtually everything that now matters to clinical treatment.

So why aren’t we in the philanthropy world copying this approach—observing what’s out there and looking for patterns over time?

As a neuroscientist, I have a confession to make. My type have been responsible for propagating a lie they still teach in schools, that scientists always devise a hypothesis and test it in controlled experiments. This is simply not true. The human genome project mapped 3 billion base pairs before understanding what variation in the genetic code meant. human-genome

The drugs you take were “discovered” in massive drug discovery libraries using a screening process that quickly conducts millions of tests, rather than hypothesizing. 

My point is that complex problems cannot be understood from a pre-defined framework; what matters emerges most efficiently from open-ended data collection that is later organised and then studied.

We already create more information every two days than existed in the first two millennia of human civilization, and this pace is accelerating. However, the rate with which we convert all this “information” into useful “knowledge” is slowing down.

all-story-topics-2011It was with this problem in mind that we started the GlobalGiving Storytelling project. We needed to dissociate two requirements: to collect rich information about development in a flexible, easily re-structurable way, and to turn these stories into data so we can interpret and contextualize what we see. We’ve come up with a survey design tool which you can use to do a custom evaluation and compare your results to stories told by others, with the overall aim of helping everyone share knowledge and improve project design. The  approach will save you time but it will also enable you to get more back than you could ever put in.

So why do we use storytelling, you wonder? It turns out that managing this process with metrics, indicators, spreadsheets, and a numbers-only mindset is far more difficult and time-consuming. Narratives and a few survey questions are sufficient to see common patterns emerge from many perspectives.

Continue reading on ThinkNPC

Marc Maxson is an innovation consultant with Globalgiving, where he manages their global storytelling project. Previously, he worked as a PhD Neuroscientist and did Fulbright research on the impact of the internet on rural education in West Africa. He writes about evolution and international development at

When toys tell stories

I first learned about GoldieBlox from their superbowl ad, where they aggressively combat the toy industry’s stupid assumptions about what girls like (It’s not just about making it pink and putting a pony tail on it).

They are on a mission:

Only 13% of engineers are women and they believe that women innovators are our greatest untapped resource. 

They have a theory of change:

We inspire girls during a critical period, between age 6 and 13, and allow them to realize for themselves that building, creating, and owning their own ideas is what it means to be a girl.

Their latest ad campaign continues their message more thoughtfully:

(Note that begins as a parody of a 1980s anti-drug commercial, and so their ads are also targeting parents)

How is GoldieBlox “for” girls? (From their website)

Our founder, Debbie, spent a year researching gender differences to develop a construction toy that went deeper than just “making it pink” to appeal to girls. She read countless articles on the female brain, cognitive development and children’s play patterns. She interviewed parents, educators, neuroscientists and STEM experts. Most importantly, she played with hundreds of kids. Her big “aha”? Girls have strong verbal skills. They love stories and characters. They aren’t as interested in building for the sake of building; they want to know why. GoldieBlox stories replace the 1-2-3 instruction manual and provide narrative-based building, centered around a role model character who solves problems by building machines. Goldie’s stories relate to girls’ lives, have a sense of humor and make engineering fun.

That was an “aha!” statement for me. “Finally, something I can sink my teeth into!” I thought. So building blocks can be thought of as a storytelling tool, like the magic cards I made earlier. I know about character driven stories, and putting conflict into scenes to move it along and draw in the audience.

And in a way, GoldieBlox is using a conflict narrative to draw in their audience – girls. What a brilliant way to get girls on board, by reminding them from age 6 onwards that playing with these toys is an act of defiance against gender stereotypes.

And another company, play-i, offers a complementary approach to the same goal, for a younger audience:

I just wished they had similar toys for the teenage crowd? What will these Goldie girls do when they outgrow their blocks? Perhaps this?






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