Storytelling for change: How to make storytelling a core part of your communications

Stories are portals for human connection. From quick conversations with friends about what happened during our workday, to our ancestors’ accounts of what they overcame, we are all storytellers one way or another. While the “first” recorded story came as early as 700 B.C., stories can take many shapes and forms, so chances are that stories have been around as long as humans. 

We tell stories to support our work for many reasons, and not just because it is 22 times more likely that someone will remember a story rather than facts and data. As communications professionals, we aim to tell stories that will spark action, evoke emotion and show, not just tell about impacts, both negative and positive. This is particularly important for cutting through the layered complexity of racial and other forms of systemic social injustice. When we talk about systems change without including the real people those systems impact, the reason we are talking about change in the first place gets lost. We see that demonstrating what we mean when we say care, not cages can result in San Francisco taking key steps to shutting down juvenile hall. Or that boys and men of color can shape California into a state where everyone belongs - showing us that those closest to the problems are best equipped to create real and lasting change. At the end of the day, the most important stories we can tell are the ones where we can see each other’s humanity. 

So why do individual stories matter? What’s the “right” type of story, and how do we ensure we are telling stories in a way that does not exploit someone as a prop or a token for a broader population? Here are a few things to consider when putting a story together:

Effective storytelling starts with strategy

Consider your audience: In order to write stories that appeal to the emotions and experiences of your audience you need to know a bit about them: what do they care about? Who do they trust? Whose story is most likely to move them into action? Every story is unique, deserves to be heard, and one person does not speak for a population. At the same time, we want to ensure that anything we put forward resonates with those we want to move. 

Support your overall strategy and goals: Since stories are often a tactic of a larger communications strategy, the story that is being told should align and support the goals of your organizational strategy, campaigns or narrative change efforts. Stories are a great way to bring your work to life. You can show, through a real experience, how something would be different if your goal was met.

Gather stories with intention

Ask good questions: This may seem like an obvious step, but everyone’s time is precious. Having a set of questions that get to the heart of someone’s background, motivations and how their story came to be can pave the way for a fuller and more compelling story. Do your research where applicable, have questions lined up that allow you to be broad and pivot and, if appropriate, dig deeper into what the subject may have said - you’ll be surprised what you can find. 

Highlight personal experience: We hear a lot about the concept of individual storytelling these days and how tying the larger context of an issue area to one person’s experience creates more empathy and understanding. Many of us work on difficult and complex systemic issues with terms that may be intimidating for our audiences -  juvenile justice reform, immigration policy and civic engagement - who have yet to understand what they really mean. Highlighting personal experiences brings your work to life, helping your audiences answer the question, “why should this matter to me?” The most compelling stories demonstrate that the issues at hand are not foreign concepts in some distant universe, but real problems impacting our neighbors, classmates or community members. 

Take your audience on a journey: Every story has  a beginning, middle and end. Similarly, the stories that we tell, especially around complex social justice issues, have to lay out in understandable terms where someone started, what they had to overcome, and what lesson or meaning can be drawn from their experience. We all want to get to the happy part of the story and believe that with a sprinkle of something, a happy ending is possible. In the field of social justice, there may not always be an immediate happy ending, but there is often a process and journey. 

Keep it simple: Just because the issues we work on are complex and multi-layered, doesn’t mean the story has to be. The more you can pretend like you are telling a story to your Russian grandmother, the better the chance that the story, individual and goal will be relatable to your audience. 

Center the people/person most impacted: Oftentimes, we want to center ourselves, rather than the person, as the hero: “with the help of our foundation”, “our organization was responsible for this person’s success”. These are valid points because, let’s face it, you want to convince your audience that it is because of your efforts that this person was able to succeed. It’s important to do this in a way that does not diminish the efforts of the individual, their story or that, even with these efforts, the issue area still exists. Our friends and colleagues at Resonance have a great Ethical Storytelling guide that ensures we tell stories in decolonized manner, avoiding perpetuating the white savior narrative and positioning the individual telling the story as the real agent of change. 

Effectively and responsibly disseminating stories

Get permission to share someone’s story: We might assume that the story subject wants their stories told far and wide, but it is critical to explicitly confirm this. Ensure that you have the individual’s approval on the story you put together, working with them to make edits as part of the process. Be transparent in how the story will be used so the person doesn’t open up their Facebook account and be surprised by their photo and quote staring back at them. Immigrants Rising has an excellent storytellers bill of rights to ensure the respectful dissemination of personal stories. 

Identify appropriate [and strategic] channels: Is your story a longer video or a short blurb? Will it be written or told through video, photos/memes, or even a graphic booklet? Remember to go back to who your audience is, where they go to get their information, and how they receive information. Be strategic with where and how your story lives, ensuring that you do justice to the featured subject and their account, as well as your overall efforts.

Appreciate that personal stories are not props: The stories we often tell in our work are difficult. They are of struggle, overcoming challenges on a daily basis, and heartache. Acknowledge that this story isn't there to just serve a goal, but that there are many more people going through similar situations, and that’s why you are telling this person’s story - that at the end of the day, it’s to humanize and create change in the causes we are all fighting for.

We invite you to tell your stories far and wide, and share your tips and best practices here. 

P.S. For nonprofit leaders, we want to hear from you. What communications struggles are you facing in this moment? Take our 2-minute survey.

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