Stanford Social Innovation Review : Informing and inspiring leaders of social change

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Nonprofit Management

Tell Me a Story

Eight tips for creating powerful narratives that drive social impact.

Stories Matter

As a social marketer and social entrepreneur, I am highly aware of the use of narrative and framing in our daily lives. From politics to the marketplace, who sets the narrative and how they set it has great power. It impacts who cares about an issue, what they hear, and what they are willing to do.

Recently, everywhere I go, people ask me how to tell a more effective story. Advocates, colleagues, and clients observe that the organizations that achieve policy goals, get transformative grants, or seize the market’s interest are the ones that 1) have the resources to disseminate their story, and 2) just tell the better story. I would argue that the real winners are the organizations that actually manage to tell a story at all.

In response to all of this interest in storytelling, I have examined what I have learned from my collaboration with social entrepreneurs and have distilled those lessons into eight tips. Let me share the storyteller’s Power P’s:

The Power of Purpose

Being crystal clear about your mission, vision, and values illustrates why your story matters, highlights your point-of-view, and advances the positions you hold.

The Power of Plot

Great tales have a story arc—a beginning, a middle, and an end. They capture our attention, pull us into the story, explore its themes, and bring us to a conclusion. Without the journey, there is no story. 

The Power of Peril

Evocative stories include dynamic tension. They make the audience viscerally aware of what is at risk. The messy twists and turns of a story parallel the nonlinear experience of our actual lives. Our sense that there is something important that may be lost or gained is what makes us care about a story.

The Power of Personalities

Without characters, there is no story. Who is the hero? Who is the villain? Who are the victims? Who are the bystanders? While casting to type (the privileged Ivy Leaguer, the rapacious 1 percent, the virtuous middle voter, the welfare mom) may be cliché, it works. It provides the audience with instant recognition and elicits an emotional response.

The Power of Parable

Every culture has its archetypal stories (the hero’s journey, the return of the prodigal child, love triumphs, or hate destroys) that are deeply ingrained in the collective memory of a community. The times, places, and characters may change, but the familiarity of the tale immediately resonates and creates context.

The Power of Passion

Emotion trumps data—we make decisions driven by our emotions and then back them up with data. The storyteller’s level of investment, conviction, and authenticity sets the bar for how others will perceive the story. Making it personal and showing vulnerability by sharing your own experience creates a more likely connection to those hearing the story.

The Power of People

Amplifying the voices of the people most affected by an issue increases the story’s authenticity and relevance. Including quotes, testimonials, eyewitness accounts, and personal narrative makes the story more interesting.

The Power of Pictures

It is true that a picture paints a thousand words, and can more quickly translate concepts and ideas to diverse audiences. From the use of narrative description and photographs to the utilization of video and information graphics, imagery sells your story.

So, how do we put these principles to use?

As social entrepreneurs, we often have seats at the decision-making tables that drive strategy and messages. We can increase the efficacy of our narrative if we take a moment to ask:

  • What is the human story here?
  • What is a shared experience that connects stakeholders?
  • What are the core elements (plot, theme, moral of the story, etc.)?
  • Which of the eight P’s help us best tell this story?

There is no formula. Rather, there are questions and principles that can help us make the choice to tell a story and to be great storytellers. Humans have always used stories to make sense of our world. From the powerful Greek political dramas of Euripides to the statecraft/stagecraft of modern politics, stories shape our worldview and tip the scales on nearly every issue. We all benefit if we stop to hear what people are really asking us: “Please, tell me a story.”

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COMMENTS

  • BY Simon Hodges

    ON September 13, 2012 06:35 AM

    That is just smashing.

    I think the power of purpose is the one that could do with greater work. This tends to come more readily to social business but often is poorly communicated ie: how to get high-minded ideals into simple language.

    In any case, I appreciate the points made here - they sum up and expand my own impressions of great storytelling.

  • BY Zach Hochstadt

    ON September 13, 2012 01:11 PM

    Nicely done, Eric. I appreciate how concisely you presented this.

    One thing you might add to this: The Power of The Point—there comes a place in the story where you have to get to the point. There’s a reason you’re telling the story, an action you want people to take. It’s not enough to just tell the story. You need to make sure your audience knows why you’re telling the story.

    Thanks for getting this out there.

  • Ginnie Cooper's avatar

    BY Ginnie Cooper

    ON September 13, 2012 03:04 PM

    Really fun!  and so important!  as a public librarian, I am awash in stories!  libraries do make a different in the lives of individuals and in the communities we serve.  babies.  seniors.  job seekers.  our challenge is to craft the right story for the right audience….

    Eric’s points will help.  Thank, Eric!

  • BY Eric Friedenwald-Fishman

    ON September 14, 2012 05:20 PM

    Eric here - Thanks for the good comments. I agree that PURPOSE is critical and that focusing on clarity of WHY our organization exists, the difference we seek to make in the world the values we stand for AND the value we deliver is critical.  Just as important is using language to communicate our purpose that resonates with our stakeholders not just our peers. 

  • BY Rob Fleming

    ON September 21, 2012 06:08 AM

    Ever been to an AA Speakers Meeting?
    I think the power of story lies, in part, in the fact that it assembles a complete model, giving the listeners lots of points of congruence with their own lives, reducing cognitive dissonance, and focusing attention on the core message that is different from their existing knowledge base.
    Messages based on science, for the most part, is reductionist, pare away all the mundane irrelevancies to find pure, but abstract, truth.
    The current stress on “evidence-based practices” is all very well, but “experience-based” practices are more persuasive.
    AA meetings promise to share “experience, strength, and hope”, and that is why they are so effective, or at least effective complements to clinical treatment..

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