July 23, 2014

4 Essential Elements of Storytelling

Storytelling Summer: Answers to Common Questions About Motivating Your Audience

I’m involved in an economic-development project between a nonprofit and a foundation. We’re pretty good at telling stories, but we’re looking to be more strategic and support the broader field. Any advice on how we should approach this?

Good stories have a certain magic to them, don’t they? But as with any magic, there’s a lot you don’t see, like all the work it took to create a story and get it to you or to make you feel so involved that you want to share your own story.

The following are the four main aspects of social-change storytelling and what organizations of any size can do to work on them. That said, not all organizations or projects need all of these supports or need them in equal measure.

Storytelling Practice

Everybody is a storyteller. We think in stories, we tell stories, we hear them and read them and watch them every day. So there’s a temptation to say that the best and really “authentic” stories are those that spring fully formed from someone’s heart.

Sometimes that’s true, but most of us need practice.

That’s why training and bringing people together is so important.

Consider the workshops and online modules in “Public Narrative” offered by the New Organizing Institute and based on the work of organizer Marshall Ganz.

Workshop participants learn to tell the “story of self,” the “story of us,” and the “story of now” to link their personal experience to those of their group and the collective action they’re calling for. Such trainings are not just about style; they help people connect more deeply with their own experiences and with other people.

Market Research

There’s plenty of artistry and passion in social-change storytelling, but there’s also strategy—and that calls for research.

That research might be on how to tell stories effectively, an example being my organization’s free guide on Storytelling and Social Change.

Or it might be on what kinds of messages, frames, or stories resonate with your target audiences.

One example is the excellent public-opinion research done by the Opportunity Agenda, an economic-rights group, on issues like immigration and reproductive justice. That organization’s executive director, Alan Jenkins, illustrates the value of such research this way: Suppose an advocate tells an audience that one in three black men in Baltimore is behind bars; that audience might not take that statistic as evidence of bias in the criminal-justice system but as evidence of the inherent criminality of African-American males. Research on public opinion would help inform what stories that advocate tells and to whom.

It strikes some people as overly calculating to do research—as if that takes all the spontaneity out of a story. You certainly need to strike a balance, but research can help inform your overarching strategy.

Your organization can draw on existing research, conduct original research (even small-scale efforts like focus groups or online surveys are valuable), or partner with an outside organization to do deeper investigations.

Oral Histories and More

Here is what most people think of when they think of social-change storytelling—the actual stories!

For example, consider Voice of Witness, a series of oral-history books on contemporary human-rights crises, or the films supported by the Stories of Change partnership between the Sundance Institute and the Skoll Foundation. The stories themselves are the central part of any stories-for-change work, but they’re just one part.

(For more on how to build a culture of storytelling at your organization, read pages 8 and 32 in Storytelling and Social Change.)

Getting Stories Heard

Stories aren’t told in a vacuum. Films need TV networks to reach their audiences, books need a distribution chain, web videos need an online platform.

For example, Working Narratives runs Nation Inside, a media-sharing platform for the movement to end mass incarceration.

Another type of infrastructure support is policies and systems that ensure media access, free speech, privacy, and safety. The video-for-human-rights organization Witness got YouTube to add face-blurring technology to protect the people in web videos from reprisal by the regimes that violate human rights.

An organization can either build its own platform or infrastructure (least common), join with other groups to build a shared platform (more common), or use existing infrastructures (most common). To decide on the most prudent route, your organization might do an audit of your capacity and needs for a storytelling infrastructure.

I hope that breakdown helps you think about how to make a little magic! Thank you for your question, and readers please share your comments below.

Once a week through Labor Day, Paul VanDeCarr will answer readers’ questions about how to use storytelling for social change. Submit your questions to Questions will be made anonymous, unless otherwise specified.

Mr. VanDeCarr is the managing director of Working Narratives, an organization that works with advocates, artists, policy groups, media-makers, and others to “change the story” on the big social-justice issues of our time. He is also the author of that organization’s publication “Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers” and is working on a second edition to be released this fall.