August 06, 2014

4 Questions to Develop Your Storytelling Strategy

Storytelling Summer: Answers to Common Questions About Motivating Your Audience

This week, three questions from readers:

Our organization does international citizen-exchange programs. What’s the best way to tell the story of our organization’s namesake to encourage people to make donations to us or take part in our programs?

My organization works on education policy. Any suggestions about how to frame or pitch stories about our work so that we’re more likely to get into major media outlets such as The New York Times?

We’re in the process of making a series of video stories on community economic development. What qualities help make a video go viral?

These are all great questions, and I’d like to answer them by asking another question: Why?

That is, why do you want these things?

Don’t get me wrong, each of these questions is driven by a valid desire. You want to pay tribute to your organization’s namesake. You want to leverage the mainstream media to advance your cause. You work on an important issue that you want lots of people to learn about.

Still, these questions make me wonder if you’re putting the cart before the horse.

I may be wrong about your particular organizations, and you’ve already created a strategic plan. But here’s the larger point: In nonprofit or advocacy communications, you should start with these questions:

What do we want to achieve?

The first question in developing a “story strategy”—a communications and organizing strategy that uses stories—is not, “How do we tell this particular story well and get it to go big?” Instead, the first question is, “What do we want to achieve?”

In the case of the first reader, the answer is right there: to encourage people to support your organization financially or take part in your programs. Really, those are two separate but related objectives, and each probably calls for a different audience.

Are you sure that your namesake’s story is the best one to help you fulfill your objectives?

To get that answer, you must next ask another question.

Who can help us achieve our goals?

As for fundraising, maybe your target audiences is a specific pool of prospective donors you’ve identified, such as middle-aged international travelers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, which have busy international airports. Or for program participants, maybe it’s students at selected California colleges with international-affairs programs.

So you might ask yourself if your namesake is known and respected by your target audiences. Is his story likely to inspire them to donate or participate? If so, great. If not, you can always tell his story on the “About” section of your website but use other stories to get your target audiences to act.

Whatever your audience, you’ve identified them as being the people most likely to help you fulfill a particular objective.

How do we reach our target audiences?

The next reader asks how to frame her organization’s education-policy work so as to get into The New York Times or other big media outlets. Who wouldn’t want their good work to be featured in the Times? It’s a big deal!

However, the more important question here isn’t about the publication but instead, “How do we reach the target audience?” Is a mention in The New York Times the best way to reach the people you need to influence?

Let’s say you want to rally high-school students’ parents around your cause; maybe a parents’ magazine or a popular PTA blog would be your best bet.

Sure, a nod in the nation’s newspaper of record can’t hurt, but it’s a question of where you put your resources. Do you spend time developing relationships with reporters and editors at top news outlets in hopes of being quoted in an article? Or do you focus your energy on being featured in a smaller publication that will reach your audience?

What’s more, the means of reaching your target audience may not even be a media outlet; it might be street theater or conference speakers or meet-up groups.

If, however, after due consideration you determine that the Times is the best way to reach your target audience, then the Times it is.

And what stories do I tell them, or ask them to tell?

The third reader asks what qualities make a video story go viral. There are two aspects to that question: the qualities of your stories and going viral.

Going viral is not necessarily the point of advocacy communications. The point is to activate target audiences you have decided will help you meet your objectives.

Then there’s the issue of what qualities make for a good story. In advocacy communications, a good story—or at least an effective one—is one that activates your audiences. How to tell such stories (or get your constituents to tell their stories) is the topic of other posts in the “Storytelling Summer” series here and here.

Having said all that, here’s one bit of advice about making videos go viral: Put cats in them. I’m only half kidding. Of course, cats are good, um, spokescreatures for animal-related organizations such as the ASPCA. But I’d be interested in seeing videos that use cats to advocate for citizen diplomacy, education-policy reform, economic development, or other issues. Would cats do a better job than humans?

The larger point is that good social-justice storytelling is guided by strategy, and developing a “story strategy” requires that we back up and ask bigger questions that, at first blush, don’t have to do with a particular story.

I’d recommend one of my favorite communications tools: the Smart Chart from Spitfire Strategies. This free online tool takes users through the process of creating, evaluating, or reviewing a communications strategy. Some of the points I’ve discussed here with regard to “story strategy” are more fully explored in this excellent resource.

Please share your experience with storytelling strategies in the comments section. What is your process for developing strategy? What has worked or not worked for you? And what’s your favorite advocacy video starring one of our furry friends?

Once a week through Labor Day, Paul VanDeCarr will answer readers’ questions about how to use storytelling for social change. Submit your questions for consideration to Questions used on the blog will be edited and made anonymous.

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,” He is working on a second edition of the guide, this time for nonprofits and activists, to be released this winter.

Find his organization at, on Facebook at, or on Twitter at @wnstory.