July 30, 2014

How to Turn Audience Emotion Into Action

Storytelling Summer: Answers to Common Questions About Motivating Your Audience

Too many success stories leave out the struggles that the real-life characters go through to achieve that success.

My organization finds, trains, and places mentors with young people who are having trouble in school or life. We have a good collection of heartwarming stories about young people we’ve helped and how their families and communities have benefited. The challenge we face is how to have those stories not just touch people’s hearts, but make them volunteer or donate.

Rest assured: You’re not alone in this problem. Plenty of stories will move people emotionally, but it’s less common that a story will move people to action.

To improve your success rate, you have to tell good stories that make your audiences feel like they’re a part of what you’re doing, and that make it easy for them to take action.

Here’s how.

Get feedback

How do you know your stories are any good? Is it because you like them, or because a friend or colleague complimented them? There’s something to be said for your own good taste, but an outside perspective can only help improve your communications.

Conduct a little research on your existing stories. Assemble a focus group of supporters, would-be supporters, and even strangers to your issue, and tell them a few of your stories. Ask them what specifically leaves them cold, what warms their hearts, and what sets them on fire.

Also try online surveys or measure click-through rates on different kinds of stories you share by email or social media. 

Mix struggle and success

You say that you have many “heartwarming” stories, and by that I assume you mean stories of successful mentoring relationships. Success stories are vital, because they show that your organization actually helps people.

However, too many success stories leave out the struggles that the real-life characters go through to achieve that success. In your organization’s case, that might be the difficulties that kids have at school, or the aching sense of unfulfilled purpose that motivated your mentors to sign up. Leave out the struggles, and all you have are pleasant “examples” that nobody can connect with and act on.

Let your audience finish the story

An architect I once met said that his most successful home designs were a little unfinished when they sold, so that the buyers could more easily imagine themselves in the house.

The same is true with stories. If you only tell success stories, then your readers may feel that your organization, and the youth you serve, will be fine without their help. But if you leave your stories unfinished—say, by telling the story of a kid who still needs a mentor—then your readers complete the story by volunteering or donating.

In other words, you leave your readers in suspense at the end of a story, and they resolve the suspense by taking action.

Link personal stories to larger issues

Stories do a great job of humanizing abstract policy issues, but they may also personalize what are fundamentally political or social problems, such as structural racism. Groups that are seeking policy change would do well to link personal stories to political issues.

Take the example of Laverne Cox, a transgendered actress who plays a prisoner in Orange is the New Black, the Netflix drama. In every forum where I’ve seen her—from the Katie Couric show to TIME magazine to awards ceremonies—she uses her story and celebrity to address the discrimination and violence that many transgender people face, especially in the criminal justice system.

Are your stories linking the personal and the political?

Create “pathways to action”

Several years ago I attended a Broadway revival of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s passionate drama about a group of gay men in the early days of AIDS. I left the theater enraged and with a sense of urgency, and I would gladly have made a donation to just about any AIDS group that solicited funds outside the theater. But there were none.

I was pleased to learn, however, that in the following weeks there were performances and discussions for student groups, and the playwright himself—already in his mid-70s—leafleted outside the theater many evenings.

To make stories actionable, you must provide audiences with what I’ll call “pathways to action,” or easy ways to get involved, like an information table outside a theater or a “sign our petition” button at the end of an online video.

As I wrote in last week’s blog post, part of creating pathways to action is to build partnerships with other organizations so that you have a structure in place to engage your audiences.

Thank you for reading! Please share your own examples, experiences, and ideas in the comments section below. How do you make stories actionable? Any instructive examples of stories that inspired action, or that failed to inspire action?

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. He is working on a second edition of the guide for nonprofits and activists for release this winter.

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