July 16, 2014

Reaching New Audiences Through Storytelling

Storytelling Summer: Answers to Common Questions About Motivating Your Audience

By inviting supporters to upload their own audio, video, or text stories, the It Gets Better Project helps its audience become even more invested in the group's cause.

How do we create or “market” stories so they’ll appeal to people other than those who already support us; so they’ll reach people who may be unfamiliar with our issue or even disagree with us?

We’ve all been there before—with documentary-film screenings, story-sharing websites, or social-change plays that preach to the converted.

To enlarge your audience, sometimes all you need to do is activate people who are sympathetic but inactive. Or, as you suggest, you may sometimes want to engage people who aren’t already on board.

As for engaging people who disagree with you, often times the best you can hope for is to neutralize their opposition.

Consider the following principles to build your base through stories.

Engage already-supportive people in deeper ways.

It’s the new media paradigm: Passive TV viewers are being replaced by new generations of engaged web users who can easily comment on news stories, share videos on YouTube, and donate to Kickstarter campaigns to fund social-justice documentaries.

And why wouldn’t they? It’s fun to create media and get involved in a cause.

Efforts like the It Gets Better Project or my own organization’s Nation Inside network invite users to upload their own audio, video, or text stories or comment on others. By contributing stories, people become personally invested in an issue, whether it’s LGBT youth suicide or mass incarceration. Really, people become invested not just in an abstract “issue” but in a community of flesh-and-blood individuals working on that issue.

Sharing stories is often an entryway to other forms of participation, whether it’s giving money or doing canvassing or organizing an event.

Use pop culture to reach people who aren’t necessarily tuned into your frequency.

Take the example of the Harry Potter Alliance. It doesn’t hector readers of the best-selling books to stop wasting their time on fluff and pay attention to important issues. Rather, it redirects fans’ energy to encourage taking action on problems that might concern a real-life Harry, like hunger or human rights.

Through its “Imagine Better Project,” the group is applying that same idea to other pop-culture phenomena. And the group gets traction in popular and social media that might never have noticed the effort otherwise.

Build partnerships to engage people “beyond the choir.”

Active Voice is a team of communications experts that work with filmmakers to humanize social issues. (Full disclosure: I’ve written several publications for them, including one on their work reaching “Beyond the Choir.”)

The organization brings together an “ecosystem” of advocates, policy-watchers, funders, faith leaders, and others around each film they work on—in some cases, before production even begins.

This ecosystem informs the filmmaker, without dictating the film’s content; and the filmmaker enlists the support of the group members in using the film to effect the change they all want to see.

The lesson: Reaching new audiences is not just a matter of what story you tell but also what partnerships and structure you put in place to engage those audiences.

Thanks for your question! Readers, please share your ideas in the comments section.

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.