August 27, 2014

Technology, Imagination, and Organizing With Storytelling

Storytelling Summer: Answers to Common Questions About Motivating Your Audience

Top left, clockwise: Fran Simó, Angela Sabas, 55Laney69, Lance Shields, via Flickr

We can’t ignore technological change, but what’s more important than the medium is the connection you make with your audience.

This week, the last entry in the Storytelling Summer series, I’ll answer two questions:

What trends do you see happening in storytelling for social change? In particular, how do you anticipate storytelling will evolve given the technology available? 

How can we frame the need for new and fair revenue to improve outcomes for youths, given opposition to taxes and the counternarrative against investment in public institutions such as schools?

I’ve been involved in storytelling projects for almost 20 years, and the most heartening trend I see  is that change-makers are thinking more in terms of stories.

Stories have always been with us, of course, but more populist storytelling has been given a boost in the last two decades by projects and programs like This American Life, The Moth, and StoryCorps. In the public-interest sector, there’s the excellent work of people like storytelling trainer and strategist Andy Goodman and community organizer and Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, with his leadership-development method of “Public Narrative.”

As a result of this and other work, we have a nonprofit world that is more attuned to the value of good stories to rally support for a cause, build leadership, strengthen communities, and change policy.

On Digital Technologies and Interactivity

I’m less interested in how storytelling may change with new technology than I am in the principles of good storytelling that transcend medium, such as I’ve written about in previous columns “Don’t Tell a Boring Story” and “Are You Really Telling Stories?” That said, we can’t ignore technological change, and digital tools have already enabled a particular kind of interactivity.

Users tend to have expectations about certain story mediums: web videos should be short, Vines should be shorter, and viewers should be able to comment, share, rework the original video or create their own video responses. The same is true of social media in written form.

What’s more important than the medium is the connection you make with your audience—or as the buzz-phrase of a few years ago had it, “the people formerly known as your audience” but now known as your co-creators and respondents. How you make that connection and what technologies you use to do it should be guided by a strategy, but some experimentation with new forms can help keep things fresh.

What a grant maker once told me about foundations applies to other nonprofits as well: “We’re in an era of constant technological change, and it requires continuous professional development. We don’t have to be ahead of our grantees”—or nonprofits don’t have to be ahead of their stakeholders—“but we can’t be behind them.”

Imagination Over Medium

Whatever the medium, stories work if they fire the imagination.

Just because some stories use interactive technologies doesn’t mean that they achieve their goals any better than a story told at a campfire. To cite a personal example, Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial is still perhaps the most powerful vision of an arbitrary justice system I’ve ever read. That book has shaped my political imagination in ways that no YouTube video or immersive “story environment” like a video game ever has.

That is because our view of social problems and social change are shaped by our experience and our imaginations.

Take any issue—such as funding for public education, the topic of our second question—and we each have stories, impressions, fantasies, and personal experiences that fill our minds. One person might think, “I benefited from my public schooling, and I want to pay it forward through my taxes.” Another might say, “Public schools are in ruins thanks to a dysfunctional government. We should starve the beast and privatize education.” Or still another may believe, “I’m sure whatever happens, kids will learn and everything will be fine."

Such feelings guide our actions in the world: what causes we donate to, which ones we like on Facebook or stand up for in our everyday lives.

Framing the Story

If imagination is the field on which social problems (and change) are played out, then that field is delineated by a frame.

A frame is an interpretive structure or a way of seeing things. Thinking about the education debate, the frame may be that we have a collective responsibility to make sure all kids get an excellent education.

A story is what fills the frame and supports it. That may be narratives of people who wouldn’t have succeeded but for public school or of people who paid taxes and saw their communities improve.

I don’t have a ready answer for how to better frame the question of revenue for public education or what stories to tell to support it. But I do have an idea about what process to follow to create frames and stories.

Storytelling as a Form of Organizing

Throughout the “Storytelling Summer” series I have written about storytelling mostly as a form of communication in the sense of transmitting a message to an audience. But just as important, storytelling is also a form of organizing.

Participants in a political campaign or movement come together around shared values as expressed in stories, like the tales from the 1969 Stonewall riots in the LGBT movement. And when people in a movement or campaign deliberately share their own stories, they learn about each other’s experiences and dreams.

If you solicited stories from your constituents that dramatized the value of public education, you could begin to create a frame. Depending on the kinds of stories you received, a “shared responsibility” frame might begin to take shape, or one of “strong economy through universal public education.”

This story-sharing could take the form of videos you post on your website, a live open-mic storytelling show, short written narratives, or even Instagram photos that suggest a narrative.

By facilitating story sharing, you are not only gathering material for a frame and the narratives that fill it, but, as I wrote previously in this series, you are also developing your membership. People become more invested in an organization if they have given a part of themselves, and if you meaningfully incorporate it. Your organization is no longer “those people” – it is me, you, and us.

This is the final installment in the “Storytelling Summer” series. However, Paul VanDeCarr will continue writing periodically for The Chronicle on the topic of storytelling and social change. Submit your topic ideas to Questions used in future columns 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, and to be released this winter.

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