A Changemaker's Guide to Storytelling: How to Engage Heads, Hearts and Hands to Drive Change
As a changemaker, you have to be comfortable telling four main types of stories to engage the hearts, heads, and hands of your audience to help give wings to your project. Ashoka has encouraged these types of stories in its identification of leading social innovators for the past thirty years.
New media and online distribution channels make sharing our stories easier than ever. What makes great stories so powerful is their "stickiness," their ability to draw our attention and engage our hearts and minds. The best stories spread good ideas like wildfire and inspire us to take action. And that's precisely what makes storytelling such a powerful tool for social innovators.
Everyone has a story. This guide will help you tell yours.
Step 1. Reflect and build your narrative arc.
Step 2. Identify your key audience (i.e. the general public, social innovators, thought leaders, funders)
Step 3. Select your core message.
Step 4. Choose your story type (i.e. challenge story, big idea, how-to, impact).
Step 5. Create your call to action.
Step 6. Select your story medium (i.e. written, video, audio, spoken).
Step 7. Create an authentic and concrete story.
Step 8. Optimize channels for sharing your story.
Humans are hard-wired for storytelling. We make sense of the world around us through narratives - they form a core part of our culture, belief systems, organizations and personal identities. They allow us to envision and showcase the change we want to see in the world.
- When you share your story with your network through newsletters, email communications, an organization website, blog, Facebook, or Twitter ... it can serve as a powerful marketing and advocacy tool, and move people from awareness to action.
- Share a short video story and compelling founding story on your Changemakers project page.
Create Connections, Gather Support
- Connect with your audience and motivate them to support your social venture. Invite them to become champions of the change you seek to effect. A powerful story can transform people's core relationship to the issue(s) you work to address and lead to their long-term support. Sharing compelling stories allows you to keep your supporters engaged and make new connections with fellow changemakers, funders, thought leaders, journalists, and others. You can use your story for grant proposals, pitches, presentations, panel discussions, interviews, ...
Transform Yourself and Your Venture
- Storytelling is transformational for both the storyteller and the audience. The process of creating your story will enable you to reflect on where you came from, where you are now, and where you hope to go in the future. It allows you to refocus on your vision and maintain authenticity. Once you have distilled the core of your story, you can tell it in a multitude of ways, depending on the purpose for telling your story and your audience.
Remember two or three moments from your life when you stepped out of your comfort zone and tackled a problem to make a positive difference in the world. What was your "call to action"/"a-ha moment?" How did your action make you feel, and impact others? Recall these moments vividly, using all of your senses. Then select one of these moments as the basis for your story.
Tip: You might want to write freely about these moments, create an audio recording of your response, or draw a map.
The Narrative Arc
Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Describe the central conflict or challenge you hope to address in order to inspire hope with your solution. The following questions can be helpful as you build your story around one of the key moments you identified in Part A. Your goal is to inspire others to share your vision. The protagonists could be the founder(s) of the organization, staff members, or people who have benefited from your social venture.
Tip: Ask a friend or colleague to interview you and record or type responses to the narrative arc questions.
Note: You can adapt and use the following questions to tell a story from a different narrative perspective (i.e. staff member, beneficiary, supporter, community member, ...).
The Hook - setting the stage
This is the opening that pulls your audience into the story, and introduces the context and protagonist.
- Paint the scene. Describe the when and where of your story.
- Introduce the protagonist. From what perspective do you want to tell your story? First-person stories tend to be very powerful, but you might consider telling your story from the perspective of a staff member, beneficiary, supporter, community member, …
The Challenge - introducing the central challenge
This part of your story identifies your central challenge/problem.
- What is the need, problem, or challenge that you are trying to address?
- Describe the moment when you developed empathy for, and an enduring connection to, the problem. How has it impacted your life and the lives of those around you?
- Why is there a need for your solution? What are the deeper social causes of the problem? Describe the social, environmental, political, or economic climate.
The Big Idea - the "a-ha" moment or turning point
This section introduces your solution, and provides details about how it works.
- What is your solution? How did you get to your "a-ha" moment?
- What's unique or transformative about your solution? How are you seeing the central challenge in a new light? How is your approach different from the standard one to this problem in this space?
The How-To - the strategy behind your big idea
This part details how your solution works.
- What is the current stage of your idea?
- How and why does your solution address the need you identified? What would be a good example or scenario to illustrate this?
- What has been most challenging? Why? How have you worked around the challenges?
- How are you involving the people directly affected by the problem, community members, partners, friends, business, government, …?
- Who disagreed with your idea and how did you respond to or address the points that critics made?
The Impact - the transformation
This section explores the impact your solution is creating.
- What impact have you made thus far? What qualitative or quantitative data could you incorporate?
- How did people directly affected by the problem respond to your solution? What’s the positive difference in their lives? Think about one to three concrete examples.
The Call to Action – key learnings and future steps
This part describes your key learnings, future steps, and makes a concrete call to action.
- How can your audience become part of the evolving story of your social venture, or the social cause that it relates to? What can they do to help?
- What are your plans and vision for the future? What would a world look like where you are completely successful in working on your problem?
- What is the broader significance of your venture?
- What is your call to action?
Who wants and needs to hear your story? In order to create a compelling story, you need to understand your audience and what motivates them to take action. Make sure your story addresses your target audience. Tip: Capture the attention of your audience quickly. Surprise them. Teach them something. Speak to their interests and world views. Enable your audience to find themselves inside the story and make it their own.
Which audience(s) do you want to reach?
- The General Public wants stories that are dramatic, inspiring, surprising, and emotionally moving.
- Social Innovators/Changemakers want stories that give insight into the process of addressing a social problem, turning insights into practice, and overcoming challenges.
- Thought Leaders want to know how the new solution fits within the bigger picture of creating social change and emerging trends, and what makes it innovative, unique, or transformative.
- Funders want stories that describe new solutions and contain convincing evidence of impact/return on investment potential. They want to see that you really understand the problem you are trying to address and that nothing else exists that sufficiently addresses the problem. Tip: Check out Changemakers Guide to Pitching for more advice.
Why are you telling this story (e.g., to raise awareness or funds, or to advocate for a position on an issue, etc.)? What is your main message? Distill your solution and mission into one idea that is easy to remember. Tip: Try telling your story in six words or less to get at its core.
Choose the best story to create to reach your target audience. The following are proven story types that inspire people to take action.
This story is about a protagonist overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to turn their idea into reality. It is dramatic, inspiring, accessible, and emotionally moving.
Suggested audience: The general public
Lucky - Nepal is a good example of this type of story.
This story focuses on explaining the process of solving and implementing a social problem in a unique way. It gives social innovators and thought leaders insights into emerging best practices that are effective, and how they could employ these methods themselves. It also inspires and gives hope by showing exactly how change is possible.
Suggested audience: Social innovators, thought leaders
Look at Rippling Impact Nigeria for a compelling example of this.
This story focuses on describing a novel solution and explores how it fits within the bigger picture of creating social change and emerging trends in the social impact sector.
Suggested audience: Thought leaders, funders
Check out how Why Glasses? by Vision Spring accomplishes this.
This story focuses on describing the impact of the solution, providing convincing evidence that illustrates return on investment potential. It includes some measures of impact and shows current and future funders that their support makes a difference.
Suggested audience: Funders, thought leaders
Check out how Solid Women by Fonkoze describes its impact.
What do you want your audience to do upon hearing your story?
- Share your story with their network
- Become a supporter/champion of your cause
- Sign up for a newsletter or blog posts
- Sign a petition
- Donate to your organization
- Start their own program
Tip: Consider: How are you going to measure the success of your story? Do you have a clear ask associated with your story? Are you giving your audience action steps they can understand and complete? Clearly state the urgency of the action and make it unambiguous what you want your audience to do. Check out how DoSomething.org does this effectively. Think about setting clear fundraising, advocacy, or engagement goals.
Once you have distilled the core components of your story, you can tell it through a variety of media. Choose the medium that best allows you to engage with your target audience. Explore the examples below for inspiration and best practices.
1. The Written Story
These stories are mostly text, but may include some images. They may take the form of blog posts, articles, or books.
- Story of Change: Rob Hopkins and the Transition Network by Ashoka Fellow Rob Hopkins
- Story of Change: Ken Banks and kiwanja.net by Ashoka Fellow Ken Banks
- Story of Change: Karen Mattison and Timewise by Ashoka Fellow Karen Mattison
- Story of Change: Mohammad Al-Ubaydli and Patients Know Best by Ashoka Fellow Mohammad Al-Ubaydli
- Story of Change: Lily Lapenna and MyBnk by Ashoka Fellow Lily Lapenna
- Junior Smart: Story of Change by Ashoka Fellow Junior Smart
- Charlie Murphy: A Story of Change by Ashoka Fellow Charlie Murphy
- Patel, Eboo. Acts of faith: The story of an American Muslim, the struggle for the soul of a generation. Beacon Press, 2007.
- Yunus, Muhammad, and Alan Jolis. Banker to the poor: the autobiography of Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank. Aurum Press, 1998.
- Novogratz, Jacqueline. The blue sweater: Bridging the gap between rich and poor in an interconnected world. Rodale, 2009.
2. The Spoken Story
These are spoken word stories told through presentations, speeches, interviews, panels, and conversations.
- TEDxABQ - Jill Vialet: What Play Can Teach US
- TEDxRotterdam - Bart Weetjens: How I Taught Rats to Sniff Out Landmines
- TEDxGoldenGateED - Mary Gordon
- Pop!Tech - Josh Nesbit: Mobile Healthcare
Interviews and Panels
- Interview with Ashoka Fellow Michael Kelly
- Meet new Ashoka Fellow Catherine Rohr, founder of Defy Ventures
3. The Digital Story
These stories can include a variety of media such as full-motion video with sound, animation, photographs, text, and audio. Try to keep your videos to 1 to 4 minutes in length. Production quality is far less important than having a clear, authentic message. Video is the best medium for emotionally resonant stories told by characters themselves. It is also the best medium for active, visual stories that portray your solution in context, in the shortest amount of time.
Classic Full-Motion Video with Sound
- Follow the Frog by Rainforest Alliance
- Puppies are Not Toys by ASPCA
- African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes. by Mama Hope
- MyBnk - What We Do by MyBnk
- Grow HQ by GIY
Narrative and Imagery
- Mountaintop Library Expands Horizons in Nepal by Room to Read
- Sasha Chanoff- Ashoka US Fellow by Ashoka
- Ashoka Fellow Jason McLennan on the Future of Green Building by Ashoka
- One In 8 Million by New York Times
- Trailer of Burbax, Ethiopia by A Glimmer of Hope
- The Girl Effect by The Girl Effect
- Water Changes Everything by charity:water
- Why Glasses? by Vision Spring
- We Are Kids Company by Kids Company
Call to Action and Annotations
- World Water Day by charity:water
- The Story of charity:water - The 2009 September Campaign Trailer by charity:water
"Choose Your Own Story"
- Read the Signs - Human Trafficking Interactive Game Helpby Crimestoppers UK
Using Mobile Device/Low Tech
The Audio Story
Check out the tips and resources for creating stories using different media in the Media Resources section. Make sure to follow the following two principles in creating your story:
Be authentic. Be vulnerable.
Establish an emotional connection with your audience‚ inspire empathy. Being vulnerable, authentic and truthful makes you more relatable and enables you to gain their trust. Through which voice(s) do you want to tell your story? (Tip: If you're writing, write the way you talk.) Which perspectives do you want to include? What is the overall tone of your story? How do you want your audience to feel during the different parts of your story?
We Are Kids Company by Kids Company provides a good example of being authentic and vulnerable.
Make it concrete.
Make it concrete, visual and jargon-free. Paint the scene. Use sensory information and human actions. Engage the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. Use simple language. Be pithy, but know when and where to add color.
Check out how Why Glasses? by Vision Spring does this effectively.
It's important to choose the right channels and medium to reach your target audience. Use technology and your personal networks to advance your story.
- Share your story on Changemakers. Also consider spreading your story through your website or blog, email newsletters,YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Google+, SoundCloud, Pinterest,and other communications.
- Send your story to known supporters who can then share your story with their networks to maximize its reach. Are there any partnerships you can create with other organizations, companies, bloggers, funders, and others to further access your target audience/increase impact of your story?
- Use your story to build personal connections with key people to create a deeper level of engagement and commitment. Whenever possible, tell your story to others in person.
- Choose a compelling headline to make your story more shareable. Check out Upworthy for examples.
- Consider entering your digital story into contests such as DoGooder Awards and TechSoup Storytelling Challenge.
- Social media and bite-size content is not a silver bullet. Long-form stories can be powerful way to explore important issues in depth and give the audience enough time to reflect and absorb them.
The following are a selection of tips and resources to help you create powerful written, digital, audio, and spoken stories.
7 Tips for Effective Writing
- 1. Write like you speak. Use simple language.
- 2. Read your work out loud.
- 3. Use punctuation. Listen to the natural pauses in the sentence, and put your punctuation there.
- 4. Think about pacing. Writing requires balance. Follow a long, challenging sentence with a short, pithy one. Balance more technical explanations with simple translations. Think about rhythm and transitions.
- 5. Be brief, but know when and where to add color.
- 6. Consider your audience in choosing your tone.
- 7. Proofread your writing to check for typos, grammar, and spelling mistakes.
Writing Your Bio
A great bio should do the following:
- 1. Introduce you as a professional with a unique point of view;
- 2. Share a story of your (professional) development;
- 3. Establish credibility through highlighting major accomplishments; and
- 4. Invite people into a relationship.
Be genuine, truthful, and concise. Customize your bio depending on your audience and keep it up to date.
- OEDb's Writing Resources
- Provides resources and tools around all aspects of writing including style, grammar, organization, tools, and references.
- Strunk, William. The elements of style. Penguin, 2007.
- A classic book providing resources on effective writing and style.
- Zinsser, William. On writing well: The classic guide to writing nonfiction. HarperCollins, 2006.
- Contains resources on writing nonfiction.
Check out the following resources for detailed guides and information on creating compelling stories using video and other kinds of media.
- The Starter Guide to Non-Profit Video Storytelling by ListenIn Pictures and CauseVox
- Contains guidance for thinking strategically about video, structuring a story, using video for campaigns and fundraising, and understanding the basics of the production process.
- See3's Video Resources
- Offers advice on what cameras to use, where to get good, cheap equipment, video editing software, hosting videos, inexpensive images and music for videos, online video tools, training staff to learn how to shoot or edit video, and getting video releases.
- Into Focus: Benchmarks for Nonprofit Video and a Guide for Creators by See3, YouTube, and Edelman
- Illustrates best practices in effective nonprofit video.
- Vimeo's Video School
- Lessons and tutorials on video creation.
- Lynda Tutorials
- Video courses on storytelling, video production, photography, and more.
- Stanford d.school's Storytelling and Visual Communication Studio resources
- Simple video creation service (online and mobile) that allows you to use your own pictures, video clips, words, and music.
- YouTube Nonprofit Program
- Provides nonprofits with video tools such as linkable annotations, call-to-action overlays, and exclusive YouTube Channel features.
- Adams, Christian. InstaBrand: The ultimate guide to visual storytelling through Instagram.
- Gives insight into visual storytelling through Instagram.
- Lambert, Joe. Digital storytelling: Capturing lives, creating community. Routledge, 2013.
- Details the history and methods of digital storytelling practices, covering the entire story creation process.
- Lambert, Joe. Digital storytelling cookbook, 2010.
- Provides advice on digital storytelling and includes examples of effective stories.
Check out the following tips and resources for creating your spoken story.
Presentation Structure (from TEDx Speaker Guide)
- 1. Start by making your audience care, using a relatable example or an intriguing idea.
- 2. Explain your idea clearly and with conviction.
- 3. Describe your evidence and how and why your idea could be implemented.
- 4. End by addressing how your idea could affect your audience if they were to accept it.
- Duarte, Nancy. Resonate: Present visual stories that transform audiences. John Wiley & Sons, 2010.
- Provides resources for giving compelling presentations. Also check out Nancy Duarte: The secret structure of great talks on TED.
- Reynolds, Garr. Presentation Zen: Simple ideas on presentation design and delivery. New Riders, 2011.
- Provides helpful resources on presentation design and delivery.
- TEDx Speaker Guide
- Contains guiding principles and steps for giving a compelling talk.
Interviews and Panels
5 pieces of advice for sitting on a panel:
- 1. Come prepared with a short statement about your work, concrete examples, and one to three key messages you would like to share with your audience.
- 2. Share examples packaged as short stories.
- 3. Anticipate audience questions.
- 4. Interact with the other panelists and make constructive contributions. Listen carefully and be respectful. You don't have to answer every single question if another panelist already answered it sufficiently.
- 5. Provide your bio to the moderator in advance.
The following tools might be helpful for creating your audio story.
- Transom Tools
- Offers free tools and resources for voice recording.
- Hindenburg Tools
- Provides voice editing and podcasting tools.
- Threshold Collaborative's Storygathering Toolkit
- Shares storygathering methods, equipment, resources and ethics. Threshold Collaborative also provides workshops, project support, and online learning opportunities.
Check out the following courses, toolkits, and books to learn more about effective storytelling techniques and story types.
- Free course on the principles of storytelling.
- Aaker, Jennifer. How to Tell a Story Workbook, 2012.
- Includes a step-by-step guide to creating a story.
- See Change's Story Science Toolkit
- Provides resources on the process of deciding what stories matter most and how to tell them effectively.
- VanDeCarr, Paul. Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers, 2013.
- Gives an overview of storytelling projects, strategies, and resources for social change.
- Booker, Christopher. The seven basic plots: Why we tell stories. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004.
- Traces seven basic story plot types throughout the arts and humanities.
- Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. Random House Digital, Inc., 2007.
- Explores six principles for creating messages that stick.
- Margolis, Michael. Believe me: A storytelling manifesto for changemakers and innovators, 2009.
- Covers 15 storytelling axioms to influence people to believe in your message.
- Simmons, Annette. The story factor: Secrets of influence from the art of storytelling. Basic books, 2006.
- Includes practical storytelling techniques and explores how story transforms relationships.
- Sachs, Jonah. Winning the Story Wars: Why Those who Tell-and Live-the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Harvard Business Press, 2012.
- Provides resources and examples on telling authentic and memorable stories.
- Maguire, Jack. The power of personal storytelling: Spinning tales to connect with others. JP Tarcher/Putnam, 1998.
- Includes resources and activities for telling personal stories.