Of all our truest hopes and desires for our work is that, what we find, we our­selves never knew. It came as a shock. It came as a sur­prise. It was new. We could never have known what we were going to do before we did it, and in that sense, we dis­cover too. Here is what I’ve got to say to you: there are things in your life you will see; there are sto­ries you will hear; if you don’t write them down, if you don’t make the pic­ture, they won’t get seen, they won’t get told.” – Emmet Gowin

Sto­ries have always been essen­tial to the human con­di­tion. I’ve writ­ten before  on how sto­ries are a win­dow into how we per­ceive the world around us. Lately, I have spent quite a bit of time reflect­ing on the role of sto­ries and their impor­tance in gen­er­at­ing engage­ment, empa­thy and to deliver insights about peo­ple and behav­iour. A great event by Be Social Change on the Power of Nar­ra­tive on Cre­at­ing Impact that I attended recently really helped com­plete some of the reflec­tions that I have been mulling over, and thought I’ll share some of my thoughts:

Be Social Change Sto­ry­telling event. Pan­elists on the RHS. Photo taken by: Alex Mora from Xelaarom Pho­tog­ra­phy

1) Prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tions: Co-creation of a story

The are two main cat­e­gories of sto­ries that are told: our own sto­ries and sto­ries on behalf of someone/something. In both cir­cum­stances, ele­ments of a mem­o­rable sto­ries usu­ally starts with Authen­tic­ity, bridged by Nar­ra­tive Trans­port and end­ing with Com­bined Rel­e­vance (a com­po­nent that the audi­ence can relate to). Sto­ries can be prac­ti­cally used by prod­uct sto­ry­tellers, com­mu­nity archi­tects and in vir­tu­ally almost any posi­tion that calls for value con­nec­tion with your audi­ence. The role of a sto­ry­teller is not meant to replace the mar­keter, brand strate­gist or founder. Instead, they dwell in the realm of syn­the­siz­ing the over­all pic­ture, mold the value propo­si­tion and know what entry points in cur­rent con­ver­sa­tions that they can enter into. They are con­nec­tors who look for the puz­zle pieces and bring them together in frame­works that inspire appro­pri­ate solutions.

To a cer­tain extent, sto­ries are a moral and value com­pass. Our own sto­ries that we tell help us under­stand our own world bet­ter, and the sto­ries we tell on behalf of oth­ers ensure that we have enough insight to an organization/product’s value that we stay on the right path. The rea­son why I believe it to be a com­pass is because if you are not moved (to action/direction or emo­tion­ally) by your own story, why should some­one else be moved by it too?

2) Fram­ing a narrative

A good story holds so much emo­tional com­plex­ity. A really impor­tance point to dis­tin­guish (and you’ll be sur­prised by how many peo­ple mis­un­der­stand this!) is that sto­ries are NOT an opin­ion, bul­let points, or arti­cles. They are a moment in time, an expe­ri­ence. At the event, Annie Esco­bar, co-founder of  Lis­tenIn Pic­tures, a media com­pany that crafts cin­e­matic sto­ries to inspire action (Their mis­sion is to end bad non-profit video!), shared some of the ways that she uses to (re)frame a nar­ra­tive via the: chal­lenge plot, con­nec­tion plot, cre­ativ­ity plot or empa­thy plot. Non-profit tend to grav­i­tate towards the empathy/sympathy plot (highly over­rated these days) and I would like to (re)frame this approach by say­ing that non-profits should tell sto­ries that come from a place of empa­thy instead of just evok­ing sympathy.

A great way to decon­struct a nar­ra­tive is to use Simon Sinek’s Start With Why Golden Cir­cle. Simon explains in his book that we need to start look­ing at ideas, sys­tems and in this con­text — sto­ries with a clear and pur­pose­ful out­look: “WHY?”

Peo­ple don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. A com­pany needs to say and do only what they believe. If what you do, doesn’t prove what you believe, then no one will know your “why” and you will be forced to com­pete on price, ser­vice, qual­ity, fea­tures and ben­e­fits, the stuff of com­modi­ties…” –Simon Sinek, Start With Why

3) A Storyteller’s respon­si­bil­i­ties and characteristics

A great sto­ry­teller can be pow­er­ful influ­encer… and with great power, comes great respon­si­bil­ity (yes, I totally just quoted spi­der­man!). Blair Miller, Acu­men Fund’s Lead­er­ship Man­ager (includ­ing Acumen’s Fel­lows Pro­gram) wrote a great piece a while back empha­siz­ing on a storyteller’s respon­si­bil­i­ties as the next phase of sto­ry­telling. She high­lighted three respon­si­bil­i­ties: sto­ry­tellers must be dynamic, must come from a place of empa­thy and must uncover ways to be replace­able. I would like to build on her piece that on top of those respon­si­bil­i­ties, great sto­ry­tellers should have these two characteristics:

i) Unre­lent­ingly curi­ous — some­one who is inquis­i­tive, loves to learn about oth­ers and uncover the ‘other side of the story’. He/she should have the humil­ity to con­nect with every­one and any­one and know that the story they are telling is one chap­ter out of tens of dozens.

ii) Provoca­tively immag­i­na­tive — some­one who has the imag­i­na­tion pow­er­ful enough to see a moment/experience and able to (re)frame it into a com­pelling story. He/She knows when to ask the right ques­tions, when to hold back and when to dig deeper.