Social Sector Storytelling for a New Age

Posted by Nadia Owusu on

The social sector has long understood the power of a good story. We use stories to engage people around our work, to fundraise, to communicate impact, and to mobilize people to take action. We rely on stories to connect people emotionally to the issues that we care about; and to help them to understand how those issues affect them and their communities on a personal level. Stories help us to distill complex concepts and information about how social change happens-- and what we are doing to drive that change-- into digestible doses. But, the proliferation of the internet and new technologies and platforms are dramatically changing how and where people and organizations communicate. And, technological advances have similarly transformed the nature of the information itself. There is no disputing that we have entered the era of Big Data. Today, we have the unprecedented ability to access, capture, analyze, and publish vast data sets at the click of a mouse; and with this ability come new expectations and responsibilities in terms of what we report. Gone are the days when we had to wait for months or even years to understand the effectiveness of our interventions. From social media to open government data, a wealth of information is now available in real time, and stakeholders increasingly want us to share in real time and at all stages of the knowledge life cycle—from early hunches to best practices. And, as it becomes more and more clear that tackling issues of poverty and inequality at scale will require new models of dynamic collaboration, we must harness this moment to build new platforms for co-creating innovation and open-sourcing social change. But, our future capacity to use, and respond to, the data at our fingertips will depend on our ability to combine the numbers and statistics with compelling and coherent narrative. In short, we will need to take our storytelling to the next level—maintaining our focus on generating engagement, or making people feel emotionally connected to helping us achieve our goals, while also incorporating the metrics that can help our problem-solving network to build upon and accelerate the change that we want to see in the world. Here are two ways that we can start to rethink our storytelling for this new age:

  • Make Data Visual: There is a reason why children’s books have pictures—they support the learning process by enabling kids to quickly visualize the words that they are just beginning to understand. In the same way, data visualizations can be effective in synthesizing and crystalizing information that might otherwise be difficult to absorb. Infographics, maps, and video can help us to weave numbers, words and pictures together to create stories that convey complexity in striking and interesting ways. As more data becomes available, we must consider how different representations of it can persuade, inspire, educate, and contribute to our larger stories. And, if done well, building interactive and customizable components into the visualizations can increase both the clarity and usability of the data being shared.
  • Build Stories Collaboratively: You’re at a conference, and someone says something that makes a light bulb appear over your head. You know that this insight has implications for your work, and that of your problem-solving network, but you’re not quite clear what those implications are. While in the past, you might have scribbled the words into your notebook and crossed your fingers that the insight would eventually become ‘baked’ enough to share in a report or white paper, today you can type 140 characters on your mobile phone, hit ‘tweet’ and engage others to brainstorm around the a-ha moment with you. Those 140 characters may eventually become the beginning of a much bigger story. As the story grows, and you collect and harvest more data, you might write a blog to share emerging thinking and post it on your website or Facebook. The feedback and comments of others might then inspire you to take action, the results of which you share in longer form content, perhaps in collaboration with your network. We have so many tools at our disposal, and we must work to understand how to put them to their best use, acknowledging that as we begin to build stories together, they become even more powerful in terms of content and reach; and in terms of how insights and lessons shared can be applied to our work.

Through using all of the tools, technologies, and platforms available to us and engaging others to build stories with us, we create a layered narrative. Our tweets, Facebook posts, blog posts, videos, infographics, and reports; the feedback and response they generate; and the content of others combine to create a rich story told in many installments and in many forms. In this way, we enable people to see logical progressions; to consume the story from multiple angles; and to contribute to its development should they so choose. The beauty of the layered narrative is that it builds both engagement and trust as many voices repeat and reinforce messages. We can strengthen our layered narratives by being intentional and strategic about how we unfold them; committing ourselves to sharing at every touch point along the way; and encouraging others to do the same. We must also think about how the data, narratives and stories of others fit into the larger story that we are trying to tell, and support their ability to increase their reach through our own networks.

Storytelling has always played a very important role in the work of social change organizations. But, as the world around us changes, we must start telling our stories in the language of the present; and that language is social, interactive, dynamic, driven by technology and data, and shared in real time. And, through building stories together, we will grow our understanding of the universe of work in our field, and thus better position ourselves to collaborate and co-create for impact. At Living Cities, we are beginning to experiment with these new forms of storytelling; and we look forward to sharing and building them with you.