Savvy social change leaders blend compelling data with narrative to communicate what is, what could or should be, and how we can get there.

This recent article in Forbes got me thinking about storytelling. Well, actually, I’m always thinking about storytelling–It’s both my job (I lead communications at Living Cities) and one of my great passions. Stories have been, ever since our earliest ancestors began scratching art on the walls of caves (visual storytelling!), how we have taught and preserved knowledge. They are the thread between our past, present, and future; enabling us to process what we have learned so that we can make choices about what’s next. They are the building blocks of culture, community and shared values; they are how we organize and make sense of the world and of our lives; they are how we make connections; and they are how we inspire. From marketing campaigns to social movements, stories capture the human imagination and drive it to action like nothing else can.

Storytelling quote from Nadia Owusu

Brands understand that the stories they tell about their products are just as, if not more important than the products themselves. It’s about tapping into people’s aspirations and desires and motivating them to advance them (ostensibly by buying the product).

Savvy social change leaders get this concept too: They blend compelling data with narrative to communicate what is, what could or should be, and how we can get there. As David Bornstein of the New York Times said at a conference I attended about a month ago, good social change stories, “lead with what’s possible. The goal is to get people to lean into problems and to see how they can get involved.”

Storytelling will always be about connecting people on a human level…

Technology, as the Forbes article outlines through some great specific examples, can help us to do this better: “Storytelling will always be about connecting people on a human level….using technology in a way that excites people to the core is what will propel the medium forward.” We know that no one person, institution, or even sector can solve our most intractable problems on its own. So, unlike with stories about brands, good stories about social change are inclusive rather than focused just on parochial interests—finding the connections amongst stories in order to create new, vibrant meta-narratives. Towards these ‘beyond PR’ ends, there is probably less potential in a press release about one program to accelerate change than there is in an interactive platform where ideas, insights and experience collide.

At Living Cities, we know that our work and investments in areas like cradle to career education, community and workforce development, and civic engagement must be thought of as a small contribution to a much bigger whole made up of the work of many other individuals and organizations tackling these problems. So, we have made real-time sharing and engaging around what we and others are learning core to everything we do as we seek to help grow and build a network effect of innovators, practitioners and leaders working together in new ways to move successes from the periphery of practice to the mainstream as fast as possible. We call this ‘open sourcing social change’.

Many others are taking this on as well—experimenting with applying new tools to the age old art of storytelling. Communications can be thought of as where the ‘story’ meets the ‘telling’. At its core is the interaction between the ‘storyteller’ and the ‘audience’. To harness that dynamic towards social change, we must think of audiences not as passive ‘listeners’, but rather as active partners whose needs, perspectives, and imaginations are vital to the ability of the story to spread, grow and thrive. I am very excited about the possibilities of this type of thinking, and the marrying of it with creative uses of technology!