How do we make our stories actionable?

Actionable Stories WITNESS


Plenty of stories will move people emotionally, but it’s less common that a story will move people to action. Here’s how to improve your success rate.

Determine what kind of action you want people to take.

Identify what you want people to do: donate, volunteer, share an item on social media, visit your website. Set precise objectives for your storytelling, whether it’s for one particular story (a web video) or a larger enterprise (a story-sharing campaign). The Rockefeller Foundation’s outstanding Hatch storytelling tool has a section on strategy that lays out useful thinking about objectives. In order to move your audiences from awareness to action, Hatch says, your stories should offer some surprise to focus their attention and generate awareness of your cause; people, rather than abstractions, to move your audiences to care; specific problems and tangible solutions to help them understand how they can help; an indication of what will be gained if they act (or lost if they don’t) to create a sense of urgency; and a show of how their participation will help, so as to drive action.

Mix struggle with success.

Success stories are vital, because they show that your organization actually helps people. However, too many success stories leave out the struggle that the real-life characters go through in order to achieve that success. For, say, a mentoring organization, that struggle might be the difficulties that kids have at school, or an unfulfilled sense of purpose that motivates your mentors to sign up. Leave out the struggle and all you have are pleasant anecdotes that nobody can connect with or take action on. Indeed, they might just feel that your organization and the people you work with will be fine without them. But if you leave your stories open-ended—say, the story of a youth who still needs a mentor—then your audiences complete the story by volunteering or donating. What’s more, when you tell stories about struggles—the big social problems you work on—that leaves room for audiences to become engaged in the intellectual work of your organization. People may love a winner, but they love a fighter even more.

Create “pathways to action.”

Provide audiences with “pathways to action,” or ways to get involved—an information table outside a theater, a “sign our petition” button at the end of a web video. Part of creating pathways to action is to build partnerships with other organizations so that you have a structure in place to engage your audiences.

Make your stories sharable.

People are more likely to read or watch—and take action on—stories that have been recommended by a friend than from other sources. For that reason, make your stories easily sharable: Give your members a chance to add their own stories on a theme, send your supporters sample tweets and Facebook posts so that they can easily post your stories on social media, and network with bloggers to share your YouTube videos. Granted, a story must be good for someone to want to share it; that’s a longer question dealt with in other chapters.

Give people a way to meaningfully participate.

Many people have a story they tell themselves about their own life or their purpose: to make her family proud, to sacrifice for his hometown, to be part of a historic movement. Use audience research to learn why people get involved in your cause. Then tell and solicit stories that resonate with the stories your audiences tell themselves. “People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it,” says author Simon Sinek in his TED talk. In other words, effective leaders don’t sell the product or idea of their organization, they sell its reason for being. The better you can connect your “why” to your audience’s “why,” the more likely they are to join your cause.

Offer hope and a sense of efficacy.

Hope is essential in a story—after all, why bother taking action on a lost cause? A group called Images & Voices of Hope is championing what it calls “restorative narratives,” which show how people rebuild during and after difficult times. Restorative narratives may prompt people to become more generous, courageous, and compassionate; there’s even psychological research to support that notion. The group’s managing director, Mallary Tenore, says the media tends to tell “what happened” stories in the aftermath of a tragedy and not nearly as many “what’s possible” stories.

Another group working to change the kinds of stories the media tell is the Solutions Journalism Network. “Depending on what gets highlighted and what gets overlooked—and how stories are framed—the media can accelerate social progress or do just the opposite,” says the group. Raising awareness about problems can be counter-productive, says the group’s director, if you don’t also give audiences a sense of what they can do about those problems. To that end, the group aims to replace “Whodunnit?” stories with “Howdunnit?” stories. Do your stories focus exclusively on what happened and who did it? If so, use these organizations’ resources to rethink your stories.

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