How do we keep audiences involved in the story?

Attention is a finite resource. Social-change groups have to excel at storytelling if they want to be heard in a noisy field. Here’s how.

Storytelling tips

Hook your audience early.

In online video, you’ve got about 15 seconds (if that) to grab your viewer before their attention starts to wander—to another video or website. That number is different for audiences of street theater or a film at a cinema, but the principle still applies: Your audiences must have a compelling reason to start—and continue—engaging with your story. The organization behind the popular live storytelling series The Moth suggests that storytellers “start in the action.” Don’t say, “So I was thinking about climbing this mountain,” but rather, “The mountain loomed before me.” Also consider these five hooks: hope, help, heart, humor, and healing. What type of story are you telling and why? One of these hooks is probably relevant. All of them involve emotion. A personal truth, a revelation, or a surprise can often be that initial hook for your story.

Leave part of the story untold.

Questions and mysteries can draw an audience to your stories and keep them interested. As playwright Bryan Delaney has said, “Starve the audience of information to make them work their brains.”

A story is given shape not only by what’s in it but by what’s left out. The website Upworthy has become famous (and reviled) for producing a stream of “irresistibly sharable” stories about “stuff that matters.” The site’s success is thanks largely to its headlines, which are designed to inspire curiosity that can only be satisfied by watching the video stories.

Radio host Ira Glass says, “The whole shape of a story is that you are throwing out questions to keep people watching or listening and then answering them along the way.”

Build suspense through intercutting and serialization.

Another way to inspire progressively deeper interest is to create serialized stories—just look at the success of Charles Dickens (whose novels were originally published in serial form), soap operas, or the Serial podcast, which inspired  an upsurge in serials. With a short medium like TikTok or Twitter, serialization can keep your audience subscribing or clicking for more.

Do you have a cliffhanger you can use to spark interest in your next installment? Can you divulge something surprising or significant, for example, before your break?

Another way to build suspense and interest is to intercut different scenes or chapters of your story—switch back and forth from one subplot to another, or between different characters’ perspectives, as two speakers from Resurrection After Exoneration did to excellent effect. In each scene, you leave your audience curious to know what happens next.

Engage your audience’s senses and imagination.

When sharing your story, use descriptions that invoke your audience’s senses. How did it smell, what did you taste, what was the weather? Entice the audience to imagine what you or others were experiencing.

Seeing Is Believing, Resource Media’s guide to visual storytelling, reminds us that visual imagery has a profound effect on emotions, and recommends testing your visuals with your target audience before going full throttle with them. Also, pair words with pictures, have subjects make eye contact with the viewer, and make sure your images match your message. The Network for Good guide Storytelling for Nonprofits offers some similarly useful advice: Write photo captions, because people are more likely to read captions than other blocks of text.

Think about the best opportunities to get photos for your organization: Solicit photos from your members, hire a photographer, or shoot photos at your organization’s special events or actions to illustrate your work.

Don’t limit yourself to photos or videos. Consider creating an infographic or comic. Attend to your movements and expressions while speaking. “I found that if you are serious about sound, music, and performance, you can just get rid of the boring parts and drop audiences directly into the world of the storyteller,” said Glynn Washington, host of Snap Judgment.

Let others share, too.

Polling your audience with an instant polling tool, or even asking questions of your audience will encourage them to at least think of their own responses to the story you’re telling.

Establish a hashtag for your organization and others for your cause or event and ask your members to use them whenever sharing photos from your events or information about your campaign.

Further exploration: