Social Innovation Storytelling in Uncertain Times

“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is yet to come”. [Steve Jobs]

Social Innovation Storytelling

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Humans have always used storytelling to make sense of the world, particularly in times of chaos and uncertainty. Stories give us a direct path to emotion, which is very powerful in decision making processes. When it comes to exploring social issues, stories that focus on the human experience are especially successful in engaging and educating audiences. This past year has been defined by volatility and ambiguity, yet it has also been a period in which people around the globe have tuned in to one another’s stories like never before. Stories of hope, love, loss, survival, and resilience. Each one offering a different perspective and dimension of pandemic life, a chance for the listener to understand what it might feel like to be someone else.

For social innovators this capacity to generate empathy through story is vital. It increases audience understanding and awareness of the social issues they are tackling, as well as inspiring them to take meaningful action.

Here are four ways to craft compelling stories:

1. Put your audience first

The most successful storytellers begin by identifying who their audiences are, and what they seek. They consider the goals, interests, values, and contexts of their listeners. Are they a client, an end user, an investor, or even an employee? How much prior knowledge of the content do they already have? Researching an audience can help, exploring their industry, reading about their organisation or background, even following their blogs. In today´s climate an empathetic storyteller considers the impact of the pandemic on their specific audience, at an individual or organisational level. In content delivery there are other influential factors to keep in mind which may bias how an audience receives information, such as the day of the week, time of day, technology used, temperature of the room etc.

2. Structure stories strategically

Storytelling must always be strategic, right down to the structure and scripting of content. When shaping a narrative, audience understanding helps determine the ebb and flow. For example, an audience of potential investors would require an elevator pitch with a clear call to action at the end, whereas an internal team might benefit from a linear report. Capitalising on story arcs can aid with this process.

Strategic storytellers carefully plan the length of narratives and design content so that the most important messages fall at the beginning and end. This is due to the primacy/recency effect; how our brain best processes information. It is vital to be clear with messages and adhere to the rule of one message per slide/visual aid. In fact, in remote storytelling contexts such as today´s, minimalistic slides reliant on image over text are most effective. Additional information can always be integrated in appendices or executive summaries. Concision and clarity are important for remote audiences.

3. Seek emotion and human experience

Stephen King said, “I think the best stories end up being about the people and not the event”. The protagonists of stories unlock complicated worlds and allow audiences in. When crafting stories, it is thus imperative to bring the humans in them to life, communicate their emotions, and present them as real people not personas. Encourage conversations with these people, interview and observe them, listen to their stories, explore their goals and frustrations. Whether the final story is about a social entrepreneur, a target user, or a beneficiary, the goal is to weave in emotion and authenticity.

4. Develop your own skill

A mighty story can fail in the telling if the speaker cannot communicate effectively. To engage and entrance audiences it is essential to understand the role of verbal and nonverbal communication. In fact, over 65% of communication is nonverbal which renders body language and tone of voice fundamental for storytellers. Social innovators can work on this in a number of ways; through training, practice, watching videos of great speakers whom they admire; and seeking advice/feedback along the way.

We are all in the same storm but not in the same boat” has been the underlining phrase this year and with good reason. Social problems of health, inequality, climate change, systemic racism, and others have been thrust into the story spotlight, all exposing the diversity of human experience. When social innovators approach their stories with empathy in this way, they can transform into powerful instruments of change.

About the author:
Ellen Buckland recently collaborated with the Red Innova community in an intensive masterclass focused on storytelling skills for social innovators. She is the founder of Contemporary Empathy; a company which seeks to make the business world more human centred through training professionals in the areas of Emotional Intelligence, Creativity, and Communication. Ellen has a professional background in performance, education, and strategic design in the Arts and Education sectors. She is currently an assisting faculty member of IE HST teaching on the Bachelor ́s of Communication and Digital Media, and the Master ́s in Customer Experience and Innovation.