Can the stories we tell––what we say and how––really change the world?
What if activists used smartphones to make videos highlighting issues such as illegal mining to push those in power to resolve over 100 outstanding cases, like Kashmir Unheard?
What if publishing a story about a failed funding partnership led to the entrepreneur and funder reconnecting and finding closure, like this Acumen India Fellow?
What if a village decided to prioritize wellbeing over ecosystem degradation by changing the story they tell themselves from one of being ‘expert fishermen’ to being ‘expert environmental restorers’ like this fishing town in Mexico?
The Art of Storytelling
Humans have told stories since the beginning of time––so much so that scientists found our brains are hardwired for teaching, learning, and remembering through story.
Scientifically, the reason well-told stories are so impactful is that the act of listening lights up the same parts of the brain that would activate if living the story in real time. Stories are also an unmatched learning tool, providing a training ground for the listener to imagine facing an obstacle, safely explore a variety of actions and outcomes, and learn from the mistakes and triumphs of others.
Although compelling storytellers tap into our human wiring to pass along a key idea or message––science is only one part of the equation.
Creativity is the other, and it comes from the storyteller themselves… What is their unique perspective on the situation? What do they consider noteworthy? What is the lesson they want to pass along? Just think of how different two history books would be––one written by people who came to settle a new land and the other written by the Indigenous people who were there first.
To tell stories that matter, you need to bring your unique personal perspective. This guide is a starting point to learn the art of storytelling by:
Finding clarity on the story you want to share
Tapping into your motivation of why you need to tell it, and
Learning how to best shape it to inspire and activate change.
Every person has a story to tell that can inspire change.
But it’s up to you to decide what story you want to tell. It could be as small as making a post on social media to encourage your friends to shop local over the holidays. Or it could be canvassing for your political candidate of choice during an election.
To decide what stories to tell, you need to first understand the full scope of your power as a storyteller, open up to letting yourself be vulnerable in your storytelling, and finally, set intentions for the outcomes you hope to achieve by sharing your stories.
Understand the Power of Your Voice
Every voice matters. Especially when navigating complex issues like poverty and climate change, diversity of perspective ensures that every person’s experience is taken into account when designing solutions for the future.
The power of a story also lies in creating a shared point of connection––something concrete for all involved to share, react to, and build from. Think of the last time you donated time or money to a cause you care about. Was someone’s story at the heart of your motivation to take action?
More often than not, the answer is yes.
When you are thoughtful about the story you want to tell and why, you have the ability to:
(Re)focus others’ perspective or understanding with the stories you tell.
Use your lived experience as inspiration for the unique contribution that you want to make in the world.
Be part of shaping social movements.
The more you tap into these ideas to tell your story in small ways, the sooner you will be ready to step up to share your story on a bigger stage, like these Acumen Fellows:
(RE)FOCUS PERSPECTIVE WITH YOUR STORIES
You have a choice in the stories you choose to tell. And the stories you choose to tell have the power to shape your life and our world by introducing new and different ideas or perspectives.
Stories matter, for they have consequences.The stories we choose to tell often define who we become. - Jacqueline Novogratz
Stories can also shift someone’s experience by counteracting feelings of isolation or loneliness. One person’s story is a “story of me” until it’s heard by someone else. Not only does the storyteller have the chance to feel better understood but the simple act of listening transforms that one lone experience into a “story of we”, where the listener also has the opportunity to also see themselves in the story. Both the storyteller and the listener are enriched by the exchange.
Vichi Jagannathan and Seth Saeugling are co-founders of Rural Opportunity Institute (ROI), a social innovation lab that supports people's healing from adversity by reshaping systemic practices and fostering deep-rooted connections. After undertaking a systems mapping process over nine months and with over 300 people, the community in North Carolina arrived at what ROI calls a ‘shared truth’.
The process brought to light the idea that healing trauma can break intergenerational cycles of poverty. It allowed each person to see themselves in the systems map and say, “this is my story.” Grounded and aligned in this shared truth, the root causes of poverty became clearer and the town could then see a united strategy to “shift from punishment to healing”.
Alignment around this idea served as a North Star goal, a shared understanding and language the community can all speak about, and as a result, build a shared vision for how to move forward to start healing unaddressed trauma to break the cycle of poverty. This new perspective was empowering to the community because if they can name it, they can predict it––and then prevent the pattern from repeating.
Stories are the original ‘virtual reality’ where you can step into someone else’s shoes. When one person’s story resonates with others, that one voice has the power to zoom the frame out and instantly widen the lens to show how we are all, in some way, tied together by the experiences we share.
LET YOUR STORY GUIDE YOUR PURPOSE
Consider the social or environmental causes you are passionate about. What is your personal connection to them? Social innovators’ personal experiences often influence their decisions to start, join, fund, or volunteer with social purpose initiatives.
When your story guides your mission, instead of using empathy to step into someone else’s shoes, you can stay in your own shoes and design solutions based on your own lived experience. Using a design thinking mindset like this provides the ultimate proximity––it gives you an insider’s view into what solutions are possible and the pros and cons of each.
In Jacqueline Novogratz’ book, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, she tells the story of Teresa Njoroge, a successful Kenyan banker whose life was forever changed when she, along with her three-month old daughter, was sent to a maximum security prison for a crime she did not commit.
When released, Teresa did not go back to banking. Instead, she launched a new NGO whose mission is deeply connected to her own experience. Clean Start helps formerly incarcerated women reintegrate into society with restored dignity and hope.
Instead of framing her imprisonment story as one of ‘a victim wronged’, Teresa chooses to see her experience as a stepping stone on the path to creating positive change in her community. As Jacqueline summarizes, instead of bitterness, Teresa “claimed a more positive narrative for herself, turning a tragic and costly miscarriage of justice into a springboard for service and possibility.”
Jacqueline goes on to say that Teresa’s story begins with her own experience but in telling it, it “has become the story of all imprisoned people.”
Teresa’s story is deeply linked to Clean Start’s mission. By weaving her personal experience into the very fabric of Clean Start’s programming and communications, Teresa’s story is able to:
Give others insight into who she is and why she does this work
Give hope to others who can relate to her experience
Create connection with formerly incarcerated women and empathetic allies
Learn more about Teresa and Clean Start:
SHAPE MOVEMENTS WITH YOUR STORY
Your stories have the power to help build movements because they reinforce a vision for a better future.
History’s most influential leaders, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela, inspired the masses to embrace, as their own, messages of justice and dignity for all. Leaders like these show how one person can take a stand for a needed shift in society. They do so by inspiring listeners to imagine a new future and how they might be part of creating that change.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is the written account that brought to life the actions behind the civil rights movement. Dr. King wrote the letter on scraps of paper and in the margins of a newspaper while in solitary confinement in Birmingham Jail. He had been arrested in 1963 for leading a peaceful protest against racism and segregation in Birmingham at the height of the African American Civil Rights Movement.
In the letter, Dr. King captures his personal motivations, fears and experiences, and connects his story with a broader call for justice. He exposes the need for deeper listening and courageous action––a call that served as a springboard for civil rights activists and allies to connect into a common story and take action. The letter reached a wide audience through publication in several newspapers and was even introduced in testimony before Congress.
Dr. King’s message still resonates today. His idea that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is a message of collective understanding. His letter is an example of how messages that inspire social change are most effective when they call others to get involved––through common language, continued dialogue, and a clear call to action.
It’s not only leaders like Dr. King who can use their voice to shape a movement. Every individual story shared gives others confidence to join in and contribute their own experience. Like drops of water joining together into a thunderous waterfall, each story adds to the public conversation, allowing it to build momentum and eventually social progress.
By design, stories provide language and shorthand that help keep a movement evolving and progressing. The social justice organization, Working Narratives, empowers communities to address injustice using story. They describe how storytelling supports social change because it “is not just a form of publicity but also a means of organizing.” They say, “storytelling goes in all directions. People respond to your stories, they may contest them or mash them up, they may build solidarity by sharing their own stories through an exchange that you organize.”
Think of the pink Pussyhat worn by thousands in the 2017 Women’s March or the short phrase #MeToo, which holds the weight of countless stories of sexual abuse. By embodying collections of individual stories, each of these symbols take on a new meaning and give people a way to join in and say “I believe in this, too.”
If you discount the power of your voice to reframe the narrative, inspire your path for creating change, or shape movements, you are not living up to your full potential as an agent of change.
SPARKING CHANGE THROUGH COLLABORATIVE STORYTELLING
If you want to create lasting change, you cannot rely on the story alone. Sajad Rasool understands that the power of change comes not from the media alone, but from a fusion of elements: the story, the storyteller, the delivery, and the collaborators.
Sajad, an Acumen India Fellow, co-founded Kashmir Unheard in 2014 with the support of Video Volunteers, India, as a platform to empower people to tell their own stories. Through his program, local activists train to become ‘Community Correspondents.’ They learn to use easily-accessible smartphones and tablets to uncover, film, and produce human-centered stories in ‘media dark’ areas where there is less media coverage.
The purpose of Kashmir Unheard isn’t to retell the same politically-charged stories that are already covered in the news. Instead, Community Correspondents focus on the stories taking place behind-the-scenes–– for example, telling stories about the people who no longer have access to safe drinking water, who have lost their homes to violence, and whose communities are affected by faulty infrastructure.
By training and empowering local activists to be the storytellers, Kashmir Unheard is returning people’s agency and representation to tell the news as they live it everyday.
“It's not only about the political story. At the end of the day, it's about the people's story. It's about the story of their day-to-day lives. It's the news they are living constantly every day.”
Unlike a written column in a newspaper, these visual stories make it easier for viewers to connect, relate, and empathize with experiences that are different from theirs. “When we talk about social change and storytelling, they go hand in hand. We need to connect. We need to bridge the communities with each other. It's the only way that can really make us understand what other communities look like,” Sajad explained. “This visual format is breaking that border. It's making it possible for the people to understand what people look like and what they go through every day.”
Besides unearthing untold stories, Sajad also takes initiative to increase storyteller diversity. He explained that there’s a lot of diversity within Kashmir, including multiple ethnic groups and about 40 spoken languages. Building a diverse workforce of storytellers is important to Sajad, who leads a polyglot team of roughly 50% women.
“The real narratives can only come out when you have diversity. They can only come out when you have these kind of spaces … which speak to everyone, irrespective of their gender and ethnic belonging or their religion or the plight they come from.”
To create change beyond broadcasting the visual story, Community Correspondents meet with local officials to screen videos and hold the administration accountable. Bringing civilian issues to local officials is no easy feat, especially when “everything is seen through the prism of the conflict,” explained Sajad. But the effort is worth it. Thanks to their unique collaborative approach between the community, Community Correspondents, and the administration, Kashmir Unheard has seen more than 100 cases resolved, including shutting down a firing range in the Himalayan meadow and stopping illegal riverbed mining in Ranbiara.
“It's not just about telling the story. It's also about mobilizing the authorities.”
With their successful model, Kashmir Unheard has collaborated with local NGOs to provide tools, training, and support so that more local leaders are equipped with the skills to document and tell stories that ignite change.
As tempting as it is to keep up a polished facade when presenting yourself and your personal stories to the world, walls of perfection act as a barrier that keeps true connection at bay. The counterintuitive truth is that being vulnerable doesn’t discount your credibility––it builds more trust with those who are listening.
As much as putting on a veneer feels safe, trust is built in the moments when people reveal their real life human experience that we all share––mistakes, failures and behind-the-scenes confessions.
A person who displays vulnerability is a person who others can relate to.
Some entrepreneurs focus only on telling powerful stories of their strengths and achievements, but to be relatable and create authentic connections with your audience, you have to be brave enough to be vulnerable. This connection through vulnerability generates, “love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity," according to professor and researcher Brené Brown––worthwhile qualities for every social innovator to tap into.
Being real also means taking risks that help you stand out from the noisy landscape and show your inner truth in a way that is captivating and inspiring to others. Being your authentic self is a magnet for those who share similar values and beliefs. On the flip side, standing up for what you believe in will also repel those who aren’t aligned with your mission, which means you can focus on the people most likely to support and help advance your cause.
Part of being vulnerable is going out of your comfort zone when the outcome may be uncertain and there is a possibility of failure. Instead of playing it safe, Sky White, designer at the creative firm argodesign, speaks about why it can be worth leaning into what makes you different. “When you’re establishing your own voice and brand, and you know what your mission is, you also have to take creative liberties to start to bring originality to it. Don’t only be looking at what everybody else is doing.”
Being vulnerable about your failures inspires and brings hope to your listeners. Stories of failure don’t need to be about massive missteps either––every challenge you face provides an opportunity to share a story of responsibility, apology, problem-solving, or redemption.
Failure Files is a series of stories published on India Development Review (IDR); it was conceived in partnership with Acumen Academy to give social innovators a space to voice stories of failure––and the learning that comes from them. IDR Co-Founder and Director, Rachita Vora, and Editorial Analyst, Tanaya Jagtiani, recommend asking the following questions to uncover learnings in the face of failure:
Clearly identify the failure: What went wrong? What was/is the cost?
Why do you think something went wrong? What was your role in it?
How did this failure impact you, your organization, your team, your donors, or relationships more generally?
Pinpoint the lessons or insights: What did you learn? How has it informed your organization’s strategy or approach? What would you do differently next time?
The purpose of ‘getting real’ is to recognize the moments when you might be shying away from the full story in fear of rejection, judgement or criticism. Pausing to recognize what exactly you want to say with your storytelling, and why, gives you the moment to ask yourself if you are practicing courage to tell a story that matters.
HOW DISCUSSING FAILURES CAN PREPARE YOU FOR THE JOURNEY AHEAD
As a social innovator, the prospect of failure can be a vulnerable learning experience.
Shravan Kumar and Disha Mullick are two Acumen India Fellows who bravely shared their stories with India Development Review as part of their Failure Files, a series which chronicles lessons learned while building and growing organizations.
Shravan is the co-founder of i-Saksham Education And Learning Foundation, an EdTech nonprofit dedicated to improving access to quality education in remote and conflict-affected regions in Bihar, India. Hoping to improve education independently from teachers' efforts, his team introduced more technology, such as smart tablets, to the classroom. However, “once the initial euphoria and the real work set in, we started to realize that our intervention had several loopholes.”
His team soon learned that for a child to value information and absorb it as knowledge, it must be processed through reasoning, dialogue, questioning, and sharing. A teacher, not technology, can best facilitate this process. The team reevaluated their intervention and as a result, implemented what they now see as “the five fundamental pillars of designing an EdTech intervention,” which guides their decision processes today.
As a result of sharing their failures with other entrepreneurs, Shravan and his team, “found that when we share the failure stories, we strengthen the social innovation ecosystem by building a common hub.” He explains, “many organizations connected with us” and “helped us become better prepared for the journey ahead.”
Similarly, Disha implemented team processes to overcome her own failures amid challenging times for her organization. Khabar Lahariya is a feminist media enterprise and India’s only all-women rural news channel. The organization is run by a diverse group of women from different classes, castes, geographies, and ages. Disha and her team train and mentor disadvantaged women from remote villages of north India to be professional journalists and produce local news in their languages and from their unique perspectives.
After 17 years as a nonprofit, Disha led the difficult decision to shift the organization to a for-profit model to ensure sustainability. Soon after, the leadership team fell apart. One of Disha’s longtime colleagues resigned, and the organization went through a deep restructuring.
Disha struggled to find balance leading through the change. On the one hand, there were the needs of rural team members, “who came from less privileged backgrounds,” for whom the organization was originally built for. And then there were the needs of newer team members who were still not fully in-tune with the organization’s unique foundations, principles, and values.
“The work of social transformation is slow and incredibly hard. We work to shift or change structures of power that are age old, and that have great tenacity or ability to evolve over time. In this context, if we do not frequently reflect on how we fail to succeed, how unequal structures persist, then we are unlikely to have the impact that we could.”
Following the restructuring, power dynamics were causing strain across the team and needed to be addressed. To prevent contributing to inequalities, the team decided to acknowledge its shortcomings and put in place a series of workshops, “Kya Khyal Hai? (What do you think?)” This allowed them to better understand each team members’ role across both the rural and urban teams.
According to Disha, “only focusing on how we succeed also puts a lot of pressure on the team, and limits how adaptive they can be to challenges...If impact has to be substantive, by which I mean actually shifting inequality, then reflection and humility about how we participate in the replication of unfair flows of resources and power should be a part of our work.”
By sharing their stories in Failure Files, Disha and Shravan reveal moments of failure and vulnerability that resonate with other social innovators facing challenging times. Their stories remind us that we all make mistakes in our journey to creating change. According to Shravan, how we communicate those moments with our teams, communities, and partners can help us all “to prepare better for the journey ahead.”
Want to share your failure story with India Development Review? Learn how here.
Set Your Intention
What is the specific change you wish to make with each story you tell? Stores that matter have clear intentions. Stories end up mattering when designed from the get-go to achieve a concrete outcome or transformation in the mind of the listener.
When thinking about what story to share, define your goals by asking yourself these questions:
Your personal goal: Why am I sharing this story?
Your audience goal: Who needs to hear this story and how will they benefit from hearing it?
Your delivery goal: What emotion can I bring to make sure the message sticks?
Let’s look at each type of goal in more detail.
To clarify your personal goal, ask yourself: What is your primary motivation for telling this story?
It could be to pass along knowledge in a specific setting, like sharing easy-to-remember information that makes someone’s job or life easier.
Your goal could also be larger in scope and less defined in terms of tangible outcomes. For example, as a survivor of workplace harassment your goal could be to add your personal story to the broader #MeToo conversation in service of building greater awareness of the issue. In contrast, your motivation behind sharing the same story could have an entirely different goal, like finding personal closure.
As a social innovator, your storytelling goal could be in service of your mission because one of the most important stories you’ll tell is of your organization and why it matters. Your entrepreneurial story helps enroll others in your vision, and when told well, can scale the reach and impact of your business.
You also want to consider your goal for the listener, even if your motivation starts with a personal objective. Stories are reciprocative: in exchange for time and attention, the listener expects a benefit––whether information, a lesson, or to be entertained.
Consider the experience you hope the listener will have:
What do you want them to do, think, or feel?
How do you hope their perspective or understanding will evolve?
What is the benefit they will gain if they put your advice or lesson into practice?
Why is listening worth their time?
One example is choosing to craft a racial justice campaign targeted to a white progressive audience. The goal might be to provide a better understanding of the issue and hopefully illuminate blind spots. The audience will benefit by gaining a new perspective that will help them take actions that are in closer alignment with their values of supporting racial equity. You can imagine how these goals would be different if the expected audience was different.
This is the approach taken by Courtney Cogburn and her team in their work to represent racism using the story tool of virtual reality. On a panel at Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Nonprofit Management Institute annual conference, Cogburn (also an associate professor at Columbia University School of Social Work) explained how they chose to focus on a white progressive audience because this group shares the ideology of racial justice but still has room for growth. With this specific audience in mind, the interdisciplinary team pulled from a variety of sources––empirical data, personal experiences, other stories told in the same medium––and weaved them together to shape one clear narrative to resonate specifically with this particular audience.
One way to cement your message is to set an intention for how you will deliver the message. Your goal might be ‘to explain’ or ‘to inform’ but you need to pour gas on the fire and build emotion into your delivery to give your story a fighting chance to stick in the minds of the listener who is constantly bombarded with information.
Ariel Group provides leadership and communication training and is the curriculum partner in Acumen Academy’s Storytelling for Change course. They recommend enlivening the delivery of your story with what they call ‘Passionate Purpose’––a technique for imbuing your message with more emotion.
For example, your intention may be to warn your audience of the dangers of a specific social program and reassure them of your solution. Other intentions might be to challenge, attack, amuse, convince, surprise, or tantalize. Your passionate purpose could be applied in the physical context, such as speaking on stage or presenting at a meeting, or it can inform how you approach the story in other creative contexts, such as in a written, musical, or graphic format.
The intention you bring when delivering your story should be in service of your personal and audience goals. For example, delivering a suspenseful story would not be in service of crafting a campaign about hand-washing. Where your motivation is to change behavior, and your aim is for listeners to gain step-by-step instructions to do so consistently and reduce disease, your delivery goal might instead be to inspire a sense of pride in becoming a model handwasher.
You can see how storytelling decisions like format, style, length, and tone all become easier when you have clarity on your intentions. Knowing your personal motivation for telling the story, the specific transformation or outcome you desire for the listener, and the emotion you wish you leave them with, all weave together to craft a story that matters.
Once you’ve explored the power of your own voice, embraced vulnerability, and set the intentions for your story, it’s time to map out the route. How will you take listeners along for the ride on your ‘big idea journey’?
Find Your Big Idea
A good captain knows where the ship will navigate before setting sail. The best way to chart your journey is to connect the elements of your story to a central theme. This connecting theme, or throughline, ties all of your ideas together to make a case for the main intention or purpose of your story.
When Brené Brown gave her powerful TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability, her throughline was, “vulnerability is something to be treasured not hidden from.” Every part of her talk latched onto that single idea. It was such a clear and compelling takeaway that her TED talk grew to be one of the most-watched of all time.
Think back to the advice offered in Part 1 about the power of your voice and defining what you believe in. Then try out the strategies below to map your big idea.
Find Your Throughline
Chris Anderson, curator of TED, suggests you start charting your course by summarizing the theme of your talk in 1-2 sentences. This is the central throughline to which everything you say needs to connect. If you have an element you are tempted to include, but it doesn’t connect to your short throughline statement, then it needs to be cut.
Then use your throughline to build your outline; start with the main idea, and add other elements as sub-ideas with a brief explanation of how each connects to the main idea. Finally, think about how to arrange everything in logical order to lead your audience through the journey. It might take a few attempts, but that’s okay. This framework will help you to deliver a coherent and impactful message.
An idea is anything that can change how people see the world. – Chris Anderson, Curator of TED
To make finding your throughline easier, Chris shares the following checklist in his book, TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. Think back on your story goals and consider:
Is this a topic I’m passionate about?
Does it inspire curiosity?
Will it make a difference to the audience [or listener/reader] to have this knowledge?
Is my talk [or story] a gift or an ask?
Is the information fresh, or is it already out there?
Do I know enough about this to make a talk worth the audience’s time?
What are the fifteen words that encapsulate my talk?
Establishing a tight central throughline is only one part of the puzzle. The next hurdle is to communicate the throughline in a way that sparks the interest of your audience. How will you craft your story in a way that entices them to hop on board for the entire journey?
ADVICE FROM ACUMEN’S TED SPEAKERS
As a social innovator, you likely have a lot to say when it comes to big ideas that can change the world.
To help you narrow in on your story’s throughline, we brought together a pop-up panel with three accomplished TED speakers from the Acumen Academy Fellowship. Here, they share their advice on how they found their big idea.
Doreen Kessy is an Acumen East Africa Fellow and Chief Business Officer at Ubongo, a company which creates fun and educational learning technology to scale and revolutionize education across Africa. When giving her TED Talk, Doreen was set on sharing her big idea of making learning more fun. She focused on her own education experience, sharing how a more lively classroom with greater resources would have helped her succeed as a young student.
Doreen wanted her audience to imagine a new future: “What are the possibilities if we did more? What are the possibilities if we all came together and really tried to implement some of the new ideas that are coming up to make learning more fun for kids?” She credits her talk’s success to authenticity. Her big idea came to life on the stage because she shared her unique story with the audience.
East Africa Fellow
Doreen KessyDoreen is Chief Operations Officer at Ubongo Learning, a social enterprise that creates edutainment content for primary school aged learners in Africa. Based in...
In much the same way, Acumen East Africa Fellow Noeline Kirabo discovered that her work with youth is part of her story. Noeline is the Founder and Executive Director at Kyusa, a nonprofit in Kampala, Uganda that empowers out-of-school youth in urban slums to turn their passions into sustainable careers.
When it came to choosing her TED Talk’s big idea, Noeline says, “I didn't want to gamble with facts and numbers that I didn't know. So I went down the line of sharing basically what I do, the stories of the young people I work with, and how this is my life.”
East Africa Fellow
Noeline KiraboNoeline is a family therapist by training and a social entrepreneur by design. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Kyusa, a nonprofit that addresses yo...
Acumen Pakistan Fellow Saad Hamid is an active member of the TEDx community where he serves as a Senior TEDx Ambassador and curator of TEDxIslamabad. He advises speakers to direct their idea by considering a guiding question: “if there was a headline after your TED Talk the next day, what would it look like?”
Saad emphasizes that, “the idea itself is the product, the story is a way to get there.” Sometimes people get carried away by motivational words, inspiring music or flashy presentations. While these elements can help reinforce the point of your story, you need to start with the point itself––your big idea. Once your big idea is set, then you can embellish it with bells and whistles that explicitly serve the core goal.
Saad HamidSaad Hamid is a technology entrepreneur and digital ecosystem builder. He is currently serving as CEO of SkillsFirst through which he aims to empower 10 million...
The next important step to bring your idea to life is to understand where it fits in the bigger scheme of creating positive change. In some cases, you’ll want to build a movement or a campaign to spread your idea even wider and further than just one audience.
THE SOCIAL DILEMMA FILM EXAMPLE: UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT OF YOUR IDEA
Before you spread your story through a campaign, consider how your idea fits into the greater context of the issue you aim to discuss. Just as you wouldn’t place a Roman statue in a Chinese zen garden, you shouldn’t set your story in motion without first understanding where and how it will be received.
To learn more about landscaping the world of big ideas, we invited Julia Hoppock, the Impact Producer for Exposure Lab’s award-winning film, The Social Dilemma. Julia walks us through how this second most-watched documentary in Netflix history sparked a global conversation with the throughline: “technology that connects us also controls us.”
As the Impact Producer, Julia designed a campaign to ensure viewers have a clear call to action after the film and that the film's message would continue resonating long after the initial buzz died down.
To meet the impact goal of “changing the way technology is designed, regulated, and used," Julia's team conducted a landscape analysis to better understand what was already taking place and spot the gaps where their tools could be of value.
From the analysis, the team determined the film would focus on running education and awareness campaigns as part of its role in shaping this new discussion on tech. This focus attracted the attention of global organizations like Amnesty International, where a partnership emerged to frame digital rights as human rights.
As of our conversation in November 2020, Exposure Labs had clocked 3,000 registered screening events across 121 countries, including examples such as young people leading summits to explore solutions to social network dilemmas.
Resonate With Your Audience
Once you’ve defined your big idea in terms of its throughline, and taken a step back to assess the role it plays within the broader context of your topic, you can then work on defining and finding your audience.
TOOLS FOR UNDERSTANDING YOUR AUDIENCE
Storytelling is a two-way street. A storyteller can be crystal clear on the core idea they want to communicate, but if they fail to understand the listener’s perspective, they miss an opportunity to deeply connect with their audience.
Part of being a good storyteller is knowing how to meet your audience where they’re at. To understand their perspective, ask yourself:
What is the context in which my story will be received?
Who will be my audience, and why are they there?
What do they already know or believe about the topic? What else do they need to know, and why?
The Social Dilemma team provides a clear example for how to deeply connect with your audience once you’ve understood where they’re coming from.
THE SOCIAL DILEMMA FILM EXAMPLE: CATER TO EACH SPECIFIC AUDIENCE
Once Julia and the Exposure Labs team got clear on the focus of their impact campaign, they set out to better understand their audience. The team presented campaign messages at film festivals to see what questions and suggestions emerged from viewers after watching the film.
They quickly recognized three distinct groups of people who were most interested in continuing the conversation started by the film. The groups consisted of those interested in social media's relationship to: democracy, mental health, and discrimination.
As Julia explained, “the goal was to meet them where they are and then help move them further along into deeper engagement in the movement.” Meeting your audience where they are and understanding how they feel about your idea allows you to design messages that will catch their interest.
To serve each distinct audience, they designed a threefold impact campaign with discussion guides and resources dedicated to each type of dilemma discussed in the film:
The Democracy Dilemma
The Mental Health Dilemma
The Discrimination Dilemma
Breaking down the Social Dilemma’s big idea into three parts helped deliver a more tailored and impactful message to each of the three main audiences.
If your idea feels too broad, consider defining a few key issues you aim to tackle, and break them down according to what your audience is most interested in.
AMPLIFY IDEAS WITH THE POWER OF COMMUNITY
A great idea catches fire when it sparks the interest of a community. Sometimes, all it takes is one individual to kindle the first flame. When a community embraces a story as their own, they themselves can become the storytellers, helping stoke the fire that amplifies that shared idea.
Ayeleen Ajanee Saleh is the Director of Acumen Bangladesh and a member of our first Acumen Global Fellows cohort. Her longing for community was the catalyst that set her on the journey to launch Acumen Academy in Bangladesh.
“I believe that the ten years that I spent in Bangladesh...knowing the builders, the entrepreneurs, the change makers, the leaders...I just felt this sense that, ‘wouldn't it be amazing for some of them to have that kind of deep, deep experience that I had as a Fellow?’” She thought, “how transformative it would be not only for the individual, but for the organizations and their communities, and then eventually for the ecosystem.”
For Ayeleen, the challenging part was trying to explain the essence of the program. “Would people really understand?” she thought.
The Acumen Academy Bangladesh team decided to amplify community. They thought, “If this is what the Fellowship is about, then let’s bring them in to what the Fellowship does.” For Ayeleen, “it’s about reflection, it’s about introspection, it’s about holding tensions, it’s about having difficult conversations. So, what we do is we get a community of people together and we do just that.”
According to Ayeleen, “it’s really around those conversations that people get a sense of what the soul of the program is.” She says, “that community, that relationship, those bonds are quite strong.”
After the selection of the first cohort the team issued a press release. The press responded favorably, calling the Fellowship “prestigious,” “an honor,” and a “highly competitive process for change makers.” They profiled each Fellow to highlight the work they were doing for social change, and in some cases even followed up months later to report on how the journey was going. The Fellows themselves soon became the natural storytellers of the program.
“Media is looking for happy, good, exciting, refreshing stories. It shouldn’t always be about doom and gloom. And I have to say, the Fellows are a perfect example of that. With very limited resources, in very difficult areas, they're doing some amazing, super innovative work. So it was actually quite easy to kind of get the Fellows to be in the limelight.”
Ayeleen says the beauty in all of this is that we’ve “let the work speak for itself and we let the Fellows speak for themselves.” In this way, the Fellows are the gatekeepers of this community. They participate in the screening process to ensure the quality remains high and they commit to a diverse community by outreaching to individuals from different sectors “around agriculture, technology, startups, inclusion, and to make sure that those voices are also included.”
The Fellows are also “writing their stories, the concepts that they're learning” and as a result are truly amplifying the work and brand of the Fellowship. According to Ayeleen, “that's also been an amazing help to really move the needle forward for people to understand what Acumen does and for us to be able to have a brand that's unique for Acumen Academy Bangladesh.”
“If we don't share stories, what else is there?” Ayleen says, “I think in the space that we work, it's really about the human connections. And so it’s increasingly important to be able to not only share our success stories, but to also really be able to be the voice of the community that we're representing.”
Ayeleen was that first individual to kindle the flame for what has become a tight knit and passionate community. Her story, and the stories of the Acumen Fellows in Bangladesh, sparked an interest in the community to learn more about, and amplify ideas around, what it means to be an extended part of the Acumen Academy community.
Structure Your Story to Spread
While the basic elements are always the same––beginning, middle, and end––a storyline about transformative change is one of the most meaningful ways to engage your listener. Stories that are most suspenseful and interesting are those that involve conflict, challenge, and the search for solutions. Would Superman movies be exciting without kryptonite?
TOOLS TO STRUCTURE YOUR STORY
At first glance, it might appear that every story is unique but there is a set of established story structures to guide your story development.
In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath share three main plot structures to guide story development. The first is the challenge plot:
In the Challenge Plot, “a protagonist overcomes a formidable challenge and succeeds.” The variations of this plot are familiar to us as readers, “the underdog story, the rags-to-riches story, the triumph of sheer willpower over adversity.”
Consider the story of Acumen Fellow Ashweetha Shetty, born in Tamil Nadu into a conservative family and village where little was expected from girls like her. As she explains, “I was conditioned to believe that my three identities—‛poor,’ ‛village,’ and ‛girl’—meant that I was to live a life of no voice and no choice.”
One day while at her village library, Ashweetha came across the autobiography of Helen Keller. Inspired by Helen’s “indomitable spirit,” she became determined to seek more out of her future. After struggling to convince both her father and village community, she fulfilled her dream of enrolling in college.
For Ashweetha, college was only half the battle. Her dream upon graduation was to apply to a fellowship program in Delhi, which is about 1,400 miles away from her village. She knew she’d face what seemed to be another lifelong battle. Anything other than marriage after college would be out of the question.
Determined to make something of her education, she secretly applied to the fellowship. With no laptop and little internet, she borrowed a friend’s cell phone and submitted the application huddled under her shawl, typing each word slowly so as not to be discovered. The struggle paid off and Ashweetha was accepted into the program on a full scholarship. Of the 97 fellows, she was the only rural girl.
At 22, she returned to her village and built the Bodhi Tree Foundation to support rural youth like herself who want to change their lives and communities through education, skills and opportunities. Ashweetha’s brave decision to take control of her destiny changed her perspective of the world. As she describes, she now saw “a world where a girl like me is no longer to be a worthless, liability or a burden but a person of use, of value, of worthiness.”
Learn more about Ashweetha’s story in her TED Talk.
Ashweetha ShettyAshweetha is a 2015 India Fellow and is the Co-Founder of Bodhi Tree Foundation, a Tamil Nadu-based social venture that trains, supports and mentors rural colle...
The second plot structure is the connection plot:
The Connection plot is “a story about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap” – which can be “racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic, or otherwise.”
Growing up in an informal settlement in Cali, Colombia—a dangerous neighborhood founded by illegal armed groups—it was rare for people like Acumen Colombia Fellow Andrés Felipe González to build connections outside of drugs and violence. His story of choosing hope over despair, despite the odds, is an inspiring example of the connection plot in action.
As a young boy, Andrés grew up admiring drug lords and their guns that offered protection and power: “In Las Minas, gang activity is the norm for young people. You’re in a gang without really knowing you’re there. You see it as a social group: those boys on the corner become like family.”
In a world where young boys like Andrés hold their fierro, a .32 caliber revolver, alongside their school books, what other opportunities exist to make connections outside the realm of violence? After being lucky enough to secure a seat at a high school hours away from home, Andrés took the chance to forge new relationships.
He joined an anti-violence program launched by Cali’s mayor to offer psychosocial support to the city’s young gang members through rap song-writing workshops that embrace self-expression. Andrés soon found a new sense of belonging in rap music, and forged a deeper connection with the many young people in the program who had grown up much like him.
When the mayor’s anti-violence program ended abruptly, Andrés founded Prisioneros de Esperanza, or Prisoners of Hope, to continue serving young people in Las Minas through arts workshops. Manifesting his mission through his own lived experience, Andrés builds relationships with fellow youth, helping them change their lives and find a community free of violence and full of lyrics.
Andres Felipe González EspinosaAndrés Felipe founded the Collective prisioneros de Esperanza (Prisoners of Hope), an entity that exercises peaceful resistance to the dynamics of exclusion and...
The last plot structure from the book is the creativity plot:
The Creativity plot highlights “someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to address unexpected challenges in new and innovative ways. Such is the case of Felek Notebooks, a social enterprise launched in 2016 by Acumen Fellows Suleiman Shifaw and Zahara Legesse Kauffman. Felek produces high-quality artisan notebooks using ancient Ethiopian bookbinding techniques.
When COVID-19 hit and schools closed, access to masks became more important than access to notebooks. Suleiman and Zahara recognized a shift in community need. They pivoted and repurposed Felek’s manufacturing machinery to produce masks in place of notebooks – providing much needed access to masks to reduce the risk of transmission.
Felek sought a new way to scale the accessibility of masks across the country by partnering with the government to produce the first and only FDA-approved mask in Ethiopia. They also called upon trusted relationships with other Acumen Accelerator teams, such as TruLuv Granola, a pivotal partner to distribute their masks in Ethiopian marketplaces.
Through innovation and determination, Felek was able to scale mask accessibility while offering donated masks to those most in need. When 32,000 people were forced into tightly packed shelters following a devastating flood in the Afar region of Ethiopia, Felek provided 1,500 masks to meet the needs of vulnerable populations in crisis and further their impact.
East Africa Fellow
Suleiman ShifawSuleiman is the Owner and Creative Director of Impact Communication, an innovative communication company in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The company uses social and b...
East Africa Fellow
Zahara Legesse KauffmanZahara is a psychotherapist devoted to improving the lives of women and children. She provides psychotherapy and training on trauma, child protection and domest...
THE SOCIAL DILEMMA FILM EXAMPLE: GROW THE MOVEMENT
When the audience sees themselves in the storyline, they engage with it. In turn, they help fuel and grow the movement.
Only a few months after its release, the Social Dilemma was viewed by 38 million households. Plus, in the classroom educators were using the film to supplement lessons on digital humanity and ethical design, and people were creating hackathons to reimagine healthier, safer solutions. Others made the experience personal, writing poems and mailing in art depictions based on how the film made them feel.
As the Social Dilemma impact campaign continues creating public pressure on social tech companies, Julia and the team realize their unique position and ability to continue telling stories that create change. “It’s all about catalyzing conversations, keeping conversations going, about how we can change the way technology is designed, regulated and used,” explained Julia.
Take the Stage
Once you’ve landed on a storytelling structure that works for you and the type of story you want to tell, there are various ways to amplify your message.
You can continue refining your storytelling skills as a speaker, in your marketing and communications through brand storytelling, and while raising money to scale your social venture or nonprofit organization.
WITH PUBLIC SPEAKING
As a social innovator, when you share your message with the world, you open a new door, expanding the possibility that your idea will reach more people and convince more hearts and minds of the change you seek to create. Venturing into public speaking is one sure way to amplify your message.
While there is no specific recipe to follow in public speaking, there are useful ingredients at your disposal to cook up a most authentic treat for the audience. It’s a process that requires you to try out different methods that work best for you. Humor, for example, is a great way to develop trust and connection with your audience, but if you’re not naturally a humorous person, then it can leave a sour taste on the plate.
Public speaking is about conveying an idea that matters to you, and doing so with authenticity.
According to Chris Anderson, curator of TED, the world needs all types of different talks and speakers. The task is to find what fits best for your speaking style, your passion, and your idea. In his Acumen Academy Master Class, he offers a set of tools that can be used to structure any talk.
WITH BRAND STORYTELLING
Brand storytelling is a powerful tool to help social innovators communicate their business, product or mission to the world. For social entrepreneurs with limited experience in branding or marketing, it can be difficult to make a connection between telling your authentic story and marketing your brand in ways that amplify your message.
As a founder, the deep-seated ‘why’ for launching your initiative probably feels obvious. Knowing why your organization exists is one thing, but if you’re not able to translate that message clearly for your audience, it will go nowhere fast.
At its core, the very identity of your organization is made up of the stories people tell about it, both inside the organization and in the world outside. This includes the stories the company tells about itself (for example, how and why the founder built the business), stories that are told by customers, partners, or investors, and the stories circulating in society which represent your organization’s reputation.
We encourage you to check out Acumen Academy’s Storytelling for Change free course for more concrete tools to tell your organization's story.
Raising money usually requires more than a financial transaction. Mission-driven organizations that build clear fundraising goals can leverage the power of storytelling by telling stories that transcend boundaries and build empathy with donors.
The key is to have clear fundraising goals. This means designing all of your activities around specific and measurable results. You may only have one chance to win the support of a potential donor. When a donor visits your website, it should be easy to understand your problem, your approach, your impact, and how they can support your work.
Before pursuing a communications project, it's important to plan how you will use your limited time and resources. Ask yourself, how will this communications activity help achieve my fundraising goals and advance my mission?
Acumen Academy’s free course Nonprofit Fundraising Essentials can help you define the key elements for crafting a story that aligns with your fundraising goals and the interests of your donors.