Between co-curating an exhibition, writing a book, and blogging for my NGO, producing written, creative content has become integral in the rhythm of my life. After visiting Zain Alam of the 1947 Partition Archive and several months in the field gathering the stories of rural artisans, I have learned about telling stories that get read. There are many strategies to employ when sharing your narrative with the world. The great thing about storytelling is that there are no rights and wrongs, because the craziest ideas are often the ones that people respond to most of all. Stories can be told in sentence-long tweets or thick books. They can be snail mailed or sent en masse to inboxes all over the world.
These days, it’s clear that storytelling is a powerful way to engage with communities across the globe. Medium began a grant program for nonprofits exclusively with the aim of storytelling, while Fulbright and National Geographic have teamed up to offer a grant for digital storytelling.
In order to share my knowledge, these are 5 storytelling lessons I’ve learned over the course of my time in for-profit and nonprofit communications.
1. Define “Story”
Stories are how we make sense of our lives. Folk tales give shape to the things we can’t explain and narratives help us to see the larger meaning in our day-to-day. “Story” in today’s marketing world is a buzz word. When using a story in order to scale a nonprofit’s communications, it is important to understand what “story” means to you and to your organization specifically. As the storyteller you have the power to shift and alter the story itself, as storytelling is an inherently creative process. Is your story a careful curated and crafted written work meant to achieve very specific goals? Is it an imaginative, whimsical tale meant to capture its audience? Is it a professional, concise report? Do you believe that stories have a beginning, middle, and end?
2. There is Value Beyond Numbers
It is compelling to log on to a website and see the words “100% Success” or “Millions of lives changed.” But, numbers are hard to grasp at. Rather than describing the shear amount of lives your organization has changed, start with one person, and describe their journey in detail. In a quickly globalizing world, it is easier than ever to reach thousands instantly. A story that shows individual care and a human connection is an incredibly powerful one. Artists often will say that people respond to human faces. Just like artists paint people, we should write people. Give a face to your stories. Your readers will be engaged when they have a person to identify with.
3. Write What You Know
The advice for writers to “write what they know” is incredibly important in the development sector. Attracting new support for your organization requires getting your audience to understand challenges they most likely do not face in their own day-to-day lives. With that in mind, as a storyteller you should meet the people you serve and have discussions. Learn to understand their point of views and listen to their stories. Listen to the stories of your co-workers. By accumulating stories, building a file of narratives associated with your organization, you have a better chance at writing with candor and writing windows for people to see work through.
4. Pick Role Models
Is there a website you go to every day, or a book you read once a month? What grabs you and keeps you coming back? The best way to begin writing a story that sells is to think of the stories that inspire you over and over again. Don’t repeat other peoples’ stories, but think of the ways in which other organizations are telling inspirational stories, and build on them. Working at a handicrafts NGO, and engaging with textile making communities across Northern India, I see many storytelling techniques to sell products and encourage collaboration – from direct quotations from the artisans themselves to narratives of the history of craft-making communities to descriptions of the natural resources used in the creative process. There are many ways to tell the story behind a single thing. Finding your storytelling role models will help you to uncover the voice you will write with. It will give you an idea of what works and doesn’t work, and center the approach you wish to take as you start to weave your tale.
5. Simplicity is Key
It’s not always necessary to use big words and complicated jargon to deliver your story. Storytelling originates as an oral tradition. Living in India, most of the myths and fables we hear actually began as bardic stories, songs, or poetry. Overtime they were transcribed, recorded, and written down. Creating written work that captures the old way of telling stories through speech will set your work apart. Read your story aloud before you publish it, if it sounds natural when spoken it has a better chance of being understood by your reader.