What is storytelling?
Storytelling is one of your social enterprise’s most powerful marketing tools. Sharing the stories of your employees and leadership, as well as your business’ impact on the world, creates an emotional connection to your work – and sets you apart from your competitors. It can help you gain and maintain customers, build support in your community, drive fundraising efforts, and ultimately achieve your vision.
And don’t forget that storytelling appears in a variety of formats, not just on your organization’s blog. Storytelling can be used in speeches and board presentations, visually within your business’ physical space, and written in your external communications.
Why is storytelling important?
Stories are at the heart of how we process and interact with the world. We often find it easier to remember information shared within a story than standalone data, and stories can help us learn about new things or better understand a challenge. If you can tell an impactful story, you are more likely to create a lasting memory for your audiences.
What Makes a Great Story?
Great stories can appear in visual, written, or oratory mediums and can be a variety of lengths. But there are a few key, universal elements that make any story a great one:
- It is tailored. Your story needs to speak to your audience. What do they know or currently think, what do they care about, what do you want them to do? Speak directly to them.
- It is focused. No matter the length, begin by thinking about the one, core message that you want to convey by telling your story. A great story is one that clearly communicates a takeaway from its audience and doesn’t get muddled by too many competing points.
- It paints a picture. A great story is one that follows the idea of “show, don’t tell.” Paint a picture for your audience and include details that will draw them into the narrative.
- It is clear. Stories are designed to evoke emotion and build connection, so avoid using jargon.
- It is relevant. Make it clear how the stories you’re sharing connect to your work and your mission.
Here are some examples:
- Chrysalis’ employee success stories (all of which are great examples of Asset Framing in action; see more below)
- CONBODY’s Coss Marte’s personal story of entrepreneurship and leadership
- REDF’s mini-documentary Igniting the Flame
Best Practices: Ethical Storytelling & Asset Framing
Your staff is likely gathering stories each and every day, whether formally or not. Learning how to effectively and ethically gather and share these stories can play a vital role in your marketing strategy.
Your business has a larger mission and a responsibility to the people that you employ. Storytelling should never be exploitative or sensationalized. Instead, when done effectively, it can be empowering for everyone in your organization.
Here are some best practices to engage in ethical storytelling that involves your staff and participants, respects their wishes, centers their perspectives, and treats them as the hero of their own story.
- Set Expectations and Ask for Interest. Be transparent with your staff and participants if your organization has expectations for their participation in sharing testimonials or stories. When possible, ask broadly for those who are interested to participate, allowing people to opt in to your storytelling efforts. This can help to combat any power dynamics at play that might make staff or participants feel compelled to participate.
- Create First-Person Opportunities. When appropriate and comfortable for your participants, provide the opportunity for them to share their story in their own words. This might mean capturing a video testimonial of their experience working at your business or partnering with them to draft a written story for your website.
- Compensate Your Storytellers. If you are asking employees to share their story beyond the scope of their job and/or program requirements, or outside of their typical work and training hours, compensate them for their time.
- Be Transparent About Use. When asking a participant to share their story for the business, be clear about how and where you plan to use it. If you would like to use it in the future for a different purpose, check in with them to make sure they’re comfortable with the additional usage. If they ask for the story to be removed from your website or social media platforms in the future, honor their wishes.
Asset Framing is a storytelling approach that defines people by their aspirations and assets before their challenges (learn more from Trabian Shorters, founder and CEO of BMe Community).
Why is it important? In your work, you likely encounter deeply entrenched stereotypes and stigmas about the people that you employ and support. These can be easily reinforced by our storytelling choices, whether intentionally or not.
Instead, we can use our stories to actively shift perceptions – by telling stories that demonstrate your employees’ aspirations and goals, we can help our audiences see the immense talent and potential of people overcoming barriers to employment.
“You can’t lift people up by putting them down.” – Trabian Shorters
How do you utilize asset framing? The core principle of asset framing is to always first describe a person by their aspirations and assets before mentioning their challenges. This leads our audiences to see them for their strengths and not just the challenges they have faced.
This narrative approach does not require that we ignore the challenges that our participants face. In fact, naming systemic barriers can help shift mindsets and place the focus on systems versus individual actions.
Here are two examples of deficit framing:
- Our organization employs at-risk youth living in high-crime neighborhoods.
- When John entered our program, he had been homeless for 10 years and was estranged from his family.
And here are asset-framed alternatives:
- We help young people overcome systemic barriers to employment and achieve their dreams.
- John is a parent of two who entered our program seeking to reunite with his family and pursue his passion for cooking through a career in the culinary industry. After experiencing homelessness for 10 years, he faced significant barriers to employment.
See the resources at the bottom of this guide for more information on Asset Framing and tools for evaluating your organization’s existing messaging and storytelling.
Telling Your Own Story
As a social enterprise leader, you have your own personal story of what drew you to this work. That story can motivate and inspire others, bringing them along in support of your mission. In addition to sharing the stories of transformation that you’ve witnessed at your social enterprise, consider sharing your personal story of leadership.
Try it On: Marshall Ganz’s Public Narrative
Professor Marshall Ganz is a lecturer and researcher on the power of narrative in social movements. Based on his own experiences in social justice organizing and his research, Ganz developed the Public Narrative framework for telling your personal story of leadership and connection to your work – and bringing others along with you.
The Public Narrative framework follows three parts:
- A Story of Now: What you want others to do or what pressing challenge you have dedicated to work to addressing.
- A Story of Us: Call on your audience’s shared values or experiences that might inspire them to action.
- A Story of Self: The choices you made that led you to this work.
You can use Ganz’s Kennedy School worksheet to try on the Public Narrative framework for sharing your story.
Additional Reading & Resources
- The Power of Asset Framing: A Conversation with Trabian Shorters (The Skillman Foundation)
- Trabian Shorters’ Interview on the Achieve Great Things Podcast
- Webinars and Podcasts from Ethical Storytelling
About Christiano Comms
Sarah Christiano is an experienced marketing and communications professional committed to using the power of storytelling for positive social change. From digital marketing strategy and execution to content creation and copywriting, Sarah partners with her clients to propel their missions forward through strong and strategic communications.