Brittney Manchester is the Director of Communications at Catholic Charities of Oregon.
Storytelling can be one of the most valuable resources in a communications practitioner’s toolbox. And this is for good reason, because as John Baldoni explained in The Harvard Business Review (paywall), stories can persuade people. No matter what industry you work in — private, government, nonprofit, etc. — the most successful communications practitioners are always trying to persuade someone, be it a journalist to cover their company’s news, a stakeholder to partner with them on an announcement or a member of the public to like their tweet.
But storytelling can do even more powerful things than persuasion. Storytelling can raise awareness of issues in your community and around the world. Impact stories put a face or name on your organization, bringing its mission to life and providing a glimpse into the lives of individuals or communities. These stories connect with our emotions and can inspire people to act — to bring about change.
This is especially important in the nonprofit industry. To accomplish this, Jeanette Eaton says that when you are sharing the work of your organization with an external audience, you should paint a picture of the people who your organization helps and show your audience the difference your organization makes. Eaton says that being able to “make the issue personal can help get people invested and involved.” It can inspire others to give back and learn about pressing social issues.
To be successful at social-impact storytelling, you should first understand the interests and motivations of your audiences. Then you can create a plan and use the appropriate delivery methods and communications tactics to mobilize people around your organization’s mission.
Then you need to make dedicated time in your workday to mine for stories. Build relationships with your colleagues who are out in the community doing the actual work that your organization provides, and listen to them. If it’s appropriate, shadow them for a day so you can experience the impact firsthand. This will allow you to better write the social-impact story.
Focus on stories that best highlight your organization’s work. For example, if you work at an organization that provides wrap-around social services, try to find stories that touch all of the programs and not just one. This will show the breadth and depth of your organization.
Bring your character to life. Include descriptive details about their age, appearance or personality. This can help engage your audience. If you can get permission from the individual to tell his or her story, that is always best — that way you can use their name and provide all the descriptive detail you need. But, if you don’t have permission, you can consider still using the story. You will just need to change his or her name or say “anonymous,” and you shouldn’t include any personally identifiable information.
Be strategic about how you deliver your story. Go back to your plan and evaluate which communications tactic will best reach which audience. There is no one-size-fits-all tool for storytelling. Blogs or longer-form pieces in a newsletter, for example, allow you to discuss your story in detail. Eaten explains that social media, including storytelling on Instagram and Facebook, “can offer a way for folks outside of your organization to see the results of the work you do. This kind of storytelling gives the world a chance to be more connected to your work. Bonus: both platforms lend themselves to stories with visuals like beautiful and inspiring photos and video.” And don’t forget video “to actually show, rather than tell, your audience about the impact of your work.”
Lastly, and what communications practitioners don’t always do, is evaluate the impact of your storytelling. What stories resonated, what didn’t and how might you need to pivot your strategy or approach?
Become a communications practitioner who is also a changemaker. Craft social-impact stories — stories that persuade and inspire, sow hope, make a difference and make change happen.
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Brittney Manchester is the Director of Communications at Catholic Charities of Oregon. Read Brittney Manchester’s full executive profile here.