(De)Constructing the Power of Storytelling

“Of all our truest hopes and desires for our work is that, what we find, we ourselves never knew. It came as a shock. It came as a surprise. It was new. We could never have known what we were going to do before we did it, and in that sense, we discover too. Here is what I’ve got to say to you: there are things in your life you will see; there are stories you will hear; if you don’t write them down, if you don’t make the picture, they won’t get seen, they won’t get told.” – Emmet Gowin

Stories have always been essential to the human condition. I’ve written before  on how stories are a window into how we perceive the world around us. Lately, I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the role of stories and their importance in generating engagement, empathy and to deliver insights about people and behaviour. A great event by Be Social Change on the Power of Narrative on Creating Impact that I attended recently really helped complete some of the reflections that I have been mulling over, and thought I’ll share some of my thoughts:

Be Social Change Storytelling event. Panelists on the RHS. Photo taken by: Alex Mora from Xelaarom Photography

1) Practical applications: Co-creation of a story

The are two main categories of stories that are told: our own stories and stories on behalf of someone/something. In both circumstances, elements of a memorable stories usually starts with Authenticity, bridged by Narrative Transport and ending with Combined Relevance (a component that the audience can relate to). Stories can be practically used by product storytellers, community architects and in virtually almost any position that calls for value connection with your audience. The role of a storyteller is not meant to replace the marketer, brand strategist or founder. Instead, they dwell in the realm of synthesizing the overall picture, mold the value proposition and know what entry points in current conversations that they can enter into. They are connectors who look for the puzzle pieces and bring them together in frameworks that inspire appropriate solutions.

To a certain extent, stories are a moral and value compass. Our own stories that we tell help us understand our own world better, and the stories we tell on behalf of others ensure that we have enough insight to an organization/product’s value that we stay on the right path. The reason why I believe it to be a compass is because if you are not moved (to action/direction or emotionally) by your own story, why should someone else be moved by it too?

2) Framing a narrative

A good story holds so much emotional complexity. A really importance point to distinguish (and you’ll be surprised by how many people misunderstand this!) is that stories are NOT an opinion, bullet points, or articles. They are a moment in time, an experience. At the event, Annie Escobar, co-founder of  ListenIn Pictures, a media company that crafts cinematic stories to inspire action (Their mission is to end bad non-profit video!), shared some of the ways that she uses to (re)frame a narrative via the: challenge plot, connection plot, creativity plot or empathy plot. Non-profit tend to gravitate towards the empathy/sympathy plot (highly overrated these days) and I would like to (re)frame this approach by saying that non-profits should tell stories that come from a place of empathy instead of just evoking sympathy.

A great way to deconstruct a narrative is to use Simon Sinek’s Start With Why Golden Circle. Simon explains in his book that we need to start looking at ideas, systems and in this context – stories with a clear and purposeful outlook: “WHY?”

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. A company needs to say and do only what they believe. If what you do, doesn’t prove what you believe, then no one will know your “why” and you will be forced to compete on price, service, quality, features and benefits, the stuff of commodities…” -Simon Sinek, Start With Why

3) A Storyteller’s responsibilities and characteristics

A great storyteller can be powerful influencer… and with great power, comes great responsibility (yes, I totally just quoted spiderman!). Blair Miller, Acumen Fund’s Leadership Manager (including Acumen’s Fellows Program) wrote a great piece a while back emphasizing on a storyteller’s responsibilities as the next phase of storytelling. She highlighted three responsibilities: storytellers must be dynamic, must come from a place of empathy and must uncover ways to be replaceable. I would like to build on her piece that on top of those responsibilities, great storytellers should have these two characteristics:

i) Unrelentingly curious – someone who is inquisitive, loves to learn about others and uncover the ‘other side of the story’. He/she should have the humility to connect with everyone and anyone and know that the story they are telling is one chapter out of tens of dozens.

ii) Provocatively immaginative – someone who has the imagination powerful enough to see a moment/experience and able to (re)frame it into a compelling story. He/She knows when to ask the right questions, when to hold back and when to dig deeper.

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