Storytelling is not a new tool. Our Indigenous brothers and sisters can attest to that. Stories have been told for thousands of years because of their capacity to provide a view into who we are, where we’ve been and what is possible. Stories are the connectors that give meaning, provide hope, build community, inspire and engage our hearts. Without a doubt, telling stories is the single most persuasive tool that we have available to us.
Stories are the spark of light in moments of darkness and, if you are listening, you know that there are deep and wide pockets of darkness currently in our communities. People are facing extreme and unprecedented social injustices and system barriers. We need to tell stories that show this complexity, evoke empathy and inspire action.
For nonprofits and social enterprises, storytelling is the most valuable form of evaluation and impact work. Telling stories is a way to share about the people you are helping and the changes you are making in the world. There are many creative and cost effective ways to tell stories. Here are some of our tips on how to make the most of your storytelling along with examples of some of our more notable efforts over the years.
Start at the very beginning
Storytelling should begin when a project begins; it is not something you should just do when a project is complete. As change happens, you need to capture the process and the micro-narratives along the way to show the impact your work is making.
Tell stories responsibly
There are complexities involved in holding and sharing stories that do not belong to us. It is important to get consent when telling the stories of those in our network and respect the vulnerability of their experiences. When we share the stories of others, we need to reflect on important questions like: Who else will be affected by this story? In what context should this story be shared? Are we doing harm by sharing this story? How are we influencing the way the story is being told?
Don’t oversimplify complex issues
Our work in the impact sector is often about working towards solutions to the big, complex issues in our communities. While clear, concise writing in storytelling is always important, we need to be careful to not oversimplify these challenges to make it easier for the reader. Instead, we need to find a way to help the reader understand the complexity of the challenges we are working to help members our community overcome.
Use video to share the voices of your network
Short of in person conversation, there is no better tool than video to share the voices of your network. Videos help to humanize stories and capture the hearts and minds of the audience. At Pillar, using video helps us to increase our capacity for responsible and effective impact storytelling in our community. For example, when we launched the Pillar Community Innovation Awards, videos were and continue to be our featured storytelling tool. Using video enables us to capture award recipients sharing their stories of change in their own words. Over the years, we have created and shared over 150 videos of our award finalists. These videos serve to re-energize our sector and keep the stories alive to inspire others to create a better community for all.
The art of blogging
We have found blogging to be an effective tool to mobilize our network and gently nudge people to new ways of thinking. We rely on both our staff and volunteer teams to help us create these stories. Through a blog series called Member Moments, we highlight our members, share their stories and discuss how connecting to our community has benefited them. We also highlight our co-tenants at Innovation Works through our Co-tenant Tuesdays feature to both boost the profile of our co-tenants and share the benefits of being part of a space like Innovation Works. In addition to these tactics, our ED also captured her reflective practice and research fellowship journey and thinking through both blogs and vlogs.
Capture the moment on camera
It was in preparing for an annual report that we realized we needed to take more photos of our events, programs and milestones. Today, Pillar has ingrained into our team the need to capture the moment, we are always looking for opportunities to take informal photos and we engage professional photographers for our larger events. For example, in 2011, when celebrating our 10th anniversary, we created a photo project to highlight and feature our members in a fun way that illustrated the breadth and diversity of our network. During the shoot, people used thought bubble whiteboards to share what Pillar meant to them. We then took all of these photos and made a photo quilt that we shared out with our network, on social media and we hung it in our first offices at the Central Library for years.
Go deeper with podcasts
Podcasts can be a useful tool to delve deeper into issues affecting our sector and our communities. Our first podcast series was The Useful Evaluation Podcast. This project was a partnership with other social innovation shared spaces across the province including 10C Shared Space, Centre for Social Innovation, Impact Hub Ottawa, Innovation Works and ReThink Sudbury who were exploring what useful evaluation is. We experimented further with the digital storytelling tool of podcasts for the Social Enterprise Southwest program (SESW) when we found that a regional project required creativity in how to reach a vast and rural audience. The SESW podcast series was designed to educate and inspire new social entrepreneurs, reveal the people and assets in the regional entrepreneurship ecosystem, and make accessible the knowledge of essential concepts, tools and resources integral to social enterprise.
Tell your ‘epic tale’
An epic tale is a process of telling the story of an organization through the experience and lens of the many people who have been part of it. It provides an opportunity to hear the “original myth” or founding story. The story co-created and told progressively by people who joined the organization at certain phases of its history including current and present staff and board and key volunteers. Pillar worked with Horizion Leadership to tell our epic tale as part of our strategic planning process in 2018. The process as helped us to identify the major milestones and achievements and share the baggage we would like to leave behind and the luggage we would like to carry forward. While this tool may or may not be something you want to share externally, we feel it’s an important exercise to help your team be able to clearly understand and share the story of the history of your organization and the collective vision going forward.
Experiment with new tools
With the rapid pace of change in communications technologies, it’s important to stay current by experimenting with new technology and platforms for sharing your stories. Stay on top of research about which platforms your audiences are using and make sure you go where the people are. Trying new platforms may involve a degree of trial and error for your organization but learning from failure and adapting is a valuable way to learn.
Create an engagement strategy
With each project that you take on, it’s important to develop a plan about how you will share your stories so they have maximum reach and impact. For example, define how often you will share on which social media platform, how often to mention the topic in your newsletter, whether you have a budget for advertising, and how you will reach out to media to garner coverage for your project.
Build relationships with media
Creating positive relationships with the media based on trust is a critical component of storytelling for any organization. There are a few key elements to consider when working with the media. First, get to know your local media landscape, follow reporters on social media and comment on their stories so they get to know you. It’s important to do this research up front so you can make sure you are contacting the right person who covers the type of stories you are pitching. With this information in mind, tailor your pitch to each journalist’s beat and interests. Once you have sent your pitch and media release, make sure you or your designated media contact is available to respond to emails or phone calls at all times. With these tips in mind, you’ll be well on your way to ensuring your story reaches the widest audience possible.