Four steps to becoming a strategic storyteller

Our lives are full of stories, from those we tell our fricouple camping at nightends and hear from co-workers to those we consume all day across the media we can’t live without.

Research tells us humans are hard-wired to be storytellers. It’s our default method for giving meaning to the otherwise random events of life. And hearing stories is one way we simulate situations and learn before actually experiencing them. Similarly, stories invite others to participate and emotionally engage with the messages or morals they convey.

This more recent understanding of the dominant role stories play in human interactions is why so many communications advisers are urging organizations to embrace storytelling in their marketing, outreach, and fundraising.

From where I sit, this is sound advice. But it begs the question: Out of the dozens of stories potentially at our disposal, how do we decide which ones to develop and share? In other words, how can we be strategic about the stories we tell, rather than simply grasping for any good-sounding tale that comes along?

Here are four suggestions:

1. To be a strategic storyteller, be a strategic organization.

Many organizations fail to pause from the daily grind to take a long look at their mission, identity, goals, and measurable impact. Want to decide which stories to tell? Start by making sure your strategic plan is up to date. The first step in strategic storytelling is knowing where your organization is headed and why, and whose support you’ll need to reach your destination. The stories you choose should be those that move you closer to your most important goals by moving others to lend their support. And remember, during the planning process, stories are bound to surface. Don’t lose them.

2. It’s not about you.

That’s another way of saying, choose stories about “them” — constituents, donors, volunteers, partners. One of the ways people decide what to do in a given situation is to ask what would individuals “like me” do? Research tells us we are not purely self-interested actors. We often want to know not just what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for my group. (See the terrific book, “Made to Stick,” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.) Select and tell stories that feature members of the groups you want to engage. Help your audience connect to what their peers believe or do relative to your organization.

3. It’s all about you.

That’s right, it’s not about you, except when it is! That means knowing “who” you are as an organization — your identity or brand. What makes you distinct among organizations similar to you and what makes you relevant to the people who matter to your success? Strategic storytelling means selecting stories that are consistent with who you are and how you want others to experience your organization. What do you stand for or promise to your stakeholders? Be clear about this, deliver on your promise, and tell the stories of people who’ve benefited from their experience of you.

4. Be real.

No organization is perfect. Making mistakes comes with the territory. More important is how you have responded to your mistakes. What are the stories that don’t have happy endings in your organization? Don’t be afraid to tell them from time to time. It will build trust and help others learn from your mistakes. And who knows how many happy endings will follow from there?

– Rich Bruer, Portland, OR

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