9 tips for social entrepreneurs who want to tell stories of social change

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Storytelling is a hot topic. In the 2012 Skoll World Forum, there was a panel discussion on storytelling for impact, to help social enterprises understand how, “the right story told the right way breaks through the noise, accelerates adoption and amplifies impact.” The speakers included Cara Mertes, director, Sundance Institute, Christopher Joyce, science correspondent, National Public Radio, Mark Tauber, senior VP and publisher, HarperOne and Wendy Levy, director, New Arts Axis, senior consultant, Sundance Institute.

The message is loud and clear. All organizations that need to reach out to an audience need to be able to tell a compelling tale. Just sharing data or putting a press release does not cut it anymore. Most social enterprises have intriguing stories to share. These are stories of impact, of overcoming a struggle or perhaps a new way of doing things. Stories that communicate these narratives in a clear, direct and transparent fashion help engage with readers and create change. This also helps a social enterprise in fulfilling a variety of different objectives: this could be it fund-raising, attracting talent, finding new customers, getting the government to take notice or reaching out to media. Not all social enterprises have an experienced communications specialist or are able to afford a Public Relations firm. Here are 9 tips that social enterprises can use to develop a story that will grab the imagination of the reader and communicate their message effectively.

1) Keep the objective or end in mind:
Before starting to construct the story. Think long and hard about what the objective of the message is going to be. Is it to communicate a fresh round of investment? Is it reaching out to potential candidates? Starting with the end helps to stick with a plan, be clear, direct and trim the fat on the messaging. This also ensures that readers are not subject to reading 500 words on the founder or the origins of the company before they are lead to the real objective of the message.

2) Data is good, but narrative is God:
While impact measurement is important and stating how many Indians have no access to toilets is critical to understand the gravity of the situation, sometimes telling the story which captures the human element, is worth more than a mountain of data. Use data to support the story, don’t make it front and centre.

3) Focus on a central character, theme and idea:
A social enterprise may have a 100 different stories to tell, just don’t tell them all in the same story. Employ a central character, theme or idea to communicate your narrative. This will ensure that the reader will be able to recall and share what was communicated. Don’t complicate.

4) Highlight the conflict or problem, don’t be preachy and patronizing:
Whether writing a blog post, making a video or using pictures to tell a story, its important to jump into the action early on, and explain the problem that your organization is solving. This should be done in a fashion that speaks to both the heart and head of the person who’s reading the story, watching the video or seeing the pictures. What this means is the story is told in an honest fashion, lets the characters highlight the problem, and the data used is factual and accurate. But while doing that, don’t point fingers at the audience saying that they have contributed to the problem and haven’t done enough. You are sure to lose your reader immediately, and most probably forever.

5) Make a personal connection:
Which brings us to the next point: making a connection that appeals directly to the person. Bringing the problem down to the level of the reader is important. You have to let the reader feel like this is his or her personal battle. The problem or cause that is being solved is something that they should care about. Its important to highlight the problem, but break it down sufficiently that the story resonates with the reader, and appeals to them individually. Make them care.

6) Show, don’t tell. Point to a resolution:
After the problem has been sufficiently highlighted in the right fashion and the personal connection made, its time to point the reader in the direction of the solution. The reader is clever enough to understand what’s being told, so try and avoid pointing to the solution directly. Don’t spoon feed the answer, instead give them a map, to figure it out themselves.

7) Give the reader a chance to get into the action and share the story:
Now that you have the reader in the bag, its important to to help them get be part of the solution. There are many ways to do this: through a donation, buying a product, following the social enterprise on social media or simply sharing the story.

8) Use an SEO friendly headline or title:
Headlines and titles matter. Especially in today’s world of social media and attention deficiencies it becomes doubly important. The editors of video-sharing company Upworthy, who are known for their attractive headlines generate 25 headlines before settling in on one. Take your time, you will know when you have arrived at the right one.

9) Leave the listener with a feeling of partial resolution:
Every story should be complete, but at the same time leave room for some more. This is how TV shows trick us into watching episode after episode. You don’t have to trick your user, instead leave him or her with the feeling that there’s more to come and that they are special invitees to be part of this action.


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Nelson Vinod Moses

Nelson Vinod Moses

Journalist with a keen interest in all things social entrepreneurship.