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Storytelling for Social Change: How to Make People Care

Whether you are working on poverty reduction, mental health or environmental issues, there are hundreds of organisations and enterprises out there doing similar work and releasing communication materials of their own. It can feel overwhelming to be bombarded with so many numbers, statistics, and reports—especially when many people find it easier to tune out 

So, how can we keep our audience’s attention? How can we tell stories that convince them to care?

The 3 W’s of Cause Communication

Melissa Fleming, the current Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications at the United Nations, changed the traditional 4 W’s of journalism and adapted them to cause communication, or the communication concerned with social and environmental issues, which aims not only to be informative but to also mobilise others. In an interview with PassBlue, Fleming presented the 3 W’s of cause communication:

  • What?
  • Why care?
  • What now?

The “What?” should be the informative section of your communication plan. Here you can search for reliable sources and numbers that explain the problem you are trying to solve. This is your opportunity to demonstrate your expertise on the problem and provide valuable information. 

The “What now?” should be the call to action, when you present the solution and ways for people to get involved. It could be through volunteering, donations, purchases, advertisement, shares on social media, or signatures, to name just a few.

But between “What?” and “What now?”, the most difficult step is: “Why care?”

Some could argue that just by knowing the situation, people should be compelled to act. But that is rarely the case. Humans cannot process numbers and statistics easily and these resources can seem impersonal and cold. When organisations and social enterprises go overboard by trying to explain the urgency of the situation—a million people displaced!— it can generate the opposite reaction and convince the public there is nothing that can be done.

How can we avoid this kind of inaction?

By telling stories. 

The Importance of Quality Storytelling

Humans appreciate well-crafted narratives more than anything else. It’s no wonder that myths and folktales were the backbones of societies for much of human history. Stories are what allow us to empathise and care about people outside our limited social circle, to collaborate with each other and set up common goals.

Storytelling has been employed by many organisations and social enterprises.  So, to stand out from the crowd, you must invest in quality storytelling. This means your storytelling has to be strategic, engaging and inspiring, and capable of mobilising and rallying people to your cause.

The craft of the story is as important as the facts—but you must be careful to choose a story that will properly illustrate the problem you are tackling and which can resonate with people. You must also try to present the problem in a way that humanises the people involved, without adding sensationalist twists, which can give the impression you are not telling a story but actually exploiting a story for your own benefit.

When telling a story, you must also be aware of who your intended audience is so that you can effectively adjust the tone and structure. For example, telling a story about a young survivor of sexual assault on a college campus to raise awareness among university students is a very different thing from telling a story about the importance of adequate nutrition for a low-income and low-educated audience. As such, the language, expressions and emphasis of the stories will be dramatically different, and a good storyteller always knows how to adapt the story to a particular audience for better enjoyment.

When you are trying to get the public to care, you have to make them feel like they are in the shoes of the people affected by a particular problem. For example, describing the daily life, concerns and aspirations of the protagonist is a way to make them seem human, like real people the audience could interact with. When a problem emerges, it’s also important to communicate how the protagonist first tried to solve it, why it was so hard to find individual solutions and why this problem could easily affect the audience in other situations.

Finally, storytelling is most successful when it tells a story of empowerment. Often, the contributions of the organisation or social enterprise facilitate that empowerment, but ultimately, we drive inspiration from seeing a person overcoming obstacles,not from the success of an abstract entity. So, always remember that the story belongs to someone. It’s not a story of how your organisation or social enterprise made things better—it’s a story of personal empowerment, which inevitably leads to social change.

This will make it easier for you to proceed to the call to action. It demonstrates that solutions do exist, and people are eager to take advantage of them..

Stories come in all shapes and sizes, but telling the story of Australia’s strong and connected social enterprise ecosystem is something you can play a role in. Join Social Change Central so that we can shift the story around impact in Australia, and do so together. 

Social Change Central
Social Change Central

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