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Storytelling Resources for Change Leaders

Sheila Kinkade | July 18, 2014

While few would question the value of powerful storytelling in today’s world, the art and craft of delivering memorable stories is something change leaders perfect over a lifetime. So what makes a great story, whether delivered in front of a crowd, one-on-one, or in print?

Below are storytelling resources to add to your reading/viewing list. Here you will find free—or low-cost—online resources for reflecting on your personal leadership journey, designing the structure and content of an effective story, delivering memorable speeches, and ultimately engaging diverse audiences over the long-term in achieving your social change mission.

What storytelling tools have you found most helpful? Feel free to share your most trusted resources in the comments section below.

1.) Focus First on the Why of What You Do

Trained ethnographer and author Simon Sinek delivered one of the most viewed TED Talks ever entitled, “How Great Leader’s Inspire Action.” In it, he elaborates on how inspired leaders and organizations from Martin Luther King to Apple computers succeeded through focusing on their overarching purpose or cause: what Sinek calls the “why” of what they do. His Golden Circle framework is a simple tool change leaders can use in differentiating and presenting the why, what, and how of their social innovations. Sinek’s website, “Start With Why,” offers books, paid courses, free downloadable publications such as Speak to Inspire Action, and low-cost tools on topics including How to Do an Elevator Pitch (US$7.95).

2.) Leadership and the Story of Self

“A leadership story is first a story of self, a story of why I’ve been called,” writes Marshall Ganz, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard University, in his article Why Stories Matter. In it, Ganz advises leaders to claim authorship of their stories and “learn to tell it to others so they can understand the values that move you to act, because it might move them to act as well.”

The New Organizing Institute’s website offers “Story of Self” training modules and resources based on Ganz’s approach that demonstrate how to move audiences from inertia to urgency, apathy to anger, and isolation to solidarity. To be effective, the leader’s Story of Self, must integrate three components: a focus on his/her individual journey and passion for a cause, the role of the community in addressing a specific challenge, and what audience members can do to take action.  

3.) Using Narrative Strategies to Advance Social Change

While written primarily for a foundation audience, Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers, offers useful insights and examples for nonprofits, activists, and storytellers on how to successfully use narratives to achieve social change goals. Written by Paul VanDeCarr, Co-founder and Managing Director of Working Narratives, the Guide describes the four basic functions of storytelling—to learn, organize, educate, and advocate. Featured throughout are compelling case studies of how nonprofits have partnered with foundations in using stories to effect change in public attitudes, behavior, culture, and policy. Read through these examples to consider how you, too, might partner with an existing or prospective donor to build a storytelling strategy that advances shared social change goals.

4.) Sharpen Your Communications Skills While Avoiding Common Pitfalls

Writer, producer, and consultant Andy Goodman works with nonprofits, foundations, and educational institutions to improve their print, broadcast media, and internet communications. In 2008, he partnered with a marketing firm specializing in nonprofit communications to develop The Goodman Center as “a virtual school where do-gooders learn to do better.” On the site, you will find free, downloadable guides on how not to make bad presentations, and newsletters on a variety of topics, including: how stories cause social change, how to use data and photographs most effectively, and the five fastest ways to ruin a webinar, to name only a few.

5.) The Power of the Positive and Solution-oriented Stories

Research increasingly demonstrates that people respond more favorably—and are more likely to take action—when presented with positive solutions. Toward this end, the Solutions Journalism Network is collecting data and examples of how people respond to traditional news, with its negativity bias, and news that presents positive outcomes. According to its research, “Reporting focused solely on what’s wrong with the world makes people more likely to tune out and even disengage from public life. Solutions reporting, on the other hand, can strengthen the constructive agency of individuals and communities and catalyze productive participation in society.”

In much the same way, young change leaders have the advantage of being able to share positive stories to in-person audiences—and the media. While the website is directed largely at writers and journalists, take a look for ideas on how to best frame your solution, including ten questions to ask in writing a solutions-oriented story.

6) Show How Your Work is Changing the Game

While novel ideas and new inventions are proliferating in today’s world, more attention needs to be placed on those that address the root causes of persistent challenges. In its Story of Solutions video, the Story of Stuff Project explores how the world would be different if less emphasis was placed on economic growth—and producing more stuff—and more on sustainable approaches to enhancing overall quality of life. The video demonstrates how questioning widely held assumptions and tackling root causes ultimately leads to deeper level change. Being able to clearly articulate the game- changing proposition of your social innovation offers yet another powerful way of distinguishing your work and enrolling audiences in your long-term vision.  

Sheila Kinkade is Director of Storytelling at the International Youth Foundation.