Strategic storytelling: Workshop challenges D.C. chapter to create powerful stories

By Miriam Cho, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty intern

John Trybus and Bridget Pooley from the Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication led a hands-on storytelling workshop for RCC's Washington, D.C. chapter.

“Storytelling” is the latest buzz word in the public relations world, but what actually makes a compelling story that can be an effective tool for your organization? The Washington, D.C. chapter of the Religion Communicators Council took a strategic look at storytelling during their June meeting. Members participated in a training session led by the Center for Social Impact Communication (CSIC) at Georgetown University, featuring deputy director John Trybus and program manager Bridget Pooley.

The workshop was largely based on “Stories Worth Telling,” the center’s report of a two-year research project on nonprofit storytelling.

Trybus and Pooley highlighted the five building blocks of an effective story:

  1. An effective character — The main character of the story should demonstrate relatability and charisma, a universal need, and the support of other characters, including the organization creating the story. All too often, a communications team will circulate stories centered on the organization itself but neglect stories that highlight its constituents.

  2. Trajectory — A story needs to have a path and follow something that happens. The workshop stressed nonlinear trajectories that tell the story using flashbacks and flashforwards. The story can also vary in pace; for example, the story can slow down at emotional scenes to engage the audience more. Sometimes, a story is better broken up in a series.

  3. Authenticity — A story should convey the character’s voice from the character’s point of view instead of the organization’s, and it should provide as many sensory details as possible. When gathering information for a story, one should think like a reporter and ask short, open-ended questions for any possible angles.

  4. Action-oriented emotions — “High arousal” emotions, such as awe, humor, and anger, cause more people to act after listening to a story, rather than “low arousal” emotions, such as contentment and sadness. It is important to define the story’s purpose and make a clear call to action.

  5. Hook — A story should capture the audience within the first 10 seconds. A survey showed that 20 percent of viewers stopped watching a video after that amount of time. A good story conveys whose story it is telling and what is at stake.

Not only should communications practitioners create effective stories, but so should everyone else on staff. Trybus and Pooley gave the following suggestions to encourage a culture of storytelling at your organization:

  • Start out staff meetings with sharing stories. Even simple stories will encourage people not on the communications staff to become comfortable with the process.

  • If people are hesitant, ask them to share personal stories of how they began working at the organization, essentially creating an “organization love story.”

  • Designate a storytelling committee for accountability.

  • Use examples of competitors to demonstrate the value of storytelling.

  • Evaluate stories after they are implemented. Even anecdotal feedback from volunteers or donors will help improve an organization’s storytelling.

Materials from the workshop, as well as the full report on “Stories Worth Telling” can be found on the Meyer Foundation's Stories Worth Telling web page. Additional resources can be found on Georgetown University's Center for Social Impact Communication web site, including a host of free research reports.

CSIC was established in 2008 to increase social impact through the power of communications practitioners. The center conducts applied research on communications, provides custom training workshops, and creates pro bono consulting opportunities for nonprofits from the communications graduate students at the university. If organizations are interested in a custom workshop or interested in being added to the database to receive pro bono public relations services from CSIC students, they can contact CSIC at [email protected].

CSIC is also on Facebook and Twitter.

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