The Art of Telling a Story

August 30, 2012
by Crickett Nicovich, Senior Policy Associate

If you’ve ever been to a dinner party where the whole table was hanging on to a guest’s every word or on a conference call where someone rambled on and on, you know there is definitely an art to telling a good story.

Much of our work as advocates is about perfecting that art. In advocacy we use stories to evoke a response from our policy makers, to get the media interested in our issues, and to engage our community in action taking. Our business is words.  How we use those words to shape a story matter a lot, because people don’t always remember the facts and figures, but they never forget a powerful story. Storytelling may come more naturally to some people, but with practice, each of us can shape a story to make it engaging, clear, and emotionally evocative.

Not all of us are born story tellers, so this year I decided to take a storytelling class with a local non-profit arts organization called SpeakEasy DC.  The group has a great reputation in DC for getting participants more comfortable with public speaking, but also for giving great feedback and critiques on how you can improve your story telling.

Here are a few tips I learned from my storytelling guru teachers:

1.       What makes a story unique is the narrative arc – a beginning, middle, and end. There’s a difference between a story and a lecture (the point of which is to share information) or an anecdote (which is usually just for amusement).  Stories have protagonists, a plot, and some kind of change has to happen to entertain or make an emotional connection with your audience.  Check out a great personal story by activist, Nancy Gardiner on the RESULTS blog.

2.       A good story has a solid structure. You need: a set-up, a problem, rising action, a climax, and resolution. (Does this sound a little like the EPIC format to anyone?)

3.       You must frame your story well; more focused is usually better. You may be advocating for increasing funding to foreign aid broadly, but telling a story about how access to a fourth grade education changed the life of just one woman in Ghana helps to narrow the story and frames a big issue into something more digestible.

4.       Be specific. What’s the point of your story? Why does it matter? To answer that you need to provide adequate context and background information.

5.       Show, don’t tell. Using descriptions of smells, sounds, and sights is more colorful and provocative than a straight forward approach. 

a.       Example of telling: I visited an overcrowded TB clinic in Lesotho with horrible conditions.

b.      Example of showing: The TB clinic windows were closed to keep in the heat from the coal fire burning in the middle of the room. Instead, it just kept the tuberculosis inside the smoke-filled room. With two patients in every bed, there was no clean air left to breathe.

6.       Use characters and dialogue to make a story move forward. The story of Muhammed Yunus starting the Grameen Bank is a great example of how dialogue propels a story forward.

7.       It’s good to be vulnerable in your story telling, but you also need to have perspective. Telling an emotional personal story that draws in your listener is a great way to have them see your side. Crying uncontrollably while telling it makes people uncomfortable (It’s true!). Make sure you are at ease with your own story enough to tell it publicly.

8.       Practice, practice, practice! Tell a story, then tell it again and again until it becomes more natural. Everyone will use facts differently, or have their own language for the same story.  Make it your own and get feedback from others to improve it for the next time you need it!

A good story can help get the audience on your side and help you get serious wins for your advocacy work. Hope the tips help!


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