The power of stories: sparking action on complex problems

Carolyn McMaster | May 22, 2018

Kristopher Roller via Unsplash

As the issues of climate change, social justice, economic inequality and the like grow more urgent, it is also growing harder for advocates of change to be heard, to raise awareness of problems and to shine a light on solutions. Some issues are abstract or too far off to elicit empathy or action; others are just plain complicated. Plus, the continual barrage of bad news and uncertainty is making people numb and overwhelmed.

Unfortunately, as journalism scholar Annie Neimand points out in a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article, tough issues and complex solutions are often framed with terms and concepts that repel the audience or invite knee-jerk assumptions. Who cares about “systemic displacement” or “sustainable cities”? Using abstractions and straight-up facts, she writes, “leaves space for people to insert their assumptions and biases about what those words mean, and no one has ever taken action because of a great graph or data point.”

This poses a challenge for businesses as well as advocacy organizations and NGOs. How can companies best promote their world-changing but complicated technology? Or show how business can model solutions? How can they be heard? What will make people act?

Crafting better stories

Stories—always an indispensible tool in the communicator’s toolbox—are more critical than ever. Research shows that good stories are extremely memorable; people are hardwired to respond to them. Stories can even overcome opposing views and biases.

Fortunately, Neimand, her colleagues at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, and two dozen storytellers from around the world got together to figure it out. Then Neimand and her colleagues created a framework for developing better stories. As she writes in SSIR, four of these insights apply particularly to crafting compelling, persuasive stories about complex subjects. And, importantly for reaching wider audiences, these kinds of stories have media appeal.

1. Tell stories about individuals.

Communicators have long believed that stories about people are stickier and more relatable, and recent research backs that up. (It’s why we include the customer voice in case studies, and tell the stories from their point of view.) Personal stories cut through overwhelming catastrophic news or huge problems and can shift the perceptions of people with opposing views. They can even change behavior—they make the situation real, and real people generate empathy and inspire action.

2. Give your audience two plus two (not four).

Give stories a little breathing room so people can connect dots themselves. This principle informs our approach to thought leadership content: we get company leaders to address topics that may be more visionary than the immediate problems their businesses solve. When the audience connects the two, the reference is more memorable.

3. Be strategic with empty spaces.

What you leave out of your story can be as important as what you include, especially when trying to reach people with opposing views, Neimand says. That means accounting for bias and giving the audience the space to see themselves. In her example, politicians who believed healthcare was an individual’s responsibility came to realize that social factors do affect people’s access to healthcare through stories about people who were trying to take control of their lives but couldn’t because of external factors.

4. Paint a picture in the mind of your audience.

Instead of using abstract concepts, illustrate what they look like. Neimand cites Martin Luther King’s portrait of what freedom will look like in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Fortunately, literary talent like King’s isn’t needed to give your audience a concrete image of how X improves a life or a community. Just describe the picture that inspires you.

Neimand’s article is rich with more examples. You can learn about the other aspects of the framework at the project’s Medium site, The Science of Story Building.


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