8 Tips on Storytelling for Social Action

I was inspired to attend frank — an annual gathering for movement builders and change makers who use communications to drive social change — by some of my mentors at Encore.org, which is shaping the public narrative around how experienced talent can improve society. Knowing how difficult narrative change work can be, I was attracted by the “franksters’” mission: “Don’t settle for small change.” Observing ongoing social movements like #NeverAgain, #MeToo, and #BlackLivesMatter, there’s never been a better time to think about innovation and creativity when it comes to creating social change.

This year’s theme at the frank gathering was “play.” Several of the talks examined how we can use play to inspire creativity in communications, particularly in ways that stretch us and allow us to deliver real change to communities. Here are some of my takeaways, which I hope will be useful for other social change communicators.

1. Play Can Mean the Difference Between Life and Death

Storytelling guru Andy Goodman showed how Toronto-based hospital SickKids harnessed the power of play to essentially solve a life and death problem. When the hospital’s medical staff realized how challenging it was for their young cancer patients (often too wiped after daily chemo treatments to even hold a pen) to fill out their daily pain journals, SickKids turned to an ad agency for help. The result — an engaging “Pain Squad” iPhone app, which enlisted kids as recruits in a special police force dedicated to hunting down pain! Taking this human-centered design approach, with an element of fun, led to higher compliance rates when it came to reporting pain. These rates spiked from 11% to 81% — a huge win for the patients and medical staff. Not surprisingly, the brilliance of this solution has been recognized by HBR, Fast Company and numerous medical journals.

2. Unleashing Means Not Doing It Alone

One of the most memorable lines at frank came from Elizabeth Cushing, President of Playworks, who asked, “What if the path to scale is not about building, but about unleashing others?” After speaking with my fellow franksters, I realized how common this issue is — how do you energize supporters of your campaign so that it takes on a life of its own? Greenpeace’s Georgia Hirsty suggests letting go of some of the messaging in order to help ignite our imaginations. As Hirsty explained: “Our tactics need to represent all of the people who are at the heart of these struggles and lift up the diversity of experience. Because this will create space for other people to paint themselves into the story — to fill in the blanks with their own truth and struggles and imagine themselves in the future that we should all be demanding. That is what engenders hope, and with hope, action, and with action, a more just and better world.”

3. A Deep Dive on How Things Go Viral

Speakers Fritz Grobe and Stephen Votz, self-described “experts at doing stupid things”  — and creators of the famous extreme Diet Coke and Mentos experiments — shared how to create viral, contagious content. See “The Viral Video Toolkit for Nonprofits”, their step-by-step guide examining the entire process, which is available online as a free download.

4. A Primer on Covering Solutions

Tina Rosenberg, one of the co-founders (along with Encore.org board member David Bornstein) of Solutions Journalism, described how people are tuning out the news these days because of constant negativity. Rosenberg said, “Of all the biases that journalism is accused of, the worst is the bias toward the negative.” Which is where solutions-oriented journalism comes in. Check out her excellent tips on how to do great journalism while covering what works.

5. The Truth Will Not Distribute Itself

Eli Pariser’s 2011 TED talk “Beware online ‘filter bubbles”, on the intellectual isolation that results from online echo chambers, is one of my all-time favorites! So I was thrilled to hear him speak at frank about the need for a new public media system for the digital age. What could it look like? And how will we shape and scale this new system? It’s a pivotal moment for the project of democracy, Pariser said, offering up the example of the public media system charter as one model, which was created by Congress 50 years ago. It encouraged the development of programming that involved creative risks addressing the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities. Of all of the ideas I heard at frank, I’m most excited to see how this new media ecosystem, addressing similar needs, could be built. Watch Pariser’s full talk here.     

6. Secrets of Success for Social Action Campaigns

Tom Liacas, a Senior Strategist at NetChange Consulting, is obsessed with how campaign innovation happens. In 2016 he and his colleague conducted research on what made the world’s top advocacy campaigns successful. They’ve surfaced a sweet recipe, broken down into four core principles, that other advocacy campaigners can use when building new campaigns. Get the details in his talk here and then check out the report “Networked Change: How progressive campaigns are won in the 21st Century”, a study of 47 of today’s most successful social change campaigns. And for the major campaign geeks out there, make sure to sign up for the “Blueprints for Change” newsletter, which is a list of “how-tos” / GDocs developed by an international community of campaigners who are building out blueprints to accelerate social change.

7. Craftivism and Gentle Protest to Make Our World More Beautiful, Kind and Fun

As a crafter, I was delighted to hear Sarah Corbett describe how gentle protest and humble activism brought the living wage to a staff of 50,000 people at the biggest retail employer in the U.K.

8. Using Film to Bring People Together

Jeff Orlowski, best known for both directing and producing the Emmy Award-winning documentaries Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral, described how his organization, Exposure Labs, used film as a tool to organize and activate their audience. His team is figuring out how we can bring together both sides of the political aisle to work toward a solution on climate change. The films are offering a blueprint for how we can use movies to turn viewers into activists and bring real change to their communities. If Orlowski’s team can make the model work in South Carolina, a red state leading the way on climate change, they can make it work anywhere.

And finally, if you’re still hungry for more, bookmark these four talks:

  • Eric Ashe shares the history of The Truth Initiative’s campaign to create the first tobacco-free generation (led by one of our Encore heroes, Robin Koval).
  • Aaron Foley shows us why every city should be lucky enough to have a chief storyteller like him.
  • Saleem Reshamwala describes why irrational rules are fantastic.
  • Tania Mejia explains how Jolt is increasing Latino civic engagement in Texas and helping young people get ready to lead the way.