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Storytelling for Advocacy: The Only Way You Get True Support

Published: Aug 9, 2023

Experiments conducted at Stanford found that when we share stories, our audience is 63% more likely to remember them than a fact. 

Stories make us feel good, connect people and help us empathize with characters. Stories change something deeply within. And if you want to mobilize people to support your advocacy effectively, storytelling for advocacy is essential.

This article explores storytelling for advocacy, why it is essential, and how you can build stories for your mission. 

Storytelling for a cause: A study of Humans Of New York

In 2010, a 32-year-old out-of-job amateur photographer, Brandon Stanton, started walking the streets of New York, photographing anything that caught his fancy. His goal: Collect 10,000 pictures of people in different parts of New York and plot them on a map of the city. In his words later: a very bad idea. 


Brandon Stanton                                                                  Source: Polina Pompliano

While he collected these pictures and posted them on his Facebook page ‘Humans of New York’ (HONY), he started garnering some interest. However, a pivotal point in his journey came when he decided to share a conversation he had with a woman in one of the pictures he posted. The game completely changed when Stanton shared her story as a caption along with her picture

This post gained much traction, and Stanton realized he had stumbled upon something. He had moved on from collecting pictures to collecting conversations and stories about everyday people he met on the streets. The pictures now served as a background to the very real, everyday stories he shared. This shift made Humans of New York one of the most popular pages on Facebook and Instagram, with a following of 17 million and 12 million people, respectively. 

It led Stanton to become a New York Times Best-selling author, and his book, ‘Humans of New York,’ made it to the New York Times Best-selling list for 31 weeks! It has even helped him cover compelling advocacy stories such as human rights violations in Rwanda and Pakistan and raise money for these causes.

Why is storytelling for advocacy compelling?

Storytelling is increasingly becoming an essential communication medium in marketing, PR, and advertising.

Stories generate trust

Stories are compelling because they engage the listeners and build familiarity and trust with them. It allows the audience to enter the story’s world and become more willing to understand. 

For example, when a climate activist speaks about the rate of CO2 that needs to be reduced in the environment, the listeners only hear numbers they can’t comprehend. Whereas if the activist shares stories about the impact CO2 generation has had on the living conditions of the local population, the audience learns about the impact it can have on their lives and become proactive. 

The World Wildlife Fund uses the art of storytelling for advocacy through their video series “Voices For The Planet.” 

In this series, they encourage their audience to add their voice to the growing concern for climate change and animal welfare. When people add their own opinions and stand for a cause they believe in, they are bound to generate more trust.

As an advocacy, you need to be able to generate trust to raise funds, raise awareness, change mindsets, or mobilize people to protest with you.

Stories are memory power pills.

We all know the story of Greta Thunberg, the teen who skips school every Friday to protest against climate change. Do you remember any statistics about climate change she has shared? But her Twitter fights with politicians and her endeavor ‘Fridays For The Future’ are well remembered around the world.

There’s something about stories that just ‘stick.’ At the top of our minds, we can list stories such as ‘The Hare and the Tortoise,’ ‘The Ant and the Lion,’ and others and their morals.

Even if we have heard some stories years back, any incident can trigger those memories again. When your goal is to be remembered time and again, storytelling is your sure-shot tool. Besides, psychologists agree that facts and data are better retained when they are communicated through a story. 

Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner suggests we are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it has been wrapped in a story. Because stories are memorable. Stories help us grab the gist of an idea quickly. (PS: You may forget this number in a few days. But the essence of the fact will remain. You may not be able to recall the number in an important meeting, but you will know, in your bones, that storytelling will stick better.)

Stories will stick, and facts will be convincing. So, the ideal approach is to wrap facts and data in a story. For example, instead of saying 10% of children in village X are malnourished, you can weave a story around a child or family who is struggling to nourish their children. Then emphasize the crisis by mentioning that other families face the same severe problem.

Everyone can learn through stories

Storytelling engages the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic senses and draws people into it no matter which senses they predominantly use to learn. For visual learners, stories make them enter a world of imagination and visuals. For auditory learners, an auditory experience to learn from. Kinesthetic learners can connect with the feelings and actions of the characters in the story. 

Giving What We Can, is an advocacy that helps donors plan how much they can donate. They champion different causes and provide information about charitable giving.

Here’s how effectively they’ve used a youtube video to engage their audience. If you notice, they brilliantly leverage all three senses.

  1. Visually, they transition between colors for good and bad actions
  2. For the auditory senses, they leverage tonality and subtle sounds.
  3. Lastly, they make you feel strongly by using emotional imagery.

Dealing with various audiences and creating an organized community can make your advocacy possible by engaging all types of people.

Stories help people decide for themselves.

None of us like being told what to do. Whether it is putting in extra effort to segregate waste or reduce meat intake – these actions require willpower, and willpower certainly does not arise from being told what to do. 

Charity: Water works on improving access to water resources around the world. One of their unique campaigns is called the ‘Water Walk’ campaign. As part of this campaign, volunteers are asked to walk with two cans of water for a distance of 6 kilometers or 3.7 miles. It is usually this distance, on average, that people in the Global South walk every day to fetch water for their households.

However, instead of talking about it, Charity: Water chooses to demonstrate what it feels like to be in their place. It then encourages participants to speak about their experiences on social media using the  hashtag #WaterWalk

Gerry Beamish, whose research focuses on storytelling, believes, “In terms of influencing, there is nothing more powerful than people thinking that the idea is their own.” 

A person may not realize it, but hearing stories about hard-working leaders can inspire them to action. Stories of change, progress, and transformation can motivate people and indirectly convey a call to action they can implement. 

Storytelling for advocacy can serve as a pivotal moment of realization and change – without explicitly demanding it. 

Read Also: 4 Social Media Advocacy Campaigns To Inspire You Today! 

Stories connect at an emotional level. 

Maya Angelou famously said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, what you did but will never forget how you made them feel.” And that is indeed the essence of storytelling.

Storytelling for advocacy is essential for making people feel a certain way, driving them to action, and making an impact. It is a common fact that emotions trigger action. Negative emotions drive people to protest. Positive emotions influence people to donate. Storytelling reaches the heart of human emotion and forces us to react to those feelings.

Stories are uncomplicated and simple to understand.

Stories help us simplify our communication. Have you gone through instances where a difficult subject was explained to you through the use of a story? The story of Newton and the fallen apple is a simplified but succinct explanation of a complex scientific phenomenon – gravity.

Similarly, many people may not understand your advocacy mission’s legal, environmental, social, or political impact. The art of advocacy lies in recognizing this and using powerful tools such as storytelling to connect with your audience.

Read Also: Advocacy Strategies for a Successful Grassroots Campaign 

Stories are inherently persuasive and avoid counterarguments

Some of the work that advocacies undertake can have naysayers and disbelievers. Take the advocacy example of anti-vaccine stances or pro-life activists, or climate change deniers.

However, storytelling for advocacy is one way to tackle this issue. Stories are persuasive, and they prevent counterarguments when presented impactfully. Krause and Rucker explain that storytelling prevents counterarguments because it tends to bias people away from generating negative thoughts.

For this reason, the Reclaim Project is on a mission to collect stories about abortion from people who got it, their support system, or the medical staff that assists them. 

Stories make the invisible visible and steer people toward your idea.

Now that we’ve explored why storytelling for advocacy is essential, let’s learn about how you can make your stories effective.

Elements of compelling storytelling for advocacy

We have shed light on the importance of community engagement and the power of stories. As an advocacy, you may not be able to collect stories all the time Yes, but you can still harness the potential of good storytelling.

You can create moments – human and inspiring – that can drive your community to engage with the cause you are passionate about. Here’s how you can leverage storytelling for advocacy:

Simple language

A narrative framing does not have to be complex and detailed for it to be interesting. The art of advocacy lies in making concepts simple to understand.

Here are a few pointers to help:

  • Reduce the number of adjectives and complicated nouns
  • Replace them with basic, heartfelt language.
  • Use local slang or connecting words.
  • Avoid using big words. Stick to Grade 5 English.

Remind them why they care

Empathy gives stories power in advocacy and campaign communications. It can put the listener in a different place and time and see the world from the perspective of the protagonist. It can inspire collective action. Mitt Romney did this in the first presidential debate, where his goal was to establish empathy by creating narratives and telling stories to connect with citizens.

He created a sense of empathy in his speech when he spoke specifically of the struggles faced by unemployed women in Ohio and how badly they needed help to ensure a functioning livelihood. By giving similar examples throughout his speech, Romney managed to stir people’s emotions and something that they relate to.

As a storyteller, your goal is to make the audience become part of the world of your issues and see the world through your eyes. Ultimately your goal is to get people to see your worldview.

To elicit an empathic response from your audience, you must:

  • Understand what matters to them
  • Show them how you can solve their pain point or issue

This way, you can help connect characters (and issues) to the audience.

“Keep in mind what’s interesting to an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.” – Pixar.

Pro-tip: A/B test your messaging for different audiences. Storytelling for advocacy is only successful with multiple trials to understand what connects with the right audience.

Back your stories with data

While we’ve made the argument that people remember stories over data, it is essential that data acts as a backup for your stories. It lends credibility to the narrative framing.

This is because people know that anyone can produce a good story to pull their heartstrings without providing relevant data. They may also think that one particular example can be an outlier or exception, does not speak for society at large, and thus, is not as relevant. 

Let’s say your cause is to reduce school dropout rates through collective action. And Mr. Jones has already put his children through college, so this issue does not concern him.

Now if you present plain statics to him –“Do you know 7,000 school-going kids drop out daily?”

Mr. Jones would say, “I don’t care”

Instead, you say: “The families of these kids lack the most basic amenities, and sometimes they have no work or earning opportunities. The bad news is that most of them remain unemployed for much of the year and face several hardships. Yet, they hope their kids will continue growing to reach their full potential. But with 7,000 kids dropping out of school each day, their hope and dreams seem unattainable.”

And then make your ask. This way, Mr. Jones will empathize with these kids and support your cause.

Statics alone will not help your cause. You need to paint a word picture and back it up with data that will make people realize that this issue matters to them and will affect them, persuading them to respond by taking specific steps.

Don’t just focus on yourself

Knowing yourself is a significant first step toward creating a compelling story. However, you also need to factor in who your audience is, what they like, and what they want to hear. Include that in your story. People look to connect with other people and see themselves in the other person. That is when the true connection happens. Mirror your audience and their feelings.

Gather stories from the audience and encourage them to share their lived experiences about the cause you are fighting for. Storytelling is not an opportunity to make yourself a hero or martyr. It is an opportunity to present your case by connecting with others.

Include a call-to-action

An essential tenet of creating stories is to be sure that each story has a purpose, i.e., to elicit a response or action from the audience. Without this, your decision-makers, although inspired, may not know what to do with all that motivation. So, give a clear directive with a call to action.

This way, your audience knows what you expect of them, i.e., to donate, volunteer, advocate, or fundraise on your behalf.

You can say something like:

“We hope you’ll partner with us to help others like <name of protagonist> grow and reach their full potential.” 

Remember, the golden rule of storytelling for advocacy is never to let your readers or listeners hang.

Tailor the story according to your audience

It’s a no-brainer that a well-told, authentic story will resonate well with people of any age, culture, or belief. It’s just how you tell or pitch the story that depends on the audience.

So, before you narrate, ask yourself, “Who is my audience? What do they care about? How am I going to put that in the forefront?”

Once you’ve understood your audience tell the story from a different perspective, i.e., customize it for the audience based on their age, culture, and beliefs. Use a different protagonist in your story, and highlight certain aspects of the story and certain values.

Don’t always go for off-putting sympathy

In the quest to make your audience understand the importance of your initiative, avoid the tendency to stretch hard for sympathy.

Using disturbing visuals, not including trigger warnings, or sharing detailed instances of cruelty or gore can be extremely off-putting. It might also lead you to lose audiences who are more sensitive.

Walk the fine line between emotionally connecting and completely off-putting your supporters.

A good tip is to ask yourself if someone can hear or watch your story while eating lunch without feeling queasy. If the answer is no, it is a no-go.

Outreach for successful advocacy

If you are on the quest to learn how your advocacy can connect with people and improve its reach, we have just the right resources for you.

Learn about NEAT, an organization that harnesses the power of grassroots organizing to advocate for LGBTQ+ groups. Read our case study NEAT and the fight for LGBTQ+ justice to learn how they use outreach tools and their strategies for advocacy.

Featured Image Source: Matheus Bertelli


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