Beyond the Comfort Zone: Telling Stories that Matter

There’s something about the prompt “tell me a story” that makes people think more about the limitations than the possibilities.

As a speechwriter in the nonprofit space, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most brilliant people on the planet. They can recite theories of change and apply analytical models to just about any problem. But ask them to tell you a story, and they freeze.

You know they can tell a good story—you’ve seen them at happy hour or swapped tales in the cafeteria. But there’s something about the prompt “tell me a story” that makes people think more about the limitations than the possibilities. Can I say that? Will people care? What if I don’t know the ending … and what if it doesn’t end the way we hoped?

As a result, what comes out is often a formulaic anecdote rather than an authentic moment, which are the kinds of stories we should be striving to tell.

We can break free of the storytelling rut in our organizations by pushing beyond the comfort zones to tell the stories that matter. Here are three stories your organization should start telling today:

Stories with an “I.” It’s a constant refrain I hear from people working in the nonprofit sector: “I am not the story.” Yet storytelling in the first person is almost always more powerful than in the third. First-person stories are more likely to show vulnerabilities and demonstrate authenticity, and grab and connect with audiences. Encourage your colleagues to start with “I”—to talk about themselves as subjects who have been transformed by their experiences. But that doesn’t mean we should forget about our beneficiaries. Rather, empower them to tell their own stories, rather than having them told by your organization second-hand.

Stories of failure. Most of the fairytales we were told as children—often our first entryway to storytelling—had happy endings. But in the world of social change, not everything we try is an instant success. If we’re taking risks (and we should be), we inevitably fail, which can generate some of the most valuable stories of learning, evaluating and changing course—all of which is vital to accelerating impact. If your organization is still risk-averse, remind them that every failure has its own happy ending—whether that’s a revelation or a transformation. A story without a happy ending is one, frankly, whose ending hasn’t come.

And that’s ok, because we should be telling more…

Stories in mid-stream. There is a misconception that you can only tell stories once there is a resolution at hand. But given that much of the work we do in the social impact field takes years—even decades—to yield the final results, we do a disservice by not telling the stories of process and progress as we go. As one of my senior colleagues once noted, we should focus as much on publishing “thinking” pieces as we do on thought pieces. The same is true for storytelling. Unfinished stories can compel a reader to action to help write the ending, while others offer cliff-hangers that keep audiences coming back.

Of course, we should continue to tell classic stories of triumph and success. And we should continue to tell our organization’s origin stories to evoke our values. But by advocating for stories that make our colleagues (and maybe even ourselves) uncomfortable, we can begin to tell the stories that people want to hear rather than the stories we consider safe.