A Single Story Does Not Change the World

Tell your audience stories that matter the most to them.

It’s communications strategy 101: You need to know who your audience is before you can determine what story to tell them. Not just WHO they are literally, but what they know and how they feel about the topic on which you are trying to engage them. And you need to know what is important to them – what will move them from where they are to where you need them to be – in their hearts, minds and actions.

Do you remember being in high school and trying to convince your mom to let you go out on a school night? You assuaged her fears about you not getting into a good college – and living in her basement for the rest of your life – by telling her about how well you did on a recent algebra test. You convinced her you’d be safe by telling jokes about how your friend who will be driving insists that everyone be quiet when she’s behind the wheel.

Today – you want to convince a policy maker to support a piece of legislation? You share research with her that conveys a story about the likely cost savings. Or you tell a story to voters in her district that appeals to their concerns for their children’s futures and compels them to tell her stories of their own.

Again, this is communications 101. You do this. But, in the process of learning about what your audience knows and how they feel, how often do you spend time to understand what other stories have been told to them – by those who are not on your side – but also by those who are?

A single story does not change the world. And a single TYPE of story does not change the world either. 

In fact, often it barely moves the dial. While I’m confident that storytelling contributes to social and policy change, I’m just as confident that it is a process that happens over time, with stories building upon each other, developing multiple arguments – often subtle, occasionally shocking – about why change can and should occur. The magic of viral videos be damned.

One story ensures an audience is aware. Others tap in to what will make them care. Maybe it’s their sense of justice. Maybe – for them – it’s an issue of morality. Another story makes the issue less complex. They are able to insert themselves into the story and recognize the contribution they can make. One story makes them laugh, while another story makes them cry.

My team and I recently decided to map out the stories that have been told by and about LGBTQ people, beginning with the newsletter distributed by The Society for Human Rights, the first gay rights organization, back in 1924. In mapping out these stories, we related them to the social milestones and policy change that occurred in their wake or that contributed to an atmosphere where it was more “acceptable” for these stories to be told.

Newsletters. Documentaries. AOL chat rooms. Tumblr posts. Reality shows. Personal coming out stories. Punk rock. Dear Abby columns. Hollywood films. Tearjerker movies of the week. Loud protests. Silent vigils. Soap operas. Quilts. Flags. Magazine covers. Commercials. YouTube videos. Sitcoms. Talk shows. Each of these stories did their small part. None of them could have transformed the landscape of LGBTQ rights on their own, but collectively they helped change everything.

So, the next time you are deciding what story to tell, do your homework. Decide what audience you want to reach. Delve in to understanding what they know and how they feel. Determine what matters most to them.

And then go further by considering the other stories they have been told and the impact those stories have had. Don’t waste resources on telling your audience a story they have already heard – even if you believe you can tell it better than it’s been told before. Add another layer, approach it from another angle, provoke a different emotion, and appeal to their head when someone else has appealed to their heart.

We’re all stronger when we work collectively to create the change we want to see. The first step in telling a good story is to listen to the stories that have been told before.