My area of focus in communications is working with folks from marginalized communities. After many years, I’ve found that the real-life experiences of people are the best way for us to show the roots of injustice and inspire people to take action. With that in mind, I have worked with many grassroots leaders (prisoners, former prisoners, immigrants, LGBTQ folks and others) to prepare folks for public speaking, public testimony and other opportunities to share their life experiences as part of their social justice work.

In many cases, there’s so much for these grassroots leaders to share. They had so much personal experience with the issue, it was hard to know where to start, and people could wind up feeling overwhelmed and ineffective when sharing their personal experiences. I noticed it was easier when I helped them simplify their story. Rather than try to share every detail and sort through them every time they were telling the story, we would keep it simpler and more direct. As we trimmed down the stories, we were consistently using these five elements, because each of them offered a specific opportunity to connect with the listener/reader. The length of the story didn’t matter as much as including these elements: in many cases, I’ve worked with leaders who got their stories down to something they could tell in two minutes or less. Here are the five elements, and the order that I’ve found more useful:

  1. Introduce the main character (Create a connection with the listener by finding common ground)
  2. Frame the problem (Let the listener know what the real root of the problem is)
  3. The character takes action to address the problem as you have framed it (Show that taking action can make a difference in the situation)
  4. Make the lesson clear (Deliver the key message)
  5. Give the listener a next step (A way to take action)

These elements fit together and give us a way to build a story that is memorable, relevant, and easy to follow, even if the listener doesn’t have a lot of previous information about a particular issue. I have a more detailed version of this model in a couple forms. This eight-minute screencast provides more in-depth description of the five elements and a specific example:

I also have a two-page handout (this is PDF, requires Acrobat Reader).

There are some great storytelling resources for social justice groups out there on the web. I’ve been inspired by the folks at smartMeme, who have excellent information, including their book Re-Imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World which employs a comparable storytelling model.

Stories can make a difference, and frequently do. We have the truth on our side, so if we can work with grassroots leaders to share stories of their lives in a concise and compelling way, there’s no telling where our next victories will be.

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