How to Be a Social-Impact Storyteller

How to Be a Social-Impact Storyteller was originally published on Idealist Careers.

As social-impact professionals, the ability to tell a good story can be the difference between engaging our community with the work we do and learning too late that no one truly understands our organization’s mission.

And now more than ever, as many of us have shifted our work to a remote space, storytelling skills are a critical part of our social-impact toolbox. The ability to tell a strong and evocative story enables us to communicate effectively not only with potential donors, but with remote co-workers and supervisors as well.

Storytelling at work

Social-impact professionals have a distinct advantage when it comes to storytelling. Talking about the work we do and why we do it can inspire others to get involved, give back, and learn about pressing social issues. The trick is figuring out how to use storytelling in our professional lives the same way that we use it in our personal lives.

What’s your work story? Can you use it to give your supervisor insight into challenges you’re facing in your day-to-day? When working on a grant application, how can you connect the larger issue of homelessness, domestic violence, or sustainable agriculture to the individual stories of the people whose lives these issues most deeply impact? Storytelling can be one of the most valuable resources in your social-impact toolbox.

Crafting your story

Here are a few simple questions to ask yourself in order to start crafting your social-impact story:

  • What is the story that I want to tell?
  • If it had a title, what would it be?
  • Who are the main characters? Who is my audience?
  • If the audience receives this story exactly how I intend, what is my desired outcome?

Make your narrative vivid and relatable by showing your audience the impact of your work. Here is an example, using the above questions as a guide:

  • You want to tell a story about a your outdoor-education organization. You recently led a weeklong trip for kids to foster mindfulness and resiliency skills.
  • Title your story: “Off the Screen and In the Woods.”
  • The main characters of your story are a group of six middle-school boys who have not spent much time camping or hiking.
  • Your audience includes alumni of your programs, parents and kids who may be interested in signing up for a similar program, community members who can support your mission, and the larger community who can benefit from hearing about the importance of time spent in nature with peers.
  • You want your audience to feel the emotional impact of what happens when a group of kids who don’t know each other at the beginning of the week is able to bond through shared experiences, struggle, and success.

Telling your story to the right audience

While personal narratives are a great accompaniment for an annual giving campaign, there are plenty of other situations where the story of your career, your organization, or your personal trajectory may be a great complement to the larger message you’re trying to communicate.

  • Job interviews. During an interview, use your storytelling skills to show examples of your past success. Maybe you have a strong background in volunteer management—talk about the creative way you recruited volunteers to grow the program, or how you learned to support their ongoing development and connection in your organization.
  • Presentations. Rather than pull together a presentation geared toward statistics, share the story behind the numbers instead. Ask yourself what those numbers mean, and why they matter. If it jives with the presentation culture of your organization, try to keep the words on each slide to a minimum, opting instead to use your slides to share important diagrams and illustrations that will act as the backdrop for your story.
  • Sharing the work of your organization with an external audience. I used to do outreach for an organization that supported survivors of domestic and sexual violence. When I entered a room of new people to talk about our work, my ability to connect with them hinged on my ability to make the issues real. To do this, I had to paint a picture of the women and children in our community who came to us for help, and show how the services we offered made a difference. In your own work, being able to make the issue personal can help get people invested and involved.

Pro Tip: Always make sure your story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It may seem obvious, but if you don’t demarcate these milestones in your story, you may end up rambling on and losing your point (and your audience!).

Alternative ways to deliver your message

If public speaking isn’t your thing, consider some of these suggestions for communicating your message in a powerful way:

  • Writing. Written stories about your work can reach many more people than speaking engagements alone. Use writing to give a compelling report of your work history in a cover letter. Craft stories that get to the heart of your mission and touch the heart of your reader. Write your organization’s newsletter, website copy, blog content, press releases, and grant applications.
  • Social media. Storytelling on Instagram and Facebook can offer a way for folks outside of your organization to see the results of the work you do. This kind of storytelling gives the world a chance to be more connected to your work. Bonus: both platforms lend themselves to stories with visuals like beautiful and inspiring photos and video.
  • Video. Just as you are moved when sitting with someone and hearing an inspiring story, you can use video at work to tell yours. It is easier than ever to craft simple videos to actually show, rather than tell, your audience about the impact of your work.

Brush up on your storytelling skills

Who are some of the storytellers you most admire? Sit down with one of your favorite books, movies, or TED talks and start noticing what it is about the storytelling that pulls you in. Look for ways to play with styles you admire in your own work and practice different storytelling styles and techniques.

Narrative 4 and StoryCorps are two organizations that use storytelling to build and strengthen connections between people and communities by encouraging empathy and compassion. Both organizations believe that everyone has a story to tell and encourage people to sit down and talk to one another to grow our capacity to understand ourselves and our world. Check them out for inspiration on how to tell your own story.


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About the Author: For nearly two decades, Jeannette Eaton has been working for nonprofits and helping people identify their strengths. She has experience as an advocate for women and girls in crisis, a volunteer coordinator for adult literacy, and a family literacy instructor.