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Storytelling as a Vehicle for Change

By Ashley Kenley, Senior Client Strategy Manager, Strategic Communications

black and white image of a book held by two hands open in the middle with string lights

Storytelling is an important vehicle for influence and change. It harnesses the power of visualization and allows people to understand things not for what they are, but what they could be. Look no further than the captivating narrative Ikea built around the life of a lamp, and its environmentally-conscious sequel, which endears the audience to the lamp protagonist. Or Thinx’s MENstruation campaign, which imagines a world where men get periods too, making the unnecessarily taboo topic more relatable across all audiences.

Storytelling becomes particularly important within the social impact space, as we have the chance to use its power for good, rather than merely hitting sales targets (although sometimes you can do both). As marketers in the social impact space who are trying to drive positive change by engaging their audience on a social or environmental issue, we tend to come up against greater complications than your average company who is simply trying to sell you a bag of chips or a new sports car. We are positioned with the primary task of convincing people that doing good is always favourable, even in times when the ‘what’s in it for me’ isn’t obvious. And we all know, simply asking people to modify their behaviours, give away money, or inconvenience themselves to help others isn’t exactly compelling, sexy stuff. 

The problems we face when messaging sustainability issues such as poverty, hunger, or climate change, can be boiled down to three things: 

First, when it comes to social and environmental issues, we don’t have the sufficient basis required to allow us to picture what something could be like if a change was made – we’re only presented with all of the problems of the current dysfunctional system we are a part of. Second, the messages we put out in the world can be depressing and people don’t want to listen to them. Third, they’re presented through percentages, facts, and figures which make them seem intangible and confusing. 

Stories help to remedy these central problems in the following ways: 

  • They provide redemption: It creates a descriptive, mental picture for audiences to help them imagine a new way of being. In doing so, it has the ability to remove perceived barriers and shine a light on the potential benefits to the audience. It shows people an alternative that they may have not previously considered, and makes actions to create such a future more tangible. 
  • They reveal complexities: A story also has the ability to show the full breadth of a topic. Many of the social and environmental issues we face today are multifaceted and require a great deal of explanation that don’t necessarily come through in hard facts. Storytelling can capture the nuances of each piece of the puzzle, weaving together a narrative that helps to illuminate complexities. 
  • They are memorable: Storytelling research also shows that humans are better at retaining and recalling information when it is presented in a story format, which is exactly the task marketers set out to achieve. Effectively, when your brain needs to work, there is a greater chance that you’ll remember what you’re processing. 
  • They promote cooperation: People are genetically wired to like hearing stories, it actually increases the levels of Oxytocin – a hormone that promotes the feeling of love, bonding and well-being – in the body.  Studies show that the amount of oxytocin released by the brain determines how much people are willing to help others; for example, donating money to a cause or organization associated with the narrative.

Every social impact marketer should consider storytelling as an important vehicle for change. By leveraging something that is fundamental to the human experience, we can develop deeper, stronger connections and hopefully transform the world.