The 7 Essential Storytelling Tips for Social Entrepreneurs

In my career as a professional author and ghostwriter, I’ve learned a few elements of successful stories. For you as a social entrepreneur or business, regardless of your “give back” model, your goal is the same as any other company: earn a profit by your products and services.

You also have the additional challenge of having a customer base that is more conscientious and mindful of impact. They want to feel that they are part of the change they want to see by buying your products and services. Effective storytelling in your marketing and branding can help you create that feeling in your prospects, which will persuade them to buy from you.

Here are seven essential techniques to use in your narrative-based marketing for your impact-driven business:

1. The Basic Principle of the Power of Storytelling

In her recent Netflix special, A Call to Courage, social workers and researcher Brené Brown mentions a phrase that’s been around for some time. It starts, “the story that I’m telling myself…”.

As we’ve seen time and time again, facts and figures do not persuade as they should. Rather, it’s the story that we tell about them that shape our responses. This is a phrase we often use in our interactions with others to make sure that what we think is happening is actually what’s happening. If we tell a story that there is nothing we can do about climate change, for example (or that it’s not even real), then we won’t take effective actions needed to solve it. Transform the story, and you create the possibility for change.

If you want to advance your social enterprise, you’ll need to transform the stories that mass numbers of people around the planet have about the causes and issues that matter to your business. You’ll need to inspire them on a deeply emotional level to do what’s right, which should also look like buying your products and services.

2. To Get Started, Use A Basic Story Outline

Outlines aren’t simply a beginning, middle, and end. They must help to create dramatic tension in your story that ends with the satisfaction of victory. Of course, if you’re writing a short advert or social media post, your outline has to be short, consisting of just three parts: the setup, the struggle, and the payoff. The setup establishes the goal that your social enterprise wants to achieve and how it wants to achieve it. The struggle highlights the obstacles in the way of fulfilling that goal, whether they’re past experiences, present-day issues, or future challenges. The payoff shows how you’ve overcome or are overcoming the obstacles to successfully achieve your goal.

Longer storytelling formats – like extended blogs or books – require more to the outline, but you can apply this simple outline to marketing copy of nearly any length or format.

Check out our ultimate Storytelling Guide: How to Tell a Brand Story!

3. Show, Slightly Tell

A popular and often frustrating concept in creative writing is “show, don’t tell”. The concept is simpler than it looks: you want to write your story in a way that the reader can understand what’s happening without you having to spell it out for them. For instance, “Todd was angry at the parking ticket” is a tell phrase, while “Todd clenched his jaw and glared at parking attendant as he walked away” shows you Todd is angry without ever using the word. By using descriptive passages that are almost universally associated with one emotion or another, you can show anger, sadness, joy, fear, etc..

For business, copy of any kind, your readers won’t be able to intuitively grasp your offerings in the same way they can intuit emotion, so you’ll have to use some tell in describing your products and services. However, if you’re recounting an anecdote using descriptive language, try your best to show instead of tell.

4. Avoid the “After School Special” Effect

Anyone who was a kid during the 80s and 90s will remember the famous stand-alone “after school specials” during our favorite prime time shows. The stories, often poorly written, usually warned us of the dangers of drugs, bully, unprotected sex, and so on. They were valid messages about important issues, but look at how, years later, they’ve become a parody. That’s for the simple reason that no one likes being preached at. Often, it can cause your marketing to backfire.

If you’re writing long-form storytelling like a blog series, magazine article, or book, you’re more likely to run into this problem than if you were just doing shorter posts. Of course, you’ve got to convey important messages, but how do you do that without becoming “preachy”? Simple: let the story naturally carry the message, not the other way around.

For example, the 1992 film “Medicine Man” highlighted the need to save the Amazon while keeping the main focus on the plot, which was the discovery of a possible cancer cure in the rainforest by an eccentric researcher played by Sean Connery. The interplay of personalities between Connery and Lorraine Bracco’s junior researcher role was the central source of drama. The impending destruction of the rainforest hovered in the background, casting a shadow over the action, and the audience felt the impact without being preached at by the writers. You can use a similar approach in your storytelling.

5. Put a Face to the Statistics

In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath establish that people don’t care about numbers, they care about individuals. Citing a research study in which participants were given two versions of a donation request letter – one relying heavily on statistics about child malnutrition in Africa, the other focusing a single starving girl named Rokia who lived in an area of Mali – the Heaths showed that people who read Rokia’s letter donated twice as much as those who simply read the numbers (Heath, Chip and Dan, Made to Stick, Page 166).

As an impact-driven business leader, the numbers and data may mean something to you, and they may represent real challenges and hardship, but to your donors and customers, they are often overwhelming and come across as “theoretical”. They are, in the end, facts and figures like any other, lacking persuasive power in and of themselves. However, if you can focus on how your company is making a difference for one real-life human being who is representative of your beneficiary market, then you’re more likely to move your audiences to action.

6. Let the Reader Fill in The Blanks

Sometimes, the best way to get an emotional response from your reader is to say little to nothing. Their imaginations will fill in any gaps in your storytelling. Horror writers use this to great effect because often when the reader doesn’t know what the monster looks like, they will imagine the most terrifying specter. They will scare themselves.

When discussing the challenge that your social enterprise aims to overcome, if you want to truly have the reader register the impact, consider using implication instead of description. For example, if your business has a give-back model that supports Central American refugees, you could imply some of the actual horrors that the families faced back home without actually mentioning them.

E.g. “Miguel had heard the stories of child separation at the border, but remembering the notes that had been left on his door late at night by the local militiamen, the way they’d somehow known the names of his children and where they went to school, he knew he’d much rather face what was ahead than what waited for them back home.”

7. End with a Positive Vision of Possibility

Finally, ask yourself this question: what will the world look like if my social enterprise is successful? Yes, this is a feel-good proposition, but it is also practical. In much the same way that human beings resist diets, but will aspire to healthy bodies, you can show create a powerful, positive incentive that will inspire your target markets.

In an age of outrage culture and sensational news media, we are inundated in everything that we don’t want the world to be and have. What people are craving more than anything in 2019 is something, maybe someone, to root for, not rail against. Make sure to show your audiences, through your storytelling, the world that you want to create and invite them to create it with you.

There are many more facets to storytelling, and as with anything, your craft will improve with time and practice. However, if you’d like to get a quick start on your learning journey, these seven tips will help you not only distinguish yourself in the marketplace, but also strengthen your ability to inspire your audiences, grow your business, and ultimately fulfill on your greater commitment to leave the world and its people in better shape than how you found them.

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Learn more about Captivate: Become a StoryMarketer

If you want to learn how to tell your story, build the one, the foundational thing in your marketing that you can’t outsource, then the Captivate Program is for you!

“What I liked the most during Captivate was learning about the different parts of a story, and how there is a framework to use in every story. I could not always join the live sessions but listened to each module (sometimes from my car!), and with lifetime access to the course, I will definitely go back over it all and spend more time on it another time. To those who hesitate to join, I would say: if you are stuck telling your own story and personalizing your marketing, joining Captivate will definitely help. There is loads of content in it, lots of food for thought and practical guidance too, so it was worth the investment.”  ~Aoife Collins (student)

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In 2019, business as usual isn't good enough. With only a decade to mitigate climate change and multiple challenges to basic human rights and needs around the world, businesses and entrepreneurs must integrate their services with doing good. The author of three (soon to be four) books, Jody Aberdeen is also a book ghostwriter for professionals in personal development and business, and storytelling coach for first-time authors. With a combined Honours Degree in History and English from McMaster University with a minor in Political Science, Jody is using his powers of storytelling for good in this world.
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