Tactic of the Year: Persuasive Storytelling

TIME magazine announced this week that the 2017 Person of the Year is the “Silence Breakers” — the group of women and men who publicly shared their stories of experiencing sexual assault and harassment. From the well-known and powerful to the anonymous and unfamiliar, survivors brought needed attention to this unacceptable, traumatic behavior. They forced a national conversation resulting in acknowledgement, accountability and action at higher levels than ever before.

Why were the Silence Breakers so successful? Persuasive storytelling.

Persuasive storytelling is a communications tactic in which personal stories are shared — by those who experienced them — to grab an audience’s attention, connect to what the audience also values, and link those thoughts and feelings to what you want the audience to see, do or feel. In the case of the Silence Breakers, they used the media as a channel to reach their audiences — decision makers who could address the people and policies involved in their testimonies.

Storytelling is humankind’s original medium for conveying the details and passion that define our lives. It remains communicators’ most powerful tool for educating, persuading and effecting social change. Whether you are bringing attention to sexual harassment in the workplace, the importance of children’s mental health, the need for equity in public education or other causes, using persuasive storytelling can be the key to creating behavior change.

While there is no one way to tell a story, there are ways to be persuasive. We always coach non-profit organizations and partners to do the following when they share their stories:

  • Know your audience. Your story may not change from audience to audience, but the way you tell it will. Ensure that your story is the right one to share with your audience at that time.
  • Prepare and practice. Your story should be concise and organized with a beginning, middle and end. It should make appropriate, necessary connections with your listeners. When planning and practicing, always decide in advance how much you are willing to share before you start sharing.
  • Reinforce your point. Prepare your single overriding communications objective (SOCO) – a key message that your story and its details will reinforce with your audience. What do you want them to know at the end of your story? The answer to that question is your SOCO. It helps you keep your story focused and stay on point.
  • Share only when you’re ready. For many of the Silence Breakers, it took many years to be ready to publicly share their story of abuse and harassment. Sharing information about your personal life can be emotional and stressful. Consider whether you are ready to put yourself out there.
  • Paint a picture. Avoid generalities and describe what happened, even reconstructing dialogue when you can. Use as many images as possible that people can identify with and that describe the places, sounds and sights in order to draw them into the experience.
  • Reflect on the experience. Think about what you liked or disliked about the experience and use those things to improve your next sharing opportunity.
  • Go digital. If you are comfortable, consider sharing your story on a blog or website and promote it through the other social media platforms you use. If you’re sharing your story in a public place, let your social media followers know when you’ll be speaking and where. Perhaps your story will motivate others to share your — or their own — story with their own social media followers.