How to Tell a Compelling Story that Inspires Action
How to Tell a Compelling Story that Inspires Action
Passionate and purposeful, Rebecca has an eye for opportunities and a love for people. A stint in India changed the Singaporean’s life and led her into the non-profit space. If you want her on your side, Stroopwafel is the secret.
I had the privilege of being on Lingling’s podcast – Leaders of Learning where we discussed the power of storytelling and how to become a better storyteller.
As the digital storytelling platform of the Singapore International Foundation, we tell stories of good across Asia. It’s not enough for us at Our Better World to just tell good stories. We need to tell compelling stories that inspire others to act.
What makes a compelling story? Over the past eight years, after countless trial and errors and over 200 stories told, we’ve learned a few things that I shared on the podcast. We thought it made sense to share what we’re learning makes a compelling story and how one can use that knowledge to become an engaging storyteller.
A compelling story connects at the heart
We’re all human beings. This means we relate on an emotional level first. Before we can become invested in a cause, we must first be able to identify and connect with the feelings and experiences of the person(s) in the story. The story must trigger our empathy muscle and allow us to imagine vicariously how it feels to go through the life of someone other than ourselves.
Take the story we told of Phool, a social enterprise in Kanpur, India. They recycle temple flowers discarded into the rivers into incense sticks. They employ marginalised women – so-called untouchables in their society – who would otherwise work as sanitation workers and manual scavengers.
We focused on a Dalit (so-called untouchable) woman named Ranjana, who worked long hours for seven years as a sanitation worker in a hospital for a measly salary of 4000 Rupees a month (roughly US$53). We deliberately started the story with her, because we wanted viewers to be able to empathise with her situation and journey with us as she grew more empowered.
A compelling story makes people think
A good story doesn’t just connect the heart, but also the mind. Does this story challenge my thinking, the way I perceive things to be? Is it offering me a different perspective? Connecting at the mind happens when a story presents a different point of view that provokes further thought.
What was compelling in Phool’s story is not just how innovative the solution was (recycle temple waste flowers!) but how lives get changed so fundamentally. It wasn’t just a new level of dignity gained from proper employment for the women like Ranjana, but more importantly, socially, people from other castes could now relate to her and her family more positively.
Our story showed how Ranjana’s life was transformed through Phool: the sixfold increase in her income allowed her children to attend school. Sixty percent of the women at Phool earn higher wages than their husbands – giving them a say in household decisions. This was a factor that seemed to lessen domestic violence. This is what brings about systemic change.
Before we knew of and told Phool’s story, who would’ve thought that temple flowers (typically regarded as waste) thrown into the river could actually be recycled and made into incense?
A compelling story is relatable – on a personal and a societal level
When you tell stories with a lens on impact, it has to be relatable across different levels to inspire someone to take action. A story that revolves around universal themes that impacts all humans, such as livelihoods, mental health, environment, transcends culture.
Going back to the story of Phool, it did not just connect with people in India. Sure, people in India can understand this at a social level, but we found out that we could tell the story in a way that could connect at a personal level across cultures. Because you’re talking about livelihoods, dignity as well as environment, which most people can relate to – regardless of where they live. Who doesn’t want to earn an honest and fair wage, have the dignity and be given the respect of being seen as an equal and getting to contribute to conservation?
In fact, within months after Our Better World told Phool’s story, its model of recycling waste flowers from temples — while empowering a marginalised community — created such great ripples in society that led to the social enterprise blooming in new ways, with some 560 enquiries pouring in to set up similar facilities elsewhere in India.
Of course, it’s always easier to talk about these things in theory and to discuss the what, rather than the how, where most of us get stuck.
Most of us may think telling stories is a very difficult task, or that we don’t have any stories to share. But I think everyone has got personal stories to share- and I think that’s always a good place to start.
If you’re looking to become a better storyteller, maybe these tips might be useful for you.
More often than not, you can actually find stories in your everyday lives. What it takes is to listen and ask good questions. Look at milestones in your own life, what may have pivoted the trajectory of your career, your life journey.
Pick the medium that suits you. There are many ways to tell stories, You can write, draw, film, photograph. Pick the one you’re willing to learn to be good at. The medium you’re willing to put in the work.
Be clear of who you’re speaking to and what the objective is
Make sure you don’t just share the what but very importantly, the why- because that’s what connects and compels. Ponder on who you’re talking to and what their motivations are. What drives them? What’s important to them? And what’s important to you too. Your own why for telling the story.
It would be good to also try telling your stories to your family and your friends. Figure out what works, what does not work, iterate. At Our Better World, we are still learning and constantly iterating. Keep experimenting. Share what you’ve created with your potential target audience and get their feedback. You’ll only get better with practice.
We underestimate the power of stories and it’s potential to do good. When done right, stories can move people and inspire them to take action.
It doesn’t matter what that action may be – donate to a cause, volunteer your effort, skills and time – no action is too small that doesn’t contribute to the greater good. And telling compelling stories is definitely one way of encouraging people to act and create a positive impact in the world.