Storytelling and Social Entrepreneurship

In October 2010, I led a “Storytelling for Social Change” workshop at Ashoka. The stories that emerged from it were so powerful we decided to turn a few of them into an audio blog series and share them.  Grab your headphones–and prepare to be moved.

You can skip directly to the stories delivered by my class if you scroll down to the end of this post. If you’d first like to read more about the course and why storytelling is important in social change work, keep reading.

Cross-posted from Ashoka’s blog

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Storytelling and Social Entrepreneurship

Humans interpret the world in two ways: through narrative and through analysis. Analysis uses critical reasoning and evidence and deliberation to teach us how to act. Narrative uses story and emotion to teach us how we feel about things, which in turn tells us why we act.

Unfortunately, in nearly all of our communications, we tend to use analysis to persuade others, despite all the evidence suggesting that people are more effectively moved by stories. When it comes to getting people to act, the most brilliant piece of big-picture analytical reasoning is simply no match for the well-told, detail-filled, specific story.

Take, for instance, Acumen Fund founder Jacqueline Novogratz.  In her effort to demonstrate the interconnectedness of humanity in today’s world, the Acumen Fund founder could present an economic analysis about international trade and flows of goods and services.

Nobody would remember a word of it.

Instead she tells the story of her blue sweater.  The sweater, which pictured zebras grazing in front of Mount Kilimanjaro, was Novogratz’ most beloved article of clothing throughout middle school.  After a ninth grade classmate made fun of Novogratz for wearing the now ill-fitting sweater, during her freshman year of high school, Novogratz’ donated it to GoodWill. Fast forward ten years: Novogratz is living and working in Rwanda when she sees a young boy wearing the exact same sweater.  She runs over to him, looks at the sweater’s tag.  Sure enough, her name is there, in faded black ink.  The story makes the same point about the interconnectedness of humanity in a modern economy as a presentation on trade flows would—but, it makes that point better. In a way we’d remember it.

Storytelling has always been close to Ashoka’s heart.  After all, Ashoka started with stories: the stories of changemakers and changemaking that Bill Drayton collected as he traveled through India looking for the world’s leading social entrepreneurs who would become the world’s first Ashoka fellows. So when I decided to put together a storytelling workshop this past fall, there couldn’t have been a better place to do it than right here at Ashoka’s Global Headquarters.

The workshop I led was based on Marshall Ganz’ Public Narrative technique, developed at Harvard and used to transformative effect in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Public Narrative is the art of translating values into action, through stories, and thus persuading people to help you make change. In this course, we explored storytelling as a leadership skill, breaking an effective story down into its three component parts and practicing each part before integrating back into the whole. We studied videos of masters of this: Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., Bono, and J.K. Rowling among others. And then each participant developed their own story. And on the last day, when they delivered their own public stories, I was blown away. I had tears in my eyes for half the stories and was cracking up for the other half.

We’ve turned a handful of the stories from the workshop into an audio series. Here they are:

1. Claire Bangser: “Nurturing Creativity”

2. Michele Leaman: “A World We Share”

3. Caraleigh Holverson: “The Roadmap of our Lives”

4. Daniel Lau: “The Importance of Asking Questions”

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