SXSW 2015: Great Storytelling for Social Good

SXSW 2015 storytelling
SXSW's Tell Me a Story panel watches Faye Lane on The Moth
SXSW 2015 storytelling
SXSW’s Tell Me a Story panel watches Faye Lane on The Moth

“Social change is built on the back of great stories,” said Jim Kerr as he welcomed participants gathered at the Social Good Hub for the Tell Me a Story event, one of the SXSW 2015 Interactive conference’s final breakout sessions.

Kerr should know: As CEO of e-commerce consultant Handshake, he works with corporations to create and sustain partnerships with suitable social change and philanthropic organizations – an endeavor that both requires and results in good stories. And while “storytelling” has become something of a corporate buzzword, often used to describe how companies can attract customers, enhance their brands, and raise their profiles, his point is well-taken. Even more than their for-profit counterparts, organizations focused on social good must have clear and compelling narratives to attract and retain supporters.

Joining Kerr and poverty-focused philanthropy partnership group Global Impact at the podium was artist, writer, and performer Tricia Rose Burt, whom many know through her work with storytelling organization and radio presence The Moth. Using a video performance of Texas-born author Faye Lane telling her moving coming-of-age story “The Green-Bean Queen” as an example, Burt led attendees through a step-by-step process for crafting narratives that will attract and hold the interest of supporters over the long haul. She then asked participants to tell one another a story about “the moment when you knew you had to become a global citizen.” The goal for this group, she said, was to “tell stories that that will move people to an action you want.” Participants got an opportunity to tell their stories on video for The Moth afterward.

Burt’s workshop focused on the fundamentals of personal storytelling, but the exercise proved to work well for any number of needs – including crafting narratives for nonprofit and philanthropy-focused organizations. After all, one of her crucial points is that “the more specific you make a story, the more universal it becomes.” That’s just one of the gems in Burt’s appealingly concrete process – an outline for action that makes it less intimidating, more productive – even fun:

1. Develop a theme. Clarify what your story is about, define key elements and characters, and understand your audience and what message it most needs to hear.

2. Create a narrative arc. Imagine the story as a journey, in which you are taking your audience from Point A to Point B – and through the steps along the way. Choose only the relevant elements of the story (not every single step or character that might have been involved).

3. Determine the stakes. Create a sense of urgency and get to it early in the story to help invest your audience in the outcome.

4. Reveal the internal change. Make sure you are telling a story, not an anecdote. Something – a person, people, a situation, or something else – needs to be transformed. It’s essential to show vulnerability and use your narrative to reveal the process of discovery.

5. Make it real. Use specific examples. Include powerful facts and details. Re-create pivotal moments. The more specific your story, believe it or not, the more powerful it is to others.

6. Be authentic. Being influenced by good writing is great, but don’t try to imitate others’ styles or stories. Be yourself, and use your unique voice when telling your tale.

7. Craft a strong ending. Answer all the questions the story raises. And, as Burt put it, make sure you “stick the landing” – end on a strong, memorable note.


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