Tips from a social change leader to help your organization create an inviting and memorable narrative.
At 5 by 5 Design we believe it’s possible to change the world by posing the right questions, listening to the honest answers, and following the path that emerges from the dialogue. Today’s discussion focuses on using storytelling to help your organization make connections.
Genesia Williams is a writer, designer, creative social change leader, and the owner of Genesia Doing Things—a design and strategy firm focused on solutions for nonprofits, small businesses, artists, and individuals. Genesia uses the resilience she learned from her community to help people on the journey to own their narratives and claim their power. We’ve asked Genesia a series of questions about the role of stories within an organization. Here’s what she had to say.
1. What makes storytelling such an effective way to communicate?
Stories are a part of every culture. We learn through stories; we connect through stories. They teach us to recognize patterns and support the ways our brain and body respond to patterns. Even as a story gets less crisp when retold many times, moving into a space of myth, the connective power is still there. Stories are agile and function as a great framework to create shared meaning and shared understanding.
Think about how stories have shaped you. Stories you learned about how the world was made, about a cool invention or inventor in a school lesson, scary stories at sleepovers and summer camp. Think about where you were when a history-changing event happened and how you retell others about that experience. Our heads are full of facts, details, fables, and folktales that we use to navigate the world.
2. How do you make sure your customers connect to your story?
When you’re trying to get your message across to your audience, those stakeholders and participants that shape our work, it’s good to be clear about what you want to say. Because I’m often working with clients doing people-serving work, these are the questions I consider when developing a story or message:
- What are we offering?
- Why do they need what we’re offering?
- How are we presenting our message and our service in a way that respects our participants and leaves them with their dignity and agency intact?
Answering the questions of what, why, and how can help us present clear stories, make meaningful connections that inspire engagement, and give us a critical lens for creating quality user experiences.
3. How does storytelling help employees better engage with the organization they work for?
What if we flip this question and ask instead the following: How can organizations think about stories as a means of engaging with employees who carry out their work and mission? To that question I’d say, listening (actively and openly) is key for any healthy organization. Who are the people who work for you? Is your organization creating safe and brave spaces so that people feel they can bring an authentic version of themselves to work? What are the perspectives they bring? Whose experiences and perspectives are not present—particularly those that may align with the work you’re doing?
We are all carrying histories, cultures, families, and communities with us. Are the people within your organization feeling seen and heard? Do you have enough different perspectives in the room? Invite and encourage your employees to share their stories.
4. How can organizations incorporate storytelling into their communication strategy?
Storytelling can help you reach a wider range of people, especially for aspects of your work that may be complex or layered. Let me tell you about this movie, maybe you’ve heard of it? Osmosis Jones. It’s about a nasty virus attacking a body (basically Bill Murray ate a boiled egg that wasn’t fresh AND fell into an animal pen at the zoo where he worked) and a wise-cracking white blood cell (Osmosis) that saves the day. I can tell you that I remember more about how Osmosis cracked the case, than what I learned in 10th grade biology.
Stories create emotional connection (I was a huge Bill Murray fan, since What About Bob, so I jumped at seeing this film). Stories create impact. My 10th grade biology teacher was lovely, and I do remember that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell—but Osmosis Jones took a really complex biological process, set it in Bill Murray’s body, and mixed live-action and animation to create a story. Stories are sticky—they help us remember messaging and details, amidst the many messages that we encounter day-to-day. What do you remember from 10th grade?
5. Are there any best practices or techniques organizations should consider when using storytelling to share their perspective?
Again, the first thing is listening. Second, question whose voice is here and whose voice is not here. Honesty, transparency, and accuracy are next. These steps help build trust with your audiences. And finally, some of the best stories have multiple voices, so when you can, be a direct link between those voices and your audiences. When sharing on behalf of or to amplify the perspectives of those less often in the center, be sure to tell those stories with dignity, respecting agency, only with consent, and without presenting as a savior.
Good stories are in all of us. Becoming a good storyteller is more process than destination. Be open to new things and new ways of sharing voices and creating messaging through the power of storytelling and narrative work.