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A 5-point philosophy of storytelling for change

by Alex Stonehill, Comm Lead’s new Head of Creative Strategy

It’s a question that most communicators grapple with: How do you tell stories that inspire real, meaningful change in the world?

If I had to settle on a single answer, it would involve a willingness to take risks and sometimes fail.

In a past life as an international freelance journalist, I remember sitting in a sweltering room in rural Pakistan, paralyzed by the expectant stares of dozens of people who had just escaped from slavery.

I was there to report on “bonded labor,” a feudal system of debt slavery where millions of people are forced to work in the country’s farms and brick kilns.

The men, women and children crowded into the room needed immediate help — a place to sleep that night and food to eat. But they also needed someone to take their stories to sympathetic ears far away who might intervene in the corrupt system that held them in bondage.

I’d come with a naive conviction that if I could capture their experiences, I might be able to break that cycle. But as I listened to an ad-hoc translator relay their stories one by one, I realized I was in way over my head.

In the end, my photographs from that day appeared in an alt-newspaper in New York, and the story was retold on public radio station WNYC. Maybe a few listeners we’re moved — but ultimately the way I told the story didn’t spark meaningful change for the people I’d interviewed. By most accounts, I’d failed.

That failure didn’t stop me from going on report from places like Ethiopia, Russia and Syria in the years that followed, experimenting with different ways of engaging fellow Americans with the experiences of people a world away.

And the fear of failure didn’t stop me from pivoting my own role — from photojournalist to editor — when I began to suspect that our changing city needed a platform for people underrepresented in media to tell their own stories. That publication, The Seattle Globalist, had it’s own similar cycle; experiment, fail, adjust, improve. But eventually it became a robust, well-funded, and influential media education organization that’s elevating the voices of hundreds of contributors to an audience of millions.

In obvious ways, the distance couldn’t be greater between that suffocating room in Pakistan and a professional master’s program emphasizing things like content strategy, forecasting and analytics.

So when I applied to join Comm Lead as Head of Creative Strategy earlier this summer, I wasn’t sure which parts of my experience would carry over into the new role.

But maybe those worlds aren’t so far apart after all.

The core of Comm Lead’s mission is telling stories that connect people and spark change. That’s exactly what I was trying to do in Pakistan. And I’ll be bringing lessons from those years of successes and failures into my new role with Comm Lead:

  1. Lead by example

The ways we communicate are always changing — that’s what makes it such an exciting field. Staying locked into outmoded forms of storytelling just because “it’s the way things are done” is a sure way to lose your message in the noise.

Experimentation is key. That’s what you’ll be seeing more of from us at Comm Lead as we strive to tell our program’s and our student’s stories in new ways.

In Pakistan I made the mistake of trying to copy how legacy newspapers would have told the story of bonded laborers. Approaching the story in a more creative way could have had a more tangible impact — as someone else came along and proved later (keep reading for details!)

Top: The author reporting from Beirut, Lebanon in 2010. Above: Freed bonded laborers in a camp outside Hyderabad, Pakistan.

  1. Don’t innovate just for innovation’s sake

Wait, didn’t I just say the exact opposite?

Not exactly: Using technology to tell stories in new ways is great. We’re in an unprecedented moment of advancement that allows our stories to connect with more people across greater distances, and allows us to see the world through the eyes of others.

But you have to make sure you’re still telling a story, not just worshiping technology for its own sake. It’s just a tool, not an end in itself — that’s why you’re reading this as a simple text and photos article, not wearing a VR headset! Your medium has to match your message, and the “wow factor” of new storytelling technology wears off quickly if the human story isn’t there.

  1. Don’t create content for it’s own sake

I may have heard these exact words from Comm Lead director Hanson Hosein (there’s another tip there: don’t be afraid to borrow from the storytellers who inspire you).

The “content is king” era is quickly giving way to the “content is noise” era. Figure out what your key message is, refine it, and don’t squander your audience’s precious attention on anything else. Remember this when deciding how long to make that video, or how frequently you post to your brand’s social media properties.

Don’t open your “mouth” unless you have something to say.

  1. The messenger is the message

Something I learned at The Seattle Globalist — It’s not just about what you’re saying, it’s about who’s saying it. Speaking with a distanced, omniscient voice doesn’t fool anyone anymore. The key to your audience’s hearts is to be transparent, even vulnerable. Let them see the real, authentic you.

A more accessible way to tell the story of those bonded laborers might have been for me to bite the bullet and put myself in the story; the hopelessness I was feeling probably would have been more relatable to the American audience I was trying to reach.

Or I could have handed my camera over to the bonded laborers themselves, and then come back in a month to see how they’d portrayed their own lives through photos.  

We’re all experts in our own communities and experiences, and we each bring something unique to the table as storytellers because of that.

  1. Believe in your change fearlessly

Ultimately, whether you’re in marketing, journalism, or the non-profit sector, you’re probably here because you think you can make the world a better place. But that will only ever happen if you try. The best work I’ve ever done was when I took risks, got in over my head, and tried new things. Even when I failed, I got better at it.

There’s a happy epilogue to my bleak story from Pakistan. In 2015, Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York turned his lens toward the same seemingly intractable issue. He photographed bonded laborers — and a woman who has devoted herself to freeing them — and shared their personal stories using his uniquely effective storytelling formula.

In a matter of days, the Bonded Labor Liberation Front — the same audacious organization that had introduced me to those dozens of desperate workers ten years earlier — received more than $2 million in donations.

To me, that’s proof positive that the most impactful way to inspire change in our world is by telling effective stories. That’s why storytelling is at the center of everything Comm Lead does, and why I’m so happy to be here.

pelcdvA 5-point philosophy of storytelling for change
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