Better Stories, better lives

Over recent weeks, I have been exploring the role of storytelling in the work of community organisers. In November and December, I looked at the way stories structure our world, giving us identity with others and shaping our perceptions. We discussed how stories have provided the basis of civilisations and dynasties, offered entertainment for millions and given us some of the most recognisable figures in our lives. Since December, I have introduced the ideas of Marshall Ganz who argues that community leaders need to develop and perfect a Story of Self, a Story of Us and a Story of Now. In my last two posts, I looked at the way powerful narratives play out in the life of our communities and the way we need to ensure our stories privilege the marginalised and dispossessed.

November 21: Spoken Reality: A talk with NYC Storytelling Producers by UnionDocs CC FlickrIn this last of the series, I seek to give you a set of practical guides to developing your skills as a storyteller. Many would suggest that human beings are by nature storytellers, taking every opportunity to structure their environment with meaning and to develop elaborate sagas of their own and their people’s journey. We dream in stories, our science tells us stories of origins and processes, children play in stories, businesses are encouraged to express their mission as a story, we seek entertainment, even horror in stories. In fact you are an experienced storyteller by the time you are six. You can of course become a better, more conscious quilter of narrative and use the art in your work for the community.

Capturing your Community’s Saga

Your people already have already told the story of their community; the problem is that it is scattered across many households and age groups. Getting people to tell their part of the community story – and recognising it as such – is a fantastic way to bridge people’s understanding of the shared journey so far. When different accounts of the same event are shared, it can split or reinforce a sense of common purpose. The community leader has the role of helping the group recognise each other in the narratives and to bring the accounts together to build on each other.

Wedding Party by Evgeni Zotov CC FlickrHolding a story-telling party is one way to get the community’s saga told. Gathering the best storytellers together, you can give them ten minutes each to tell the group about an incident in the community’s life. Then other people are given five minutes to add, challenge or change the story in accord with their memory. In an evening, you might get five or six stories and if you plan it right, you could cover the major community crises and successes for the last few decades. Recording the conversation can give the community a place to start from in constructing it’s own shared biography.

Building your Style

Personal stories make riveting listening. If you have not yet got to grips with your own Story of Self, then may I encourage you to revisit my post here and have a go at your own story. As you learn to tell your stories – of Self, of Us and of Now – more effectively, you will begin to recognise that they work best if you follow some tried and tested guidelines. A good story follows these guidelines:

  • a single theme, clearly defined
  • a well-developed plot with a great opening, pace and intrigue
  • uses vivid word pictures and pleasing sounds and rhythm
  • characters are well drawn, handling antagonist / protagonists well
  • metaphor and analogy give it depth
  • remains faithful to the source
  • there is a strong drama involved with a powerful lesson to be learnt
  • engages the listeners appropriately

Heroes, Myths and Legends display by Moore Memorial Public Library CC FlickrClearly no one has this off by heart from the outset and retelling your stories in many contexts will give you confidence to devise a style that reflects your own values, approach and personality. In time, your way of storytelling will become inseparable from you and your style will become second nature. New stories, as they arise, will take their place alongside your established portfolio and give you opportunity to tell them still more inspiringly next time.

Using Different Media and Approaches

So far, I have given the impression that stories are verbal and told live in person. Of course, most of the stories we consume are told by other means. And your story telling can take any number of forms – leaflets, newsletters, video, photos, cartoon, novel, audio, street theatre, interview, blogs, social media – and can be delivered in all sorts of creative formats. Each media has its own strengths and weaknesses for storytelling and you should think through what elements your story has, your audience’s situation and how you can best engage them. Written media can be hard for those who struggle with words and visual media can feel ephemeral and insubstantial. Use the right media for your story.

Prop 8 Protest by renedrivers CC FlickrWe have also encountered narratives that are much larger than the individual story, creating for our whole society deep wells of meaning and influencing action and reaction from school children to politicians. These meta-narratives offer ways of tackling uncomfortable aspects of our collective lives such as single parents, migrants, people of different abilities, faiths and cultures, celebrities, oligarchs and princes. The mainstream media often portray these narratives as common sense and ensure they remain in place to support the powerful interests that fund them. As organisers, we need to take a critical look at such stories and work in our local setting to undermine the demeaning of our fellow citizens with stories that build solidarity, compassion and empathy. The future of our communities lies with the story-tellers!


Center for Story-based Strategy (2013) Workers Rising Up – an example of storytelling of a campaign to demand dignity for US workers at Walmart and McDonalds

Aunt Renie (2013) The Future of Storytelling – a course from Iversity at . See also

Barry McWilliams (1998) Effective Storytelling – a manual for beginners Available at

Chicago Public Media (ongoing) This American Life – a weekly storytelling podcast – wildly successful on iTunes

The Moth (ongoing) The Moth Podcast – another weekly storytelling podcast – live unscripted true stories delivered to packed audiences – also found free on iTunes

Benedict Carey (2007) This is Your Life (and How You Tell It) in Mental Health and Behavior in The New York Times Fascinating insight into the psychological role of storytelling for the individual. Available at here

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