Using Storytelling to Change the World

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Elizabeth Clarke, Queen’s University
Edited by: Brendan Sheppard

I was born and raised in Newfoundland and Labrador, where storytelling is one of the most important pillars of our culture. This is true of many cultures around the world, regardless of race, gender, physical or mental ability, sexuality, sexual orientation, religion, economic status, and so on. Everyone loves a good story. This article will explore how we can harness the power of storytelling to effect social change. 

First, let us consider a pertinent question: what is storytelling? You would be given quite a different answer from a university English professor than a young child. At the simplest level, storytelling is the act (and art) of telling stories, and we have been doing this since the beginning of recorded human history. Stories are vessels of generational wisdom, records of past ways of life linked to the present and reminding us where we come from. They bring about togetherness and connection, fulfilling our need to belong. Telling stories – our stories – allows us to learn about and relate to one another, establishing common ground upon which we can work together towards a better future. Leaders use them to motivate people with shared values, bringing about social movements: civil rights, feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, Fridays for Future, Black Lives Matter, Every Child Matters, and the list goes on. Consider one of the most eloquent speakers and influential humanitarians of modern history, Martin Luther King Jr. His contribution to the American civil rights movement was not the result of his ideas alone but was mediated by the way in which he expressed them. He captivated his audiences with stories that inspired them to take action: this is how we use storytelling to change the world.

Storytelling works because of neural coupling, where specialized “mirror neurons” cause the listener’s brain to respond to the events described as if they were really experiencing them. This evokes a critical emotional response, one that has the ability to impact decision-making. Shaped by existing knowledge, experiences, cultural, religious, and spiritual influences, our emotions subconsciously determine how we think and form conclusions – our identity and experiences alter how we perceive stories and therefore how they influence our decisions. This brings us back to effecting change: in aiming to establish new shared values to rally support for our cause, we cannot assume that our audiences’ minds are empty containers into which we can pour our ideas and expect them to make sense. We cannot assume that what is effective in one group of people will work the same way and produce the same response in another group. We cannot ignore the different lenses through which people perceive what we say. In fact, we can use this to our advantage.

As communicators, language matters. As leaders of social change, it is what makes or breaks whether our audiences resonate with and support our cause. Framing is the specific way information is presented, and the way in which an idea is framed can dramatically impact an audience’s response. Anthropologist Dr. Nat Kendall-Taylor gave a TedX talk in 2017 in which he detailed the significance of framing for nonprofit initiatives. He described a study conducted by himself and his team of social scientists in Alberta, in which community support for changing policy and practice relating to addiction, was measured in response to the same evidence-based policies presented through three different frames: interdependence, ingenuity, and empathy. They found that the frame of interdependence – the idea that we are all connected to each other in our community, and what impacts one person impacts us all – made people significantly more likely to support their policies. The frame of ingenuity had the same effect to a slightly lesser extent. However, the frame of empathy – “we should make policies to help people with substance use disorder because they’re people just like us” – actually reduced support to a statistically significant degree. A subsequent study yielded an interesting finding: approximately 90% of the advertising that aimed to build support for new evidence-based policies surrounding addiction at that time was targeting empathy, precisely what had been proven to have the opposite effect. Such findings from social science can instruct us how to frame our ideas in ways that appeal to our specific audience’s values, allowing us to be far more effective as communicators.

Stories change the world. Malala Yousafzai tells her story of resilience in the face of hateful violence to advocate for female education, using her voice to uplift girls around the world. Greta Thunberg tells her story to unite and motivate thousands of young people to lobby governments to take action in response to the Climate Crisis. Phyllis Webstad told her story of having her new orange shirt taken from her on her first day at a residential school, which came to symbolize the stripping of culture and freedom experienced by Indigenous people and children throughout Canadian history. Orange Shirt day became the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation this past September 30, 2021, bringing crucially important Indigenous issues to the forefront of political discussions and moving our country towards reconciliation.

Everyone has a story. We effect change through storytelling by framing our ideas such that they will resonate with our audience, forming an emotional connection that inspires action. As novelist and storyteller, Thomas King said, “the truth about stories is, that’s all we are”. 

What is your story, and how are you going to change the world by telling it?