Public Narrative IV: Making Your Story Malleable

Part I of this tutorial focused on developing motivating language. In Part II we learned how to use motivating language to invite our audience to join us on a narrative journey.

In Part III we completed that journey by bridging belief to action. In this final toolkit, we’ll look at concrete strategies that will help you make your public narrative versatile for any situation.

Perfecting Your Story For Any Situation

6756447541_fd20305ed0_o.jpgAn inspiring public narrative will take your audience on a journey in three sentences, three paragraphs or three pages. Your challenges, choices and outcomes will move easily between a 140-character tweet, 15-minute stump speech or a high-impact fundraising letter. (Left photo via Flikr)


6191321630_2df7d2a267_o.jpgYour story has hundreds of potential platforms and thousands of potential formats. Each has its own particularities—strengths, weaknesses and nuisances. But the key to developing a story which can easily move between platforms is to remember that all stories at their heart are stories. They have characters, themes and take you on a journey from beginning to middle to end. (Right photo via Flikr)

Before you can share your story with the world, you need to master it. This is your homework.

Form a team of storytellers. Invite anyone involved in your group or organization who interacts with the public to join you for regular, ongoing meetings to develop and redevelop your narrative: your spokespeople, regular canvassers, your social media wiz, whoever writes your web and print content, etc

You can call this team whatever you want—a communications committee, etc—but there are three important things to keep in mind…

  1. Be diverse and inclusive. Great public narratives are told by more than one person—exceptional narratives are owned by people who look different, talk different and might even think differently but who all share a single goal and a single set of inviting values.
  2. Be open minded. Many people in the room will be engaging the public in different places. A spokesperson who is used to talking to reporters and a door-to-door canvasser will often hear different questions and have different ideas about how to best answer them. By listening and learning you can better engage all of your audiences.
  3. Be task oriented. Building a public narrative is difficult work that requires focus and attention to detail. When the group meets, make sure the meeting is completely focused on learning to tell great stories—everything else is noise. Before the meeting ends, make sure everyone knows what their specific next steps are, when the group is coming back together and that they intend to be accountable for their commitments.

Write Out Your Narrative. Once you have practiced telling and sharing your stories, each member of your team should write their story exactly how they will tell it to the public—that means different formats for different roles. I always ask that people write their stories three ways:

 1. Short and Sweet. Tell your public narrative in 2-3 sentences or less including all aspects of challenge, choice, outcome and a hard ask for a firm commitment. This version of your story is useful for:

  • Social Media: Facebook and Twitter reward minimalist content. Every time your movement engages the public online, you should think about narrative journeys and bridging belief to action. Being able to tell a full story in 140-characters is crucial to your cause prevailing.
  • Canvass Pitches: Whether your going to farmers markets or knocking on doors, someone from your team is talking to the general public on a regular basis. Having a go-to icebreaker, builds confidence and creates person-to-person opportunities…the catch? You might only have 15-seconds to hold someone’s attention.
  • Creating Soundbites: It isn’t called a 30-second soundbite for nothing. When you speak to the media or at events, you should focus on telling stories repeatedly in 2-3 second stand-alone soundbites. You chose your words but reporters chose how to cover them.

 2. Average length. Tell your public narrative in roughly 2-3 paragraphs.

  • Blogs: People are on their smartphones constantly. You can read 2-3 paragraphs online in less than 4-minutes whereas longer, more in-depth articles often go unread. Blogs are a perfect way to engage supporters in a checkout line or on a lunch break.
  • Conversations: 2-3 paragraph narrative arks are perfect for informal conversation. It lets you pitch your audience on your work while holding their attention just long enough to not become boorish. Remember: speak with not at someone—pause to give your listener an opportunity to speak and meaningfully answer their questions or follow their lead.
  • Press Releases: Reporters are more strained for time and resources than ever. Show the media respect by keeping releases short, concise and digestible and they’ll be more likely to show you respect by paying attention to your cause.

 3. Extended length. Tell your public narrative in 2-3 full pages.

  • Detailed Web Pages: Social media and blogs are important for catching folks on the go, but your website is just as crucial for providing them with an opportunity for a long-form, detailed understanding of your work.
  • Important Meetings: When you lobby government, businesses or solicit donors for big donations they are likely to have more detailed questions than the general public. A longer narrative allows you anticipate and address those questions or concerns proactively.
  • Key Note Speeches: You’d be amazed about how many words are in a five-minute speech! This is your opportunity to explore the emotions and details which inform the choices you’ve made and outcomes you’ve achieved.

Finally, Practice and Revise. Once you’ve written the many variations of your story, come together regularly as a team and practice and revise. Every time you tell a story—online or in real life—regroup and critically assess success and areas for growth.

Good luck!

Click here to schedule a custom storytelling training for your team.

Click here  to download a PDF version of my Public Narrative Toolkit or follow the links below for a step-by-step guide to telling your story

  1. Learn about motivating language
  2. Learn how to structure a captivating public narrative
  3. Learn how to ask for commitments
  4. Learn how to turn our public narratives into a malleable suite of stories ideal for any situation