According to Anika Horn, founder of Social Venturers, storytelling is widely unrecognized and undervalued as a skill. As a community builder, it’s important to recognize the power in stories so you can craft and leverage them to help make an impact and achieve your goals.
Stories shape everyday reality… and we’re always telling a story.
In a March 25, 2021 workshop for the community of practice among entrepreneurship ecosystems builders and communities in its affiliated hubs, Horn pointed to a New York Times article from just the day before. The article reported on research by an economics professor at Dartmouth College. The professor looked at coverage of Covid-19 over the past year by media outlets in the U.S. and abroad. The findings: regardless of whether cases were rising or falling and regardless of developments on the vaccine front, “About 87 percent of Covid coverage in national U.S. media last year was negative. The share was 51 percent in international media, 53 percent in U.S. regional media and 64 percent in scientific journals.” Horn’s point: the stories we read here in the U.S. don’t seem to reflect the worldwide reality about Covid. Those stories, however, certainly shaped powerful perceptions here about what’s “real.”
In your role, you are a storyteller regardless of whether you think of yourself in those terms, said Horn. Every time you write a newsletter, make a social media post, write a blog, or tell a friend about a great new business they should check out, you’re telling stories.
When you recognize the power of stories to shape perceptions of reality, Horn said, you can easily see why it’s so crucial to be mindful of how you create them and use them. Here’s a recap of the advice she gave the Community of Practice.
Five Steps to Telling Your Community’s Authentic Story
1. Start From Feelings and Speak of Vision and Possibilities
You are uniquely positioned, with an emotional connection and unparalleled access to the “why’s” of your community. Getting entrepreneurs to talk about why they’re doing what they are can be a rich source of material. You’re also in a position to see themes and commonalities among your community members. This can allow you to connect the dots with stories that highlight your community’s unique DNA — how they live out what’s important to them; how they display characteristics such as tenacity, pride, diversity, inclusivity, excellence, and supportiveness; how multiple community members are approaching a shared issue on varying fronts; and more.
To ensure you’re telling the “why” and “so what” rather than merely the “what” or “how,” Horn recommends digging down to find the feelings, visions, hopes, and dreams that lie beneath. Those are what motivate your community members.
While your focus should be on telling positive stories, Horn said, that doesn’t mean you should sidestep tough issues. When one workshop participant asked for guidance on how to reach out to a new audience that has been historically underserved, Horn advised, “Find the splinter, then extract it and examine it.” Vulnerability makes stories relatable and powerful, she said.
EXAMPLE: NAILAH ELLIS AND QUEEN TEA
From In Good Co., a Startup Space community partner based in Detroit, MI
Want a great example of how this looks when it’s done well? Check out the story of Nailah Ellis, founder of Detroit-based Queen Tea. A platform developed by Detroit’s New Economy Initiative, In Good Co. shared Ellis’s story via video and podcast as well as on its website. Throughout, they focus not just on what she’s done in the past and is trying to accomplish in the future, but on what that means. “Everybody’s running this same story,” Ellis said. “This young girl from Detroit — look at what she grew, look at the stores she’s in. But the real part is, it’s not just me anymore. I’ve got two kids. I’ve got a whole staff. You know, the livelihood of a lot of people. It’s more than just tea. People are here to eat; that’s the story I’m trying to tell.” So as we follow along and watch her do her daughter’s hair at 3:30 in the morning before leaving on a business trip, In Good Co. doesn’t simply tell us about her why…they use this seemingly small and otherwise unremarkable moment as a way to show how her why informs everything she does.
2. Have a Clear Objective for Each Story You Tell
Focusing on a single topic makes it easier for your audience to grasp and remember your story. (Bonus: it also makes it easier for you to tell it!) Are you looking to spur legislative attention and action? Is it your goal to attract investors or funders? Are you trying to highlight the need for systemic change? Be sure you know what you’re trying to accomplish, Horn said.
3. Write Each Story for a Single Audience
Every hub is going to have multiple disparate audiences, Horn acknowledged. That’s the nature of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Nevertheless, you should choose a single primary audience for each story. This helps your audience understand that what you’re saying is specifically for them. In addition, the target audience will drive the tone and language that you use. Inserting phrases or lingo that your audience uses among themselves lets them know you see and understand them.
4. Put Your Story Where That Audience “Lives”
You can have a great story and message, but if your audience never sees it, it can’t have the impact you need it to have. Horn advises looking well beyond your own organization’s channels (your website, social media, etc.) and instead considering where your target audience “lives.” Do they spend time on LinkedIn? Do they attend conferences where you could get in front of them? Do they read industry/trade publications? You could even reach out to these, Horn said, with an offer to regularly pitch them stories about your area’s entrepreneurial community. “They’re likely to be receptive,” Horn said, “because that’s one less story they have to source and write.”
Be Consistent as Well as Purposeful
Information overload is real. (Advertisers and marketers know that even the most interested and motivated prospect typically won’t take action until after being exposed to the message a minimum of seven times.) The lesson for hub organizers is this: while it’s important to tell powerful stories to the people who need to hear them and in the places they’ll listen, it’s equally important to tell stories consistently to remain on your audience’s radar, Horn said.
One Last Thing: Know That It Doesn’t Have to Be Hard
No matter which story you choose to tell and how little experience you may have in telling it, Horn says, know that it doesn’t have to be hard. “Pick the format and medium that works for you,” she advised. So if you’d rather be pecked to death by ducks than be interviewed on a podcast but you enjoy sharing photos with informative captions, share the photos. “Use the method that works best for you and is fun,” she said.