I Am a Change-Maker in My Community and Here’s My Story

Now that I have your attention, I’d like to tell you why and how you should incorporate storytelling into advocating for change in your community through media advocacy.

But first, a quick definition of media advocacy. It’s the strategic use of media to advance policy issues that benefit public health and safety. It raises issues into the local or national conversation and influences policy making.

Stories can be an important component of an organization’s media advocacy strategy. After all, humans are hard wired to respond positively to storytelling. Chemical elements in our brain are released when we hear a story. Cortisol aids in making the memory stick when we are trying to make a point. Dopamine, which helps regulate our emotional responses, keeps us engaged. Oxytocin is associated with empathy, which is an important component to building, deepening, or maintaining good relationships. Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson writes, “A story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.”

Pixar Studios is, no doubt, a leader in storytelling, producing award-winning movies such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and A Bug’s Life. The key, according to Pixar producer Andrew Stanton, is to make me care. This is the greatest story commandment that determines the impact a story will have on its audience. Tapping into the audience’s emotions may help them understand more about the challenges your community faces. It invites people to walk in someone else’s shoes for just a moment. Our main character is perhaps someone we all know and gives us a reason to care. Or perhaps the mouthpiece for describing struggles that we may all personally share.

Sure, visual detail, well-developed characters and a juicy plot are important to whether or not a story hits the mark. But if a story engages the emotions, and better yet, provokes a reader or listener into action, then… score!

If you still need convincing that storytelling will give your media advocacy a strategic boost, consider the following: there are more than 1,200 daily newspapers and more than 1,700 commercial television stations in the U.S. There are 11 social media platforms with more than 200 million users. There are more than 1,750,000 podcasts and more than 600 million blogs worldwide.

There is no shortage of places where people can go to get their news. So this is another reason to incorporate storytelling into your media advocacy – to stand out in a saturated crowd.

The mechanics of a story are simple: it involves a character who runs into an obstacle that is eventually resolved by the end of his/her journey. Along the way, the character encounters road blocks, hurdles, and villains. But by the end of the story, the character has undergone a transformation – preferably a positive one.

Before you start crafting your story, think about the goal you are trying to achieve. What change are you advocating? Who do you need to hear your story? Why should anyone listen to you?

As you start writing, begin with a hook – the sentence that engages the audience to keep reading or listening. As you craft this vital sentence, put yourself in your audience’s shoes: why should they keep reading or listening? Did you start your article with an interesting anecdote, quote, or surprising fact? Did you ask the audience a profound question? One way to engage your reader is to stir up their emotions, whether it is happiness, enthusiasm, grief, anger or frustration. Stories help transmit emotions, which are very powerful in getting people to act or behave in a certain way, preferably in a positive way.

From there, don’t forget the basics of writing for the media: who, what, when, where, and why.

Another important detail about storytelling is to show, don’t tell. Don’t tell me, for example, how upset residents are about living near a polluting factory. Show me through their thoughts, emotions, and actions of caring for a family member who struggles everyday with asthma. Don’t be afraid to get descriptive using sensory details. Vivid description is what puts the color into an otherwise black and white landscape.

After you have led your audience through the unfolding narrative of the main character, bring them back to the key takeaway. With what message do you want your audience to leave? What is the call to action?

Incorporating stories into your media advocacy strategy is a great way to bring attention to your cause. Reporters are always looking for the human interest side of a story. And they don’t have too far to go to find it. The people and communities you are advocating for can become the heroes of a well-crafted story.

Meredith Gibson
Media Director, IPS

Meredith Gibson is the Media Director for the Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative, Countywide Media Advocacy Project, and Partnerships for Success. She generates news articles to promote awareness of public health issues, collaborates on opinion editorials (op-eds) with community leaders, and pitches ideas and spokespersons to news outlets, amassing media coverage at the local and national levels.