Engage - Claremont Lincoln University
storytelling for change

Using Storytelling as a Tool for Change

“Tell me a story.” Whether you have a child or just remember being one, you’ll remember hearing this request. Telling stories has been a fundamental part of human communication for thousands of years. It’s also been a major tool for change. Think of religious leaders using stories and parables to illustrate their philosophical points and inspire their followers.

Or, consider all the various “persuading” professions: law, politics, marketing, public relations, and so on. In all of these contexts, people use storytelling to help hearers make sense of the world, understand the viewpoints of others—and see ways to take action. Here’s how you can build effective stories that can help people change their behavior.

Using Storytelling as a Tool for Change

Draw People In

For the first part of your change-making story, you need to show why change is needed in the first place. You’ll need to illustrate a problem for your listeners. More than that, you’ll need to create a sense of urgency around what happens if the problem is left unsolved. If, for example, you are seeking funding for your social enterprise aimed at ending homelessness in veterans, you might:

  • Describe in a sentence how many homeless veterans there are in your area and how the trend is rising
  • Tell how veteran homelessness, if left unchecked, can impact crime, families, and the community, as well as giving young people doubts about joining the military

Next, you want to center this problem around a relatable hero—a protagonist who will face down the obstacles you are highlighting, but ultimately overcome the challenge. Vladimir Nabokov supposedly said that “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”

In our example of an organization that supports homeless veterans, you could describe one of your clients who has achieved stability through contact with your enterprise. For example, it could be Natasha, a mother who served in Afghanistan and has had mental health issues since her discharge, which can be a common concern among military veterans. She lost her job and home and has been unemployed for a year.

Build Desire and Spark Hope

Next, your protagonist needs to face challenges and overcome them through a combination of internal changes and action. This part of the story helps your listeners begin to “root” for your protagonist and imagine ways that they could contribute to his or her success. So your client Natasha might have:

  • Struggled to keep her children in the same school due to lack of shelter space
  • Been rejected from many jobs due to her inability to maintain a telephone or find appropriate interview attire
  • Had difficulty accessing medication or talk therapy for her mental health issues
  • Been reluctant to access services due to pride and a belief that she ought to be more resilient—she was, after all, a soldier in a war zone

You can address how your organization made contact with Natasha in a way that empowered her make the decision to seek assistance. Then, with material support from backers and resources made available by your partnerships, Natasha gradually was able to do the work necessary to obtain support for her mental health problems, attend interviewing workshops, and receive housing before finally landing her job.

At each phase of your character’s journey, you are inserting potential “access points” for your listeners—places where they could see themselves playing an active role in solving the problem for this person, whether as a donor, staff member, or partner organization.

Reinforce Desire With Facts and Reasons

Finally, once you have drawn in your audience with a story, hit them with facts. Not just any facts—show them research and projections that tell how they can make a difference by taking the actions you want them to take.

For example, in our most recent Exchange event, Clare Fox, one of our featured panelists, emphasized this in her Master Class by driving home the facts of food insecurity in Los Angeles. As the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, Fox drove home the reality of her work by stating that, “15 million Californians have diabetes or pre-diabetes. That’s 55% of all Californian adults.” By stating a powerful fact in her emphatic class, she drove the desire from the audience in attendance to tackle the issue.

Once you have powerful facts and reasons in place, built upon desire and hope, as well as drew an audience in through a sense of urgency, you’ll have taken your audience on a journey from passive listener to empowered participant—all with the power of a story.

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of Cross-Cultural & Interfaith Programs at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader whose research interests include the history, theories, and practices of inter-religious education, mindfulness and compassion practices (with particular emphasis on practices from the Dharmic traditions, especially Jainism), public policy (especially regarding inequities in public education), and how digital and online resources can make education accessible and learner-focused. Her doctoral dissertation, in inter-religious education, focused on disequilibrium, resilience, and reflective practice as key ingredients for learning. She was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

Claremont Core

Claremont Lincoln University

Add comment

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of Cross-Cultural & Interfaith Programs at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader whose research interests include the history, theories, and practices of inter-religious education, mindfulness and compassion practices (with particular emphasis on practices from the Dharmic traditions, especially Jainism), public policy (especially regarding inequities in public education), and how digital and online resources can make education accessible and learner-focused. Her doctoral dissertation, in inter-religious education, focused on disequilibrium, resilience, and reflective practice as key ingredients for learning. She was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.