There are several layers of storytelling that we can examine and engage with. Most often in the context of fundraising and donor communications, we are talking about telling stories about people. These are stories about impact, stories of change, stories about unmet needs, and so on. They are stand alone stories that communicate a message and support a call to action. Another story to consider is the story that you communicate about your organization over time, and in this post, I’m going to talk about a bit more about how that story is constructed and how we can start to change the narrative.
The story that you communicate about your organization over time is the culmination of every touch point you have with your audience. The aggregate of those messages, ideas, stories, asks, and so on communicate a higher level story about your organization. This story you tell over time embodies your organization’s identity. But there are two challenges with this story.
Challenge #1 – If you are not paying attention over time you may not be communicating the story you think you are communicating. It is important to look at the big picture of your communications often, just as you would consider the minute details for a specific project.
Challenge #2 – If you want to change your story, it can take time. Changing how people view your organization is not an overnight endeavor. Just as it took many years for them to know the current story about your organization, it will take time for them to learn a new story. But – the bigger issue beyond time is that sometimes our biggest barrier to change are internal stakeholders who are unwilling to adopt the change.
How to Change Your Story
In Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong, she talks about this process of rising from a moment of vulnerability or failure. She uses a process where people go from rumbling to reckoning to revolution. This process is centered around the story we tell ourselves and how we can change that story to emerge from the tenderness of a situation. Although I don’t have any concrete evidence, it’s my strong feeling that when organization’s go through a process of creating a new story, they go through a similar process.
The rising strong process that Brown describes is as follows:
- The Reckoning: walking into our story – In this part of the process, we need to recognize the story that exists and how it’s been influencing us. Be curious about how a story came to be, and how it is connected to thoughts and behaviors.
- The Rumble: owning our story – This part of the process is really fascinating to me because it is where we have to take ownership of the story. We have to reality-check the narrative and be really honest. But this process is what helps us uncover truth and authenticity.
- The Revolution: writing a new ending and changing how we engage with the world – Once we have identified a story, how it has influenced us, and reality-checked the story, we move into fundamental change. We can now write a new ending to the story based on what we learned in the rumble and move forward with a new story.
I imagine that some of you reading this might be really skeptical or maybe a little confused about how this works, so let me give you a personal example and talk more about how this could apply to non-profit organizations.
Leaving Behind Anxiety – A Personal Story
I travel a lot for work to teach workshops and give keynote speeches at conferences. I love teaching and speaking. It’s so rewarding and it fulfills me on a very deep level. But in order to get to these workshops and conferences, I typically have to fly on a plane and I am an anxious plane traveler. I get very overwhelmed by the loud noises and slight turbulence. Many people are surprised to learn this about me because they often perceive me as being very calm. Unfortunately, that calmness doesn’t always translate to plane travel.
However, last year I started to think about what I could do to make plane travel more pleasant. Was there anything I could do to keep myself calm? At first, I wasn’t sure. But then I started to think about what I don’t like about plane travel in a very pragmatic way. For example, the loud noises. When I’m at home working, it’s usually very quiet. I like to wear ear plugs or my noise canceling headphones. So the next time I traveled, I tried using both of these things on the plane. It was immediately better for me!
Then I thought about other little things I could do to create a sense of familiarity and calm when traveling. For instance, listening to podcasts that I love, creating playlists of music that I enjoy, bringing a good read for the plane, having gluten-free food that I can easily eat on the plane, and bringing socks and a scarf because I’m always cold.
Over time, I’ve continued to bring these little things with me while traveling and I’ve actually started to become a less anxious plane traveler. I never thought I’d see that day!
But I still had this story that I, Vanessa, am not a good traveler. I get anxious and I don’t like planes. That story no longer matched my new reality. But I had to change that story and that turned out to be a more difficult process.
I didn’t realize it, but I was really committed to understanding myself as an anxious traveler. It was part of my identity and I was actually afraid to part with it. I kept thinking that if I stopped telling people I’m anxious traveler something bad would happen that would immediately send me back to my old anxious ways. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. . . except it hasn’t.
The moment I realized this was problem was a few weeks ago when my husband met me at the airport when I returned from a trip. I had the urge to tell him how miserable I was on the plane and that I was so happy to be on the ground. But that wasn’t the truth. I was actually just fine during the plane ride. In fact, I was pretty content. This was the moment when I realized that I was writing a new story about myself as a traveler.
Even though I went through motions several months before to have a more pleasant travel experience, it took a while for me to fully integrate this into the story I have about myself as a traveler. The change isn’t always a straightforward as we think it will be, but knowing that can make the process more bearable.
Turning Over a New Leaf
I hope that you are able to understand Brene Brown’s rising strong process a little more now that I’ve shared a personal example. What I think is really interesting about this process for non-profits to consider is that sometimes we do things like change our branding, or language we use to talk about organization, or website 0r something else, all with the hope that we are turning over a new leaf of our non-profit’s story.
But it’s not so straightforward.
The external communication of that story might be easy, but what about the internal communication? Are all of the staff members on the same page about this new story? Are they ready to accept a new era of your non-profit’s story?
I pose these questions because if they are not, this is when organization most often run into problems. There will be internal tension, dissent, and agony.
Literally changing the story may be a simple development or communications exercise. But great storytelling really starts from the grassroots. It starts with the people at the organization. If you are thinking about changing your story, think about the rising strong process and how you can use that to change your story from the grassroots. I think this could be an invaluable tool for non-profit leaders during times of change and change management.