How To Build A Storytelling Culture

Natalia is a 15-year-old girl who lives in a small village in Mozambique.

It is amazing how much of her life revolves around water.

Waiting on water

Each morning, after caring for her six brothers and sisters, she walks with pails to a riverbed miles away.

When she get there she stands in line, waiting to get dirty water from a hand-dug hole. Then she walks back home with heavy pails full of water.

This task takes hours and hours. Enough hours that Natalia can go to school only twice a week.

But in 2012, Natalia’s world changed

Charity Water brings clean, safe drinking water to people in developing countries. In 2012, they gave her village a well.

Villagers now pump as much clean water as they need, quickly and easily.

And now Natalia is always at school. All the time. No exceptions.

But that’s not the end of the story

One day Charity Water visited the village’s water committee to discuss the well. Natalia was there.

With a pleased, half-smile on her face, she introduced herself.

“My name is Natalia,” she said. “I am the president.”

Oh, what a little water can do

Natalia was by far the youngest president the folks from Charity Water had ever seen.

The other committee members explained that she was selected for several reasons. She had confidence, tenacity, and leadership skills.

And, oh, she could read and write.

You see, her time at school changed her ambitions. She now plans to become a teacher and then a headmaster.

Oh, what a little story can do

Stories like Natalia’s have helped Charity Water grow. They now bring clean water to over seven million people.

Statistics, data, and facts couldn’t do that.

Because stories are more powerful. They reach people on a whole other plane. A very personal, emotional plane.

Which explains why storytelling is so necessary in connecting with your tribe members.

This is based on four overriding truths.

1. Stories are powerful

We no longer find our way in the world by searching out information and messages that tell us what to think.

Instead, we want to be associated with people who give us unique experiences. Experiences that appeal to our dreams and emotions. Experiences that add meaning to our pursuit of a better world. Experiences that encourage us to come to our own conclusion.

Part of a tribe

We want to be understood. Known for who we are as people. And who we are connect to in our tribe,

Today, we navigate the world using symbols, visual expressions, shared experiences, and stories.

These are the things that connect us with other tribe members and our common cause.

2. Stories are the currency of a tribe

Narratives help shape the identity of the tribe. They give it values and boundaries and help show its reputation.

They paint a picture of the tribe’s culture and values, heroes, and enemies.

They define and give meaning to its cause.

By sharing our stories, we define who we are and what we stand for.

Leaders of tribes establish their leadership by connecting people to each other. And to their purpose. And they do it by telling stories.

Orders of magnitude

A lot of research in psychology has shown that stories are more powerful than facts. No matter how those facts are packaged. In fact, they are orders of magnitude more powerful.

Stories are superior to facts in seven ways:

  • Gaining exposure.
  • Activating social media
  • Communicating information
  • Being remembered
  • Creating involvement
  • Persuasion
  • Inspiring
  • Most important, being shared from one person to another

Way superior

If you have facts to communicate, your best strategy is to find or create a story. One that motivates the facts so they are more likely to be heard.

So find a way to turn the facts into a story.

Or find a story that can otherwise put the facts into an interesting or relevant context.

3. Stories are the key to content

And content, they say is king. At least in the digital and social media world.

Your tribe isn’t passive. They’re in control.

They involve themselves in tribe information and activities only when they are intrigued. Thus, content drives success in this new era. And intriguing content, in turn, is all about stories.

People perk up when they hear someone say, “Let me tell you story.”

Because a story involves more people than unvarnished information and facts. It can also keep peoples’ attention. And linger in their memory.

4. Strategic messages just don’t work anymore

Especially amid the media clutter of the digital world.

And the same can be said for communicating organizational values and purpose.

Why is it so hard?

It’s because people aren’t particularly interested in your strategic messages. Or even in your organization. Or your processes. Or your elevator pitch.

The story’s role is to provide that missing interest.

People may also view your strategic messages as lacking authenticity and credibility.

A story reduces that risk. The heroes and plot become the focus. And arguing the fine points is a lot less likely to happen.

So why don’t organizations buy into stories and commit to them?

How do we get them onboard?

There are two first steps that have to take place.

First, is to get people to understand the power of stories.

And the second is to find organizational support for developing stories. And then, using them.

Making them believe

There is a big organizational bias toward presenting facts. Just the facts. Nothing but the facts.

So the task is to vividly show the power of stories to emotionally connect three things. Your mission. Your why. Your tribe’s worldview and desire to change things for the better.

One way to do that is to look at role models. Study other organizations that have used stories effectively.

Another way is to get some existing stories on the table where their power to make a point becomes obvious.

Still another is to perform an experiment. Compare how a story connects with people compared to the presenting facts.

You’ll want to measure dimensions of their interest. Things like people’s attention. Or changes in perception or behavior. When you do, it will yield eye-opening results.

Making stories part of your culture

So what, exactly, do we mean by a “storytelling culture?” And how do purpose-driven organizations go about building one?

Two overriding components must be present to create a culture of storytelling.

The first is a mindset and appreciation for stories.

The second is capacity. That means having the resources, processes, and programs to find and tell stories.

Mindset and Appreciation

To be successful, the story mindset needs to run through the whole organization.

That means that leaders must model an appreciation for story. And all staff must understand the story planning process.

They both need to understand how stories add value to their own work and the organization’s work.

Sometimes, it takes an “aha!” moment to get everyone in the organization excited about the power of stories.


Ron Geatz is director of global content at the Nature Conservancy. It’s an organization that is very fact and data-driven.

But, Ron was not impressed.

Especially during his first meeting with the directors of the organization.

It was a stats and facts orgy

“People in the audience were literally falling asleep,” he said.

The question in Ron’s mind was, “How do you get people like that to embrace the power of stories? The meetings could be so much more dynamic, interesting, and involving if they would.”

So, he started by immediately banning PowerPoint slides from the next meeting. And implored them to tell a single story instead.

A PowerPoint turnaround

Ron worked with each director to find a personal story about his or her work. Then he built their confidence in telling that personal story in front of a group of their peers.

“Everyone was nervous and uncertain about it, right up until the last minute,” he said.

“But the results were transformational.”

“People became more engaged and connected. And tons of internal excitement was generated around the power of stories.”

Check your story success

Evaluating story success is critical. Especially if you want to reinforce an organization-wide mindset and appreciation for stories.

You should look for opportunities to highlight outcomes. Things like the results of experiences and the stories came from them. Shared social media stories.

Highlight how they helped achieve measurable goals. Build this reporting into meetings where the staff share stories.


Capacity means actually making a concrete investment. It’s having the systems, talent, and resources in place.

The question is how to maximize your investment in storytellers? Many face the choice of whether to invest internally, externally, or both.

Here a few common ways other purpose-driven organizations divide their storytelling investment:

  • Do away with all PowerPoint presentations, stat sheets, and spreadsheet reviews. Insist that people tell the story of the data.
  • Establish an internal team of storytellers. They should have skills in photography, video, and storytelling basics. Interns or volunteers can bring skills and expertise. But a full-time staff member should coordinate the process. That person’s goal is keep the process going and to transfer knowledge to others.
  • Teach everyone what a real story sounds and looks like and how it’s structured. Hold a staff meeting to openly discuss what real storytelling is. It should include why stories matter, and why all staff members play a vital role in it. Your focus should be to inspire them with examples, ideas, and, of course, stories. This kind of forum can help breakdown any hesitations people have. Especially about telling clients’ or donors’ stories.
  • Appoint a single person, to be the storytelling focal point of the organization. This person leads the collection, training, and planning for stories. They coordinate an internal staff in that effort.
  • Assign a team or person to collaborate with external professionals and production companies.

It may be too costly to only hire outside professionals to do their storytelling.

Many smaller organizations focus on building internal capacity. That means training people. It means hiring staff with existing storytelling interests and skills. Or it could mean spreading storytelling training across teams.

Where will the stories come from?

Even when an organization tries the story approach, it sometimes can’t find the right stories. Let alone create them.

And even when great stories appear, they slip through their fingers. Or they’re not leveraged with staff and tribe members.

Creating an atmosphere where stories are recognized and thrive requires transitional changes. You know, the kinds that are never easy.

A story atmosphere

Here’s what organizations that make stories an important part of their culture do:

  • Listen intently to your tribe members to find their worldview. That includes their view of what needs to change in the world. And the things that they emotionally value and care most about. See how they connect emotionally with other tribe members and with your organization.
  • Based on that on-going listening, develop a set of strategic needs and goals. They should be based on tribe needs, your mission, your purpose, and, most important, your why.
  • Have a key executive commit to storytelling and to sourcing for it.
  • Know your organization’s heritage and adapt it to the issues of the day.Listen obsessively to your tribe. Listen to the stories they tell themselves about your cause.
  • Listen to the stories they tell to one another. Listen to the stories they tell about the experiences you create for them.
  • Constantly train your staff about what makes a real story and how they are structured. That way they’ll be able to spot tribe stories that have potential. Your focus should be to inspire them with examples, ideas and, of course, stories.
  • Identify some storytelling role models who work in your organization and in others. Hire the ones from outside your team. Teach them all what makes real storytelling. Then use them to support your staff after story training.
  • Offer incentives to staff members who find potential stories.
  • Develop organizational story structures and processes. Support them with a staff that can find and curate stories. And design experiences.

So where are you?

Here are some questions that can help you find out.

They can guide you in assessing your culture. Or discovering your readiness to adopt more of a storytelling culture:

  • Is there a uniform belief in the value of storytelling? Is there support for its use throughout the organization, from top to bottom?
  • Do staff members feel confident in their ability to share stories? Do those stories illustrate the organization’s purpose and mission?
  • What happens when stories lead to more awareness or funds? Does management share these successes with staff?
  • Is the staff encouraged to develop storytelling skills? Do they have access to professional development from outside experts?
  • Does the staff meet at regular intervals (weekly, monthly) to share and discuss stories?
  • Is storytelling incorporated into at least one staff member’s core job duties?
  • Do staff storytellers seek professional development opportunities? Do they continually expand their skills?
  • Is there a dedicated budget for producing stories (including upkeep of software/hardware)?
  • Do different departments handle story collection? If so is there an organized system for transferring this information from one to the other?

The power of transformation

If you want people to believe you and become engaged with your purpose then you need a storytelling culture. As the world changes, it will be your stories that will bridge the gap. They will make you relevant.

But that’s just my opinion. What’s your take.