Douglas Gould and Company is a strategic communications firm dedicated to helping progressive nonprofit organizations and foundations use communications tools to advance important causes.

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Solutions Storytelling Key for Mobilizing Advocates around Children’s Issues

Every day, across the United States, organizations work tirelessly to improve the lives of children and families. Yet too often their stories are not widely known. Douglas Gould and Company, in partnership with the Topos Partnership for the Child Advocacy 360 Foundation has completed a groundbreaking report on how to tell these organizations' stories in ways that expand the impact of their work and compel public interest and support.

As a result of the study, we developed with research partner Meg Bostrom of Topos Partnership a list recommended story elements as well as traps to avoid aimed at helping organizations to craft more effective and compelling stories that will result in positive reactions from target audiences.

Story Elements That Work

The following five story elements can help to create solution stories that result in positive reaction from audiences and can help to inspire action such as volunteerism, donation and advocacy.

  1. Community Connection — Parents tend to limit their view of children to their own family and they retreat even further inside this bubble when confronted with news about failing children. But they will act on behalf of kids who are not their own when a clear link is established with the broader community. Stories should show solutions that everyone benefits from. This helps to make the connection that effective programs help kids to grow up to be contributing members of society, and the community.
  2. The Big Picture — Stories about individual children are less effective than those that take a broader view about the value of intervention. The research revealed two approaches for keeping readers focused on the big picture. One is to emphasize the role of public structures like Head Start and after-school programs. The message: that we all rely on them, kids in particular. Another approach is to avoid a narrow focus by listing multiple programs that offer solutions. “Even if people end up keying in on one or two examples, this approach helps them focus on the wide availability of approaches that work,” Sarbin said. “The reader should understand that we have many ways of ensuring that all kids have the best chance in life.”
  3. Necessary, Not Just Nice — Non-essential programs are usually cut during economic downturns. To ensure support, highlighting programs that offer solutions help position them as necessary, not simply nice to have. The story should describe how a solution works and describe the benefit to the entire community. The goal should be that anyone who reads about an organization’s work should come away feeling that it would be short-sighted to weaken its programs and services.
  4. Inspiring Action — People often refrain from taking action even when inspired by what they read. One way to motivate them is to show examples of the desired behavior; as an example of the role they could play in being part of the solution. The most successful test stories offer testimonials about how citizens worked together for change. Stories that discussed change in the abstract had little impact.
  5. Proving Effectiveness —Though using this type of storytelling about a solution seems like a daunting task, it can be done, and the research shows it is easier than it looks. The proof can consist of either anecdotal evidence or statistics. Some suggestions based on the research findings include:
    • Use anecdotal proof when there is no statistical proof. And don’t wait for proof to launch a communications strategy.
    • Incorporate testimonials from volunteers or others who can vouch for the success of a program.
    • Keep the material fresh. People are less likely to view a solution as effective when the description reminds them of a “familiar and unconstructive story” they’ve already read.
    • Be careful when using numbers to illustrate a challenge. They can overwhelm people and remind them of how intractable the problem is.

Traps to Avoid

The research also identified several common traps, or mistakes, that can lead to reduced support.

  • Bad Parent Trap – Readers tend to find fault with the parents featured in stories, even when they are sympathetically portrayed. Emphasis on parental failure causes readers to show less interest in collective solutions.
  • Intractable Problem Trap – Avoid starting a story in the “Crisis Frame.” And don’t dwell on the problem, especially when there is a solution for it. “Stories constructed as ‘problem then solution,’ are often heard as ‘problem, no solution,” Sarbin said.
  • Just Politics Trap – People are tired of bickering politicians who accomplish little. Advocates should avoid any message that evokes partisan politics or the idea that change is impossible.

The research is based on online survey interviews with 2,006 registered voters nationwide, six focus group sessions with voters in three states, and TalkBack Testing, in which 240 participants were tested on their ability to repeat the core of a message and pass it on to others. In a unique quantitative approach, survey participants were exposed to different types of stories, including soft-solutions stories (stories that reported success in children's programs without hard details); hard-solutions stories (that included details), and problem-oriented stories offering no solutions.

Read Solutions Storytelling: Messaging to Mobilize Support for Children’s Issues