How A Single Story Shifts Beliefs & Actions, For Better or Worse

How A Single Story Shifts Beliefs & Actions, For Better or Worse
Photo by Rain Bennett on Unsplash

Storytelling is a powerful tool that shapes our views and beliefs and even motivates our actions. A single story can teach us and move us in ways simple facts never could. Although statistics might startle us, it's a story that will grip us emotionally and call us into action.

Science agrees with this. When we engage with a story filled with pain and tension, our brains chemically respond by producing chemicals like oxytocin and cortisol that evoke distress and empathy. This hormonal mixer is what motivates us to take action.

And this phenomenon is why people often give to charity.

After hearing a personal story of distress and how an organization is helping the cause, many people feel motivated to donate and join the cause in a bigger way.

At the same time, storytelling can warp our perception of people, places, and problems in a way that's both harmful and untrue. Because story powerfully influences our beliefs and actions, we must use the power of a single story rightly and responsibly.

Here's how we can do this together.

The Danger of A Single Story

If you google "power of a single story," you'll quickly find a TEDTalk from 2009 called The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you've never seen it, I highly recommend taking 20 minutes to watch it. Her speech is raw, impactful, and totally shifted my perspective on the power we possess with sharing stories.

Adichie gives a powerful speech about how stories shape our opinions and impact the people who hear them. She also addresses the "unintended consequences" of literature.

She grew up in Nigeria and started reading when she was able. However, she only read books about kids with "blue eyes, ate apples, and talked about the weather." She never knew it was possible for someone who looked like her to exist in literature.

How heartbreaking is that?

Additionally, she shares her experience with being African and the awkward conversations she had with her roommate. One example is that her roommate wanted to know about her "native language," even though the national language of Nigeria is English. Her roommate also wanted to listen to Adichie's "tribal music," even though Mariah Carey was one of Adichie's favorite artists.  

Why would her roommate ask such discriminating questions? Probably because that's the picture she had in her head about African people. She likely heard stories about Africa from white, privileged Americans and formed assumptions about them.

“So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

That's why how we talk about the people we serve is incredibly important.

A single story can shape how we view an entire culture, society, and global issue. It can also impact how those within the culture, society, or global issue view themselves. Both are extremely powerful. We need to recognize the impact of our stories and take great care in how we share our narratives.

Helpful Hint: One of my favorite resources addressing this and similar issues in the mission-driven industry is When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

How Mission-Driven Organizations Use The Power of A Single Story

As marketers, storytellers, and changemakers for the greater good, we must not ignore the power we possess in the words and stories we share.

A single story can create an incredible impact. And, just as it has created harm, we can use it as a force for good. Nonprofit organizations use stories for good all the time in their marketing communications, and here's the simple formula they use.

The Single Story Formula

  • First, they share the problem at large.
  • Then, they zoom in on a single story.
  • Finally, they recap the big-picture impact of their work.

Why do they use this storytelling strategy? Because sharing statistics doesn't grab people emotionally. When we can hone in on a single face, we suddenly feel a human connection to the greater issue, even if we've never experienced the problem personally.

We vicariously live and experience a stranger's life through storytelling. The distress and empathy we feel from a story can compel us to act or change how we think about an issue.

Along with this idea, Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath includes "story" as one of the core elements that make an idea "sticky" or memorable to an audience.

“...A credible idea makes people believe. An emotional idea makes people care. And…the right stories make people act.” ~ Made to Stick

A single story, zoomed in for an uncomfortable close-up, will engage us emotionally with that person's experience. And it's part of what makes us social beings. A story starts by sharing the broad issues at hand. Then, it highlights a specific person and their individual problem. This tactic humanizes the cause and engages the audience at a heart level.

Example of A Single Story Done Well

Caption from YouTube: Hannah was one of the original girls who found refuge at Lighthouse Foundation Nepal (LHFN), one of Venture's key partners in the fight against trafficking. She is the first of her village to graduate from college, and today works for LHFN to continue offering hope to those most vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Ways to Use the Single Story For Good

Suppose you zero in on a single story in your communications. In that case, you can highlight your organization's life-changing work while still honoring the people and places you are serving. Here are a few things to keep in mind to do this well.

Share what is true.

You don't want to share an overly exaggerated narrative to evoke a greater emotional response. Doing this can make you lose trust with your audience. You can change names for privacy, but it's important to stick as closely as possible to the real details and disclose any changes you make. The goal is to illuminate the issue and share a true story where your organization made a real impact.

Honor your neighbor.

The people you serve have complex lives (just like you!) with dreams, desires, struggles, and challenges. It would be best if you emphasized this in your storytelling. You can use language that retains respect and dignity for those you serve. An example of this is how you refer to them. For example, people who suffered from sexual assault were once called victims. Now, these same people are called survivors. How we talk about people creates a narrative—labels matter. Use them to empower, not to degrade.

Stories have the power to illuminate real issues, connect people, and make the world a better place. Unfortunately, they can also create false images of the people and places we serve and cause insurmountable harm to their dignity and wellbeing.

We must be careful how we use stories in our communications. And there's a way we can use story responsibly to highlight the greater impact of our organization. Doing this will highlight our cause and accurately depict the people and places we serve. This way, we can teach our audience about the problem at hand while retaining the dignity of those we serve.

If you want help crafting a story for your nonprofit communications, I would be honored to connect with you. Let's get in touch and find time to talk.