Kathleen Kelly Janus

Kathleen Kelly Janus is a social entrepreneur, author, and lecturer at the Stanford Program on Social Entrepreneurship.

The Secret to Creating a Compelling Narrative About Your Changemaker Initiative

Tell me, what grabs your attention more: a list of statistics spelling out the down and dirty facts, or a story – a narrative that really draws you in with a common mission? Recent research suggests you’d choose the latter, proving that our brains are far more engaged by storytelling than the cold, hard facts. This is true for nonprofits, just as much as it’s true for any university campus changemaker initiative.

We are now in a new age of marketing. Stories powerfully connect us to our listeners. It gives your audience a chance to feel like they’re one with an authentic cause and person – the human behind the brand. Great leaders recognize that human connection comes far before concepts and strategies, because after all, what’s a strategy without a story to drive it?

Changemaker initiatives on campus compete for student attention with so many other campus departments and programs. Embracing the wisdom of a good story is one way to break through the noise, all while tapping into digital platforms to spread that story near and far. From Facebook Livestream to harnessing the immersive storytelling power of virtual reality, there have never been more ways to engage and inspire your audience, and that all starts with crafting a compelling narrative.

While it may seem that some people are just born storytellers – take Tom’s Shoes founder Blake Mycoski or Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp – what I’ve found from interviewing countless organization leaders is that it’s more the product of a whole lot of preparation and practice than that of innate talent. As we head into a new semester and a new year, use these tips to create your own narrative for your changemaker initiative.

Get to Know Your Audience

Whether you’re preparing a presentation or designing an event, you must know your audience. I suggest sitting down with your team to create your target audience’s persona, so that you can ensure you’re speaking to them directly. Ask yourself these questions:

● What demographic groups on campus are you most interested in attracting? Consider age group, gender, and discipline.
● How do they think? This involves getting to the bottom of their suspected values, interests, and behaviors.
● What needs and challenges do they face? This shifts the conversation from how they can help you, to how you can help them.
● What media outlets can you find them on? It’s important to know where you can reach your audience. Are they on Facebook, scrolling through popular blogs, or engaging on LinkedIn? These questions can help develop your storytelling plan, and decide where to devote the most time telling it.

Connect the Story to a Popular Narrative

One of the most powerful ways to create a sense of urgency is by connecting your message to a current issue in the news, or crafting a “news hook.” Constantly be alert to what’s happening in the news, and be ready to pounce on as soon as it hits. This gives you the chance to author an opinion piece that links back to your changemaker initiative, or use relevant happenings during a presentation. Use the stories to help promote your message, and remember, the more topical you can make a presentation, facebook post, or background story, the more convincing your call to action will be.

How to Craft Your Story

Now that we’ve covered the basics, it’s time to jump in to craft your own narrative. As you get started, ask yourself these questions:

● Do you have a clear sense of the key message that your program needs to convey?
● Have you developed a story of self that connects you to cause and creates intimacy with the audience?
● Have you developed a story of us that connects the audience to the cause?
● Have you developed a story of now that conveys the urgency of the problem?
● Do you follow the news cycle to find ways to connect your changemaking initiative to current events?


Kathleen Kelly Janus is a social entrepreneur, author, and lecturer at the Stanford Program on Social Entrepreneurship. Her new book, Social Startup Success: How the Best Nonprofits Launch, Scale Up and Make a Difference, shares all this and more. Whether you’re ready to launch a new centre on campus, a new nonprofit, or teach students how to do so, you’ll find all the tools and tricks you need to make a difference.