Storytelling and Social Impact

The ability to tell a compelling and evocative story is a critical part of our work, especially if it is related to creating a social impact.

Communicating with clients, potential donors, bank loan officials, remote co-workers, and supervisors can benefit from effective storytelling.

Harley J. (@harleyjj93) - Profile Photo




  • Ask yourself what is the social impact story you want to tell, its title, main characters and audience. Figure out the desired outcome.
  • Keep your narrative vivid and relatable to the audience, showing them the impact of your work.
  • Ensure your story is linear and has certain milestones that help the audience follow through.

One needs the right audience to deliver a good story:

  1. A job interview requires you to use your storytelling skills to highlight your past success in a compelling and confident manner.
  2. A presentation does not have to be facts and figures, but a backdrop of your story, illustrating your words as you narrate it.
  3. While reaching out to an external audience, one needs to understand the issues they face and make it personal for them in your narration.
  • Even if public speaking isn’t something that you excel at, you can craft stories, newsletters, emails, blogs, press releases and grant applications.
  • Social media is designed for storytelling, and you can broadcast to a wide audience with Facebook and Instagram.
  • Use an audio or video message to showcase the impact of your work, and use it as an instant story tool to new audiences.
  • Read your favourite storybooks and listen to TED talks that deliver great, impactful stories, learning new methods to fine-tune your message.
Failure of communication

The goal of effective communication in the workplace is to reach a mutual understanding. We want everyone on the same page so that we can move in the same direction.

When working from home, we can easily confuse being constantly connected to our colleagues with effective communication. But it is not the same. We can follow some strategies to ensure we are getting our point across, and we can listen to others.

Assuming your listeners are aware of the same knowledge as you can lead to a communication breakdown.

A good strategy to avoiding assumption-based confusion is to ensure your message is straightforward and quantifiable. More information is better than less. If you are unsure if you are understood, ask your listeners.

More communication is different from good communication. Before you hit "send" on a companywide email, consider what you are trying to achieve.

Knowing your goal can be helpful in choosing a suitable medium for communication. Before calling a meeting, ask if it is the best way to reach your goal. You may be able to convey the same message in an email thread.

How we communicate comes down to tone. The way we say something matters. It sends messages about how we're feeling.

This is true for verbal and written communication. In writing, the tone is conveyed through language choice and formatting. Capitalised words feel like the sender is shouting. Chatty, unpunctuated messages are not suitable when sending a project update to your boss.

Active listening is an essential part of communication. It does not mean agreeing with everything you're told.

Active listening includes respecting others' perspectives and avoiding judgmental language.

Making people pay attention to your ideas

Mathematician and philosopher Gian-Carlo Rota specialized in functional analysis, probability theory, phenomenology, and combinatorics.

In 1996, he gave a talk, "Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught," which contains valuable practical advice for making people pay attention to your ideas.

If we have a conversation, read a book, or listen to a talk, we are very unlikely to remember much of it. Even if we enjoyed and valued it, only a small part will stay with us.

When you are communicating with people, try to give them something to take home. Choose a memorable line or idea, a visual image, or use humour.

Presentation matters. The way our work looks influences how people perceive it.

Take the time to clean your equivalent of a blackboard to signal that you care about what you're doing.

What we present should correspond to what we want an attentive listener to take down in his notebook.

We should make it simple for people to understand our ideas on the spot. We shouldn't expect them to revisit it later. Even if they do, we won't be there to answer questions or clear up any misunderstandings.

Your one main point should be repeated over and over, like a theme with variations.

If we make one point well enough, people will understand and remember it. If we try to fit too much in, the audience will lose interest and go back to their thoughts before they were interrupted.

One minute overtime can destroy the best of lectures.

It's essential to respect the time and attention of others. Attention spans are limited. After a certain point, people stop taking in new information. Don't expect them to still hang on your lips after the required time. Instead, put in the extra work for brevity and clarity.

Try to spot someone in the audience whose work you have some familiarity with. Then rearrange your presentation so as to mention some of that person's work. Everyone in the audience has come to listen to your lecture hoping of hearing their work mentioned.

Reciprocity is very persuasive. If you want people to pay attention to your work, always pay attention to theirs first. Show that you see them and appreciate them.

Mathematician Frederic Riesz published the same ideas multiple times, each time improving until he was ready to publish a final paper.

In our work, we don't need to have fresh ideas all of the time. We can build on an initial idea. Sometimes, we can do our best work through an iterative process. For example, a writer could start by sharing an idea as a tweet. If it gets a good response, the replies help them expand it into a blog post, then a talk, and eventually, a book.

Gian-Carlo Rota noted that many of the mathematicians he admired were known more for their work explaining and building upon existing ideas. Their extensive knowledge of their domain meant that they could expand further.

Never be afraid to stand on the shoulders of giants.

They use a few tricks over and over again. The smartest and most successful people are often only good at a few things - or just one thing. However, they maximize those strengths without getting distracted.

If you've hit diminishing returns with improvements, then experiment with things you already have an aptitude for but haven't made them your focus.

There are two kinds of mistakes: One is fatal and can destroy a theory, but the other is small and won't completely ruin your work.

Building in a safety margin, such as more time or funding, can turn fatal mistakes into contingent ones.

Introductions are providing prospective readers with a strong motivation to read your work.

Introductions are about:

  • explaining what a piece of work will be about,
  • what the purpose is,
  • and why someone should be interested in it.
The Logic Behind Lying

According to several studies done regarding dishonesty, the motivation of a person to lie increases when there is a self-benefitting factor behind it.

Therefore, the higher and bigger the benefit, the higher and the bigger motivation there is for the person to lie.

  • The part of our brain that shows much activity when lying is our amygdalas - the one responsible for processing emotions and arousal, as well as the fight or flight response.
  • It has been perceived that with every lie we tell there is a decrease of activity in our amygdala. The bigger the level drop of activity, the bigger the next lie will be.
  • The more we lie the more we become desensitized to the negative emotions corresponding to each lie told.

To prevent desensitization we must be wary of every action and word we speak. It's basically practicing being mindful - the practice of paying attention to our body's every behavior and being present with our emotional state.

Once we develop our ability to be aware of our emotional state we can resist the unconscious desensitization of adverse emotions and reduce the chances of lying repetitively.

Over time, with the more lies we tell and how big they are, it costs us our ability to empathize and be compassionate towards ourselves and other people.

Humans have the power to deceive other people but also the ability to convince ourselves of the untruths we tell ourselves.

The moment we gain insight as to what our motivation is to lie, it is possible we can prevent ourselves from telling the lie in the first place.

  • Ask open-ended questions: they unlock more information from people
  • Ask “why” 3 times:  the easiest way to deepen the level of a conversation
  • Ask about specifics, not generalizations
  • Frame questions around a person’s reactions to experiences
  • Pay attention to answers and ask follow-up questions to dig deeper
  • If you want to learn from somebody, the easiest way is to ask them what they’ve learned
  • The most interesting information is found in stories, so ask people to tell you one
  • Ask what else you should ask.

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