From simple weekly rituals to annual days-long summits, there are a plethora of tactics we can use in our communities to prompt engagement and encourage connection. But one of the most effective is often overlooked, despite its tremendous benefits: storytelling.
Storytelling forges bonds between members in a way that little else can. “We are, as a species, addicted to story,” US author Jonathan Gottschall once said, “Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
In a way, humans crave stories — perhaps in the same way we gravitate toward communities. Tapping into this powerful community tool can help us develop stronger bonds among our members and make the entire experience more valuable and memorable.
Here’s why storytelling is so effective within communities — and how you can use it to build an even stronger foundation for yours.
Something magic happens when members within the same community have a shared experience, or way of thinking. For both the sharer and those they’re sharing with, the experience can be one of profound connection.
For instance, I asked members to bring an object related to my guest's story — a local creative entrepreneur selling homemade soy candles. I do it every time the context allows me. Usually, there's always a chance to bring the personality of my guest into the event, no matter if it's a creative doing psychical objects (such as soy candles or ceramics) or a digital one (illustrations, design, even code).
The object should say something about their favorite scent. People sparked plenty of meaningful conversations by offering details such as what reminds them of, where did they first experience the smell, and what memory triggers them around it. They felt seen due to their contribution. On top of that, they could understand my guest's world a bit better and even offer ideas for future collections.
Even if other members haven’t had a similar experience, there’s something in us that recognizes and appreciates the courage it takes to share. Often, that sparks a desire to reciprocate, to give something of ourselves — and so the cycle continues.
Stories have the power to equalize. If they're authentic and honest, they can dilute all kinds of differences between us. A similar, or shared experience — even something as simple as a story about a song we loved growing up, or a recipe our grandmothers used to make — somehow diminishes fundamental differences.
In a world as divided as it is today, it's more important than ever to bridge the gap. One way I'm facilitating this is by publishing vulnerable stories about creative entrepreneurs' journeys in our bi-monthly newsletter.
Often, people running businesses, even small ones, only share the good stuff: the launching campaign for the upcoming product, the glamorous new office, the new round of investment, the media coverage... However, we learn so much when we reveal our weaknesses, challenges, and failed experiments too. These narratives open an authentic dialogue — one where nobody has something to prove, yet everyone has something to learn.
The responses to our newsletter series were mind-blowing. People were in love with the writer's authenticity and vulnerability, and started to open up and share their struggles.
We're bad at facts — but we're been great at stories. It’s much easier to remember a narrative than keeping track of cold, hard data. Therefore, encouraging members to tell stories that resonate with others helps build momentum and stickiness within your community. A powerful story, especially one you can connect to, stays with your members. By extension, your community stays top-of-mind too.
There are dozens of ways to do it, but I chose a few specific things that you can start exploring within your community to encourage storytelling among the members.
Run surveys and interviews with your members and ask questions that dig a little deeper.
E.g. “When was the last time you felt being part of our community had a major impact on your life, and what was the impact?”
Every month (or whenever you feel suitable), invite members to send you a story about something that was tough to navigate.
E.g. “Share a difficult experience that gave you a different perspective on being a single mom.”
Think a mix between text, audio, and video. Try building a collective story with your members around a topic that's relevant and juicy.
E.g. “Being a single mom comes with various challenges depending on where you're located; let's hear how mothers experience it on their side of the world.” Ask folks to send in short audio clips sharing their experiences, and edit them into a podcast.
In essence, putting storytelling at the core of your community-building efforts can start with shifting the paradigm and encouraging folks to view things from a different perspective. Rather than creating a ton of content that quickly becomes trivial, construct compelling narratives that have the power to change, to heal, to encourage — for the benefit of you and your community.