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Faculty Lee-Sean Huang on How To Create Social Change: 3 Expert Storytelling Techniques

Talk story. Build Community. Make Change.

Techniques inspired by a trip to Hawai’i

The following is a guest post from Lee-Sean Huang, co-founder and creative director at Foossa, a community-centered design consultancy. During my recent interview with d.light co-founder Sam Goldman, he talked about the importance of telling real-life stories when convincing investors of the potential for large-scale change. I immediately thought Lee-Sean’s expert storytelling techniques would be the perfect ‘how to’ complement.

Lee-Sean Huang: Sitting down to write this post, I thought about how I could talk about my experience in storytelling and social change for globesprouting readers. Exploring my stream of consciousness, I began reflecting on my recent visit to Hawai’i, which then gave me the inspiration for the following three insights on successful social change storytelling.

1. Start with “why?”

Why did I go to Hawai’i? I went to attend a childhood friend’s wedding. We have known each other for our entire lives. Our moms went to high school together in Taiwan. But even if I didn’t have a wedding to attend, I hardly need an excuse to visit the Islands. I’ve been to Hawai’i several times, although it was my first time visiting the island of Kaua’i. Over twenty years ago, our families went on vacation together in Maui, where we got to snorkel with honu, Hawaiian sea turtles…

You get the point. The story can continue on from there, but it all started by answering the “why.”

I often begin my storytelling workshops with an exercise in which I have participants pair up and ask each other why they are there. I have them repeat the question five times to each other, with each repetition requiring a different answer. This “five whys” exercise helps participants dig deep into their motivations and helps them understand that answering a “why” question is a powerful prompt for telling compelling stories.

Why stories? Storytelling is about connecting ideas and connecting people. Stories help us to make sense of the world and our place in it. For those of us in the business of social change, storytelling is about communicating our vision for a better world and helps us draw a line from here to there. Our stories help turn skeptics into supporters and supporters into community members. These kinds of connecting stories start with us sharing about ourselves and our motivations: Who are you, and why do you do what you do?

Harvard professor Marshall Ganz has created a framework called the “Public Narrative” to help changemakers craft their stories starting with “why.” Learn more in this guide.

2. Invite others into your story

Sun, sand, and surf are among the attractions that entice visitors to Hawai’i, which depends on tourism as a large part of the local economy. Many other tourist destinations also use images of warm sunny beaches to entice visitors, but Hawai’i stands out by sharing the things that make it special: diverse indigenous and immigrant cultures, unique flora and fauna evolved out of the Island’s geographical isolation, and the spirit of aloha.

The goal of telling your story is to stand out from the noise of the crowd and then invite your listeners to want to learn more about you. While the stereotypes of sun, sand, and surf where what first brought me to visit Hawai’i, the more times I visited, the more I wanted to go deeper into the culture of the place.

I learned that the Hawaiian Islands were first settled by Polynesians, who crossed thousands of miles of open ocean, navigating only with their knowledge of the stars and their observations of the bird migration patterns. And they managed to do this centuries before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic. Fascinated by the Native Hawaiian names of people and places, I ended up studying a bit of the indigenous language. I would listen to language lessons on my phone to brighten up my New York City commutes and to remind me of the warmth of aloha, even during the frigid Northeastern winters. I also bought a ukulele on one of my trips a few years back and have been learning how to play it ever since.

Whether it’s your self-introduction or elevator pitch, the goal of telling stories is to build relationships. Stories are an invitation for dialog and for going deeper. Immersive storytelling is about seduction, building suspense, and a progressive reveal. Not everyone will go deep in your story, but that’s ok. Our stories as changemakers are about making invitations to participate in our vision and community, and not propaganda to manipulate our audience. That means telling stories that respect our audience’s intelligence and personal agency.

Inviting others into your story is about bringing them into your community and ramping them up a commitment curve. Learn more about the community commitment curve in this post from Carrie Melissa Jones.

3. Use your whole body

The Hawaiian hula is much more than a dance. It’s an embodied art form that incorporates chanting, musical instruments, and movement to tell stories from Hawaiian history and folklore. Hula was one of the primary methods of transmitting culture in the days before Western missionaries brought the written alphabet to the Islands. Those missionaries also brought puritanical religious taboos and culture prejudices, which led them to ban hula for a period of time. But the art form, and the culture survived. Today, even in it’s more commercialized forms, hula tells the story of the Hawaiian people’s perseverance and pride in the face of colonial oppression.

For me, the hula is a reminder that stories are about more than just our words and our voices. It’s about putting our whole body and mind into what we do. From the first handshake with a potential funder or partner, to the way we hold ourselves when we stand up to give our pitch or to tell our story on stage, storytelling is as much about the choreography of our bodies as it is about the words of our monologues. Our bodies are vessels for the stories that we tell.

While I am not a practitioner of hula, I have my own way of combining storytelling and movement in my own creative practice. By day, I teach students and consult clients at the intersection of storytelling, design, and social innovation. In the evenings, I train and teach capoeira, a martial art disguised as a dance developed by enslaved Africans in Brazil. The capoeira training has definitely influenced my storytelling practice. It has helped me hone my sense of timing and improvisation. It has trained me to be more assertive with my posture and voice when telling my stories.

Even if you plan on telling your story in writing or other static form, it’s helpful to engage our whole bodies, not just our brains and our fingers for typing. According to Stanislav Grof, “Albert Einstein discovered the basic principles of relativity in an unusual state of consciousness; according to his description, most of the insights came to him in the form of kinesthetic sensations in his muscles.” In a similar way, storytelling is not just a cerebral practice. It is also a kinesthetic one. What stories might we discover from within our own bodies?

I developed the ideas for this blog post while walking around town between meetings. I continued thinking about what story to tell while working out at the gym, and took notes on my phone between sets. Even after I sat down at my computer to write, I got up and took frequent breaks. I ate cookies and drank tea. I stayed up late and paced around my apartment, but eventually, the story cohered and the words flowed.

Our bodies are our instruments for telling stories. As storytellers, we grow as we learn to maintain, tune, and play our instruments. It’s simple, but not easy. The only way to get better is through practice: start with why, invite others into your story, and devote your whole self into your storytelling.

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