How to Use Stories to Change the World

How to Use Stories to Change the World

Reader Comments (59)

  1. Hey Maggie and Zoë,

    This is an amazing post! Thanks for sharing this touching story. Reading this post made me realize that we have so much to be grateful for. Thanks for sharing this!

    Chat with you later…

  2. I, at first, followed trends, imitated notable blogs, but nothing was paying off. Comments depended on the generosity of my friends, and the very passion I had for writing started to deplete because no one was reading.

    Until I turned the table around and introduced myself to the world, through unbiased, poignant but always humorous personal stories. “Why talk about people when my life is more interesting?” I thought to myself.

    Granted, I write semi-anonymously lest I should get in trouble, either from my immediate surrounding (Try to come out to your family and friends as being gay, over a cup of coffee, in the Arab World), or from the government (Criticizing one’s government is not exactly common practice in supposedly-democratic, yet army-governed, nations).

    I, however, poured my heart into recounting how I grew up into a terrorizing, decade-long civil war that shattered my country and all its inhabitants’ lives, which few people heard of. The raw depiction of how this terrorism wave has affected me has touched many people, which proves that human emotion can and does transcend computer screens.

    Oppression, injustice and lack of freedom of speech are things to which I am vehemently averse. It is to fight those that I write, besides the healing virtue of building a chosen e-family.

  3. I think “how” we amplify stories will change all the time, but the fact that we’re asking the question of “how” is the important matter. It’s awesome to see the blogosphere awaken to the idea that blogging is about stories, which are naturally shared from person-to-person, and so the essence of great blogging is telling a highly sharable story.

    And as for the how, I think building a personal community has meant much to me. Not just the community of a blog or of a social network, but my own community of people I tend to interact with across those mediums.

  4. What an amazing post,

    and so touching as well. Grrreat stories can make a huge difference; it’s a shame most people don’t dare to tell them.

    A good story can touch and inspire people, and can show them ways that don’t exist yet. A good story connects the cause with the reader, just like this one.

  5. This is it.

    Yes, we want to use our words to sell, to teach, to make a living, to keep us in food and clothes and i-phones.

    But this – this is the bigger why of why we have voices.

  6. Thank you for a great story. I know what I write about informs, but it is so insignificant. My blog is related to designing outdoor rooms, but I want to also report on the information I receive regarding the people of Burma. I will just incorporate it into the blog with stories. Create awareness.

  7. This is a wonderful project. We all…yes all… have something important to contribute to life, and stories to be told that will help others see that we are all one, and not seperate. Harm done to one is harm done to all. Good done for one is good done to all.

  8. I just saw a documentary on this subject and it was truly eye-opening. Thank you for bringing it up here to such a wide audience!

    I grew up during Vietnam and one of the movements during that time that helped me feel like I was doing something, anything, was being a pen pal to soldiers and then supporting the MIAs with wearing a bracelet with their name engraved on it. For the people in Burma, is it possible to have letters mailed out to bloggers here in the US that would be willing to post their letters online, maintaining confidentiality of names, etc.? Sort of a pen pal for the people in Burma? And can we do it using even regular mail for those that don’t have electricity or internet access? My voice in the online world is small at the moment but I’d be happy to help with social media and a blog just for this…anything to help have voices from Burma be heard.


  9. I’ve written a post or two along these lines, basically saying we tend to have an erroneous view of how ubiquitous the Internet actually is. You need a device and you need access and if you can’t afford them you’re out of luck. You are not part of the “conversation.”

    When the Haiti crisis happened, there was a good deal of talk about people tweeting etc. from there, but I can’t believe those people doing so were the huge population that were unemployed or making a buck or two a day. Those with access were government employees, foreign workers etc.

    We all tell our stories online. Perhaps it’s time to ask bloggers and others to tell someone else’s story on their blogs. I’m sure some of these stories you’ve collected could be reposted on the blogs of others. They could include links to Voice of Witness as well as the donation link.

    And maybe we can start a conversation about who can actually get items like iPads etc. and if there is a way to address this gap so everyone who wants to tell their story can.

    I can’t help thinking about the title of an old Harlan Ellison story, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.”

  10. This is a truly inspiring post! I fully believe in writing your own personal stories when you blog. Blogging shouldn’t always be about Top 10 lists, and it doesn’t need to be completely objective. We are becoming an endless stream of nuggets, sound bytes and take-aways. It’s refreshing to see someone “put the human” back into it. And, I’m grateful to be reminded about how lucky I am to be a blogger in a country that doesn’t persecute me for what I say.

  11. The best way to get the true stories heard is to post links to this article everywhere – does it exist anywhere other than Copyblogger?

    I’ll link to it on my Facebook – although my meager number of friends isn’t much, hopefully they’ll repost and their friends will repost and on and on. You could even create a Facebook group for it. I’m sure you’ve already thought of this though…

    I joined your newsletter when I got a position as a copywriter, even though I have no experience with writing copy. I was hoping to find some guidance for what exactly I should be doing as our company develops our brand, but I’ve learned so much more than that.

    You’ve inspired me to get back in touch with the art that I love so much and this article inspires me to remember why it is that I love stories so much – they inform, they elicit emotions and they can change everything, sometimes with only a few sentences.

  12. Hi Maggie and Zoë,

    Thank you for posting this. I had not heard of your project and I am deeply thankful to Copyblogger for sharing your story.

    I fully understand what you are doing and have extensive background in oral history myself. Here in one thought I have after visiting your website.

    It is not immediately obvious to me how these stories relate to me. In other words, unless I am already deeply interested in struggle for human rights in Burma, I am not automatically drawn into the stories you present.

    One of the reasons stories are so powerful, is because they afford the opportunity to explain how I can relate to a person, rather than the larger—and therefore abstract—problem of human rights.

    Non-profit fundraisers often use a story to show how one donation made a significant impact, or how the combined donation from “people like you” turned abuses around and saved someone’s life. In other words, make the reader part of the story and make her actions heroic too.

    Having said that, I will also spread the word. Thank you.


  13. I’m going to be a contrarian for this comment.

    Yes, as the others have indicated, this is a heart wrenching story and worthy of our individual support. I know it touched me and elevated my awareness of conditions in Burma. There are conflicts and human rights violations all over the world. What does that have to do with writing a more engaging post on car insurance?

    I just hope that CopyBlogger doesn’t turn into a platform for causes. I come to here in hopes of becoming a better writer. This post left me wondering what I’d learned.

    Granted, there is a takeaway here about becoming more personal in my connections with my readers (all 5 of them…if you don’t count my mom). I do have a wealth of experiences that would allow me to write more in the first person. I often get caught in the antiseptic trap of posting “articles”, rather than stories. This post is a good reminder about building relationships with my readers.

    The staff at CopyBlogger and about 98% of it’s readers will probably disagree with me, but I still can’t understand the reason for this post. Call me callous, but I’d like to hone my business writing skills through this site.

    Before I dig myself in any deeper…I’ll quit. I’ve made my point.

  14. Probably not a profound suggestion :-), but using the written stories to create short videos for distribution would get this incredibly important subject into the minds of a younger generation that needs to be informed and allowed to create solutions.

  15. @Steve, thanks for asking the question, I bet a lot of readers missed it.

    The purpose is actually to collect ideas for sharing ideas virally. Given that this organization has these compelling stories, how would the CB audience recommend sharing them? What vehicles would we use?

    And turning it around to how it can help you sell car insurance — this is one of the most fundamental techniques around. The stories won’t be the same as stories of a porter in Burma, but surely there are some pretty amazing stories from your customer base. It seems to me that Allstate has included some remarkable stories in its advertising.

    Telling stories is a persuasion technique that can be used to get any message out — for a nonprofit or a for-profit business. Nonprofits have as much right to good marketing information as car insurance agents do. 🙂

  16. @Harmony, that’s a simple suggestion but a good one. I know people’s identities must be concealed, but perhaps there’s some way to collect video stories that could be promoted on YouTube. Or you could even have the VOW authors read the (translated) stories as part of a YouTube video, with a link at the end back to their organization and book.

    Simple, but it sounds like a great idea to try.

    @Niels, that’s a great point, thanks for your input!

  17. Great post. Great question. How can we use stories and internet media to more deeply engage the average person in issues that seem distant and unrelated, perhaps overwhelming?

    This is exactly what my daughter and I are hoping to do this Summer, so I’ve spent a bit of time pondering the matter.

    It seems to me that no matter how compelling the story is, it must somehow feel relevant to the reader and then there must be some simple and practical means by which that now inspired reader can translate what they feel into an action or behavior.

    For the work I’ll be doing, this means that we share stories about ordinary people who have transformed ideas into action with very little money. Then instead of asking our readers to help those organizations (ok, yes we will do that, but …) we want to ask them what ideas they have and what small steps they believe they could take in their corner of the world. Make it personal to them.

    It seems to me that the paradigm by which we engage people in social justice and other cause movements doesn’t really work well anymore. Rather than telling people what to do about causes, I’m much more interested in discovering how people FEEL when they hear these narrators’ stories and what those feelings inspire them to do. The click to “share” and “donate” options don’t seem broad enough to engage a higher level of empowerment.

    On the practical side, of course I’d love to see video snippets go viral, quotes from the book posted on facebook, and a generally rising awareness of the subject of human rights in Burma. But, most important, I believe, is the books ability to spark a dialog about what it means to be human, to have dignity, and how that plays out in your own back yard.

    I’d like to use the material in this book to invite young people to explore how they pay attention to the principles of dignity and freedom and respect in their daily lives. What does it mean to be repressed? Where do you see it around you? What simple thing could you do about it today?

    These conversations, attention to these matters, I believe, can grow a generation of long-time, deeply committed social activist capable of truly changing the future.

    Thanks Maggie and Zoe for bringing important stories into the light and for asking the right questions.

  18. We who live in Western cultures don’t even realize how regional or nation-centric we have become; our media seldom offers us even the slightest glimpses of what’s happening in other parts of the world. Our own stories get boring after a while, yet those are the ones we keep telling over and over.

    This post is important on so many levels — to remind us that our story isn’t the only story, that there are stories MUCH worse than ours — and some much better, too — to help us realize that we are all connected through the heart even when geography and culture separates us — and to remind us to LOOK for people whose stories matter just as much as ours do.

    Then, there is the practical matter of how do we connect all these stories, to bring more meaning to our lives — and to make a difference in the lives of those whose stories finally have a voice. This is a wonderful beginning. Now let’s imagine what else and what next 🙂


  19. Sonia,
    I worked overseas for 18 years in human relief and development. I have made probably a thousand presentations on the needs, the stories etc. In my experience, the younger generations are not as prone to read a story (and thus be moved and influenced) as they are to respond to story through senses. So even the voice telling the story, with images showing in slide presentation, or our own voice with profound images can do in a short 3 min what it can take writers 30 min to tell us. Having said that, I love the written word. 🙂
    At least one thing is clear. If you get your story in the right mediums, with social leverage, your story flies. This we can see from the twitters this article is capturing.

  20. Storytelling spans several mediums – it doesn’t have to be the written word. I’m convinced that the need to tell stories is genetic, historic, primal, human, divine.

    Campfire (kumbaya!), twitter, watercooler, oral, written, video – it is all the same. We’re gossiping, which is just another word for story-telling.

    And the power of the story is that it is personal. We can see ourselves in others. A story of one person’s struggle with a situation is far more compelling than a raft of statistics.

    I learned this fact, over and over, from sources as diverse as Sex and The City, Copyblogger, and Andy Goodman (

    And…we’re talking about Doing Good here, and causes, and using your voice to tell the stories of others. To bear witness. This is huge, important stuff.

    But let’s not forget that the power of personal starts with your personal story. That’s important stuff, too.

    I wish more writers and bloggers went there.

  21. Hello, Maggie and Zoe,

    I was drawn into reading this post because both the telling of stories and their use to help people understand lives and circumstances very different from their own are of great interest to me. And the question you put intrigues me.

    My own thoughts: we spread stories such as these by telling them very well, by placing them in a context many people can understand and relate to, and by giving people a way to respond to them that satisfies the desire to help those whose stories touch them most deeply. So I’m thinking that what is missing here is a way to respond on an immediate and personal level. And I suspect that being able to respond will help people to remember the stories, because they will become more than just spectators. They will have found a way to participate.

    I admire the work you are doing, and I hope that your work will help many build a solid foundation for understanding how others live in this world we share.

  22. @Steve A good question but as Sonia pointed out there was a purpose in posting it on CB (collecting ideas) but I also think it’s an example of what should be on a blog.

    Focus should be on customers not the business. A blog exclusively focused on a product/service gets tired very quickly. A blog with a theme (like insurance) but a focus on customer interests, particularly where they can relate to the business, is what makes it work and builds communities and relationships.

    A friend has a restaurant and blogs about it – menus, catering etc. However, her greatest response was when she posted about Haiti. She also found a way to pull the restaurant into it by donating portions of sales etc. It was for her customers — what they care about — and created a huge good will response on the various social media.

    You have to talk about your business. But you also have to be aware of what your base will care about. As I think you can see through the comments here, this post is something the base cares about. Posts like this shouldn’t dominate your blog but they should be an ingredient (if it’s a topic your base will care about). If you can, you can relate it to your business — such as, “Here, we’re lucky enough to choose whether we want insurance or not. We have cars! But this isn’t the case everywhere. In Burma …” Like that.

  23. I’ve always believed in the power of the story. It’s an amazing way to bring social causes into light and making people care about them. Living in India, I’ve seen many injustices and social paradigms, the length and depth of which can hardly be communicated in an article.
    My site and magazine are also full of first person narratives and as I write the stories I collect, I feel actually feel what the person has been through and know that my readers feel it too.
    I wish you all the best in your endeavor and I thank you for helping me ‘believe’ more in what I do.

  24. Calling all bloggers: how can we share these stories?

    Bloggers are storytellers, and your stories give you power.

    Most bloggers are not storytellers. We want to be storytellers, but the internet is more conducive to information than narration. Perhaps much of this is a learned ADD. Since we blog in lists and tweak our content for better SEO, I wonder if we haven’t conditioned our readers to NOT read stories online.

    It is no coincidence that many of the top bloggers blog about blogging. That is not inherently bad, but I think that we bloggers must be a bit more intentional in telling the stories that need to be told, serving our audience rather than advertising.

    Great post, by the way. I met a group of Burmese refugees marching across America last year. Their story was incredible.

  25. Thank you so much for this post — what a breath of fresh air! I work in the nonprofit field, and sometimes I get bored with the constant stream of how-to’s and 10 ways to make everything bigger, faster, more. It’s helpful and necessary, but sometimes I just want something with depth and meaning and humanity, because that’s why I do what I do. And you find that when people open up and share their stories like you’ve done here. I have to agree with Kelly Diels, I wish more writers and bloggers went there.

    As for ways to get the stories out into the social web… I find a visual medium is great for these kind of stories. It’s much easier to connect to someone on a deeper, personal level when their story is combined with emotional images. So maybe a video or even slideshow using photos along with their stories and words?

  26. Very powerful post. Makes me feel like I’m a really small fish copared to the problems of others.

    I think that we, as bloggers have been given a gift, and especially if you live in the free world, the ability to say whatever you want without going to prison.

    …now it’s up to us to make sure that the gift doesn’t disappear in vain. That is the power of the blogging community, the power to join together quickly and unveil injustices where they need to be seen by the world.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  27. Stories are incredibly important to all of us. Even though many blog readers don’t bother to comment on posts they read, blogs and their content are about bringing the fabric of humanity to life.

    Maybe you don’t find a mommy blogger’s day to day interesting or you may find political opinion blogs irritating but all of the stories together make up who we all are.

  28. This is something that I’ve been thinking on myself, especially as I’ve gotten more and more involved with the political world. The easiest way to get people to present people stories in a way that gives potential for them to be moved to action is tie it back to how it directly effects the lives of readers.

    In some cases that is irrelevant, or impossible to link. The alternative is to show how the reader can directly affect the situation and cause. Give them the action, tell them what they are capable of, and let them know it is in their hands.

  29. This is a truly inspiring post.
    There was a question in there about what are ways to expand the exposure of this post to social media and with 500,000 people on Facebook I think a fan page and a group should be created, promoted, and posted on or updated regularly. I would also get some action going on Twitter and DIGG and other sites.

  30. Thank you – not only for this post but for the work that you’re doing behind it – collecting the stories in the first place. I totally agree that the strongest way to unit people is to break down the barriers of ‘otherness’ and to bring home the ‘of one kind’-ness of humankind. I think sharing our stories is one of the most effective ways of doing this that we have.

    I would also be up for Terri’s idea of story facilitating.

    I agree with Bill that people will look to find the link between these stories and their own niche. I think that will be one of the biggest challenges in spreading these stories. I’m sure it’s easier when you know your niche – but if you don’t really have one (small personal blog), or there really isn’t anthing other than a very tenuous link (these guys don’t have cars), it will be much harder.

    I really agree with the comments/calls for videos – I think that has a tremendous amount of potential.

    There are lots of different elements you could put into a viral campaign – obviously the FB/Twitter usuals and the ‘pet’ columnist method too. If you can get top influencers and The Elders on board then your reach could be massive.

    Blog-hopping could be an interesting route to take, even splitting some of the longer stories over a few different blogs (yes, I mean blogs not post). That could work equally well between different traditional written blogs and YouTube channels, etc.

    You could (and arguably should, given the premise of the book) also take it off line, sending some ‘half-filled’ moleskins around the world Bookcrossing style could be really effective – although there’s a cost element in that it might be something people are willing to support. Having a site where people can track their book, trace other editions (with different stories) and write about the impact the stories have had on them could be a powerful engagement tool, as well as building a bank of more stories and creating more noise.

    Great idea – thank you for it. And please don’t limit it to Burma. I’d love to find out about how I can help to do this for other countries as well.

  31. What I love about stories is their ability to touch people in a way that the cold, hard facts wouldn’t. Facts don’t matter unless it’s personal. Hearing about a refugee in Burma, sadly, isn’t all that personal to me.

    But reading the story of someone who tries to befriend someone in order to survive, and hearing the story of another who was unable to pursue his dreams of being a preacher for his religion…that’s different. It suddenly becomes more personal, because I can identify with certain elements with that: difficult friendships, religious freedom, etc.

    Stories help people make connections, which helps them remember better. When it becomes personal, that’s when it clicks. That’s when the stories start to change the way one thinks.

  32. I think that stories are so powerful in the sense that non profits have been using them since the very beginning. But what’s particular memorable about Burma is the fact that I remember reading how they would force monks into being soldiers.

    And they would have to either kill another person or be killed. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be there, I love Canada very much. I’ve never had to worry about much, and I thank God that it’s posts like these that do remind me.

  33. On Earth we have no choice over where we’re born and under what conditions. The stories we share across nations become increasingly important, as we learn how much more needs to done.

    So, thank you for sharing this story with us, it has motivated me to get more involved in the changes I want to see in the world.

  34. Telling stories make your blog become very personal but like the consequences the blogger in the post get most of us want to remain unknown when we make a post and this can only mean one thing we can write stories but hide our identity, thanks for a wonderful post

  35. What if those of us fortunate enough to freely express and communicate our stories ‘adopted’ a Burmese (or anyone from a oppressively government controlled country) story and shared on our blogs? That could help to reach more people that may not pick up this book. Awareness and spreading the word are key for positive change!

  36. I lived in Estonia for 15 years and for the first year and a half witnessed the stark differences between living under a regime where freedom of speech was officially not allowed and in a democracy where it is allowed. I will never forget this experience. Those moments when I was overwhelmed with gratitude for having grown up, traveled and worked in democratic countries were very poignant and still are. I appreciate the struggle for freedom and yes, spreading the word is a top priority.

  37. This is an interesting lesson, too, in an observation made by (I forget who), “The web perceives censorship as damage and routes around it.” Even in places where speech is so limited, stories can be smuggled onto the net, and from there, they cannot be stopped.

    It’s quite amazing. The nature of communication over the internet, and the way that messages can be shared and spread, is one of those few changes in the world that truly is revolutionary.

  38. We’ve told stories since time began because we feel the need to share our experiences as human beings. Stories are powerful stuff. It is testament to that need to share that people have been telling me their virginity loss stories for over 3 years at my blog:

    Furthermore, in publishing these ‘unspoken’ stories, other people are able to feel human again because really, the amount of email I get from terrified/confused/lonely young people is something to behold. Some things just have to be spoken about, however ick or challenging we find them!

  39. You asked, “Calling all bloggers: how can we share these stories? Bloggers are storytellers, and your stories give you power.”

    Bloggers form slightly segregated communities. I read types of blogs – mommy blogs, craft blogs, writing blogs. If you pulled excerpts from the book about different people and made them available to bloggers as bait to draw to a website to learn more or purchase the book, you would reach a wider audience.

    One man you mentioned had been studying to be a preacher. His story would draw preachers and Christians. Was there a mom? A businessman who lost his business? A student? An orphan? A single woman?

    People might be drawn in by someone they can relate to, but will be kept by the power of compassion.

  40. While I appreciate your challenge to share these stories throughout the world, I wonder what, exactly, is your desired result? As a humanitarian working in DR Congo, I am a big fan of advocacy and spreading the word. But I question how you anticipate the situation in Burma will change if these stories are told? Are we Americans purchasing products which contribute to the violation of human rights? Can we petition against their government or can our foreign policy help foster changes in their society?

    On the other hand, is it not possible that by shedding light on the situation, further atrocities will result?

    Please don’t misunderstand me. As I mentioned, I think its critically important to speak on behalf of those who have no voice. But assuming that the situation in Burma is still volatile, I only hope that your good intentions don’t perpetuate the violence.

  41. As an active blogger, I feel it is my duty to share the stories that we must keep on telling. I try to feature a story a month (which is too few) that discusses a “story” that went largely unpublicized. Sure, it takes a lot of research and work, but it’s always my favorite blog post to write. We have far too many freedoms to not help be the voices for those who don’t have them. This is a unique time in which to do it – 20 years ago, it was almost impossible. I call it “citizen storytelling” – somewhat like the citizen journalism concept but it doesn’t have to be hard core reporting to make a difference. You guys rock!

  42. Great post. As someone who’s blogging into what may be considered “politicised” territory, I sometimes worry about alienating some of my readership and I suffer a bit of a dissonance between my commercial interests and what I’m really about (with a background in campaigning and a commitment to many campaigns and causes). You’ve reminded us that there is demand for powerful stories and they’re very much appreciated.

  43. I recall a poignant story recounted to me by an Estonian friend in 1991 when I was visiting Estonia.
    She told me about how her entire family would team up in the fall to help gather and sort potatoes from as many neighboring fields as they could before bad weather set in. Bent over with reed baskets, they would sort the spuds into three categories: those for humans and pigs, (two baskets) and those left in the ground to multiply.
    The family worked together in this back breaking hot sweaty work to earn enough money to buy her son a pair of blue jeans on the black market.
    It seems inconceivable today that this was barely 20 years’ ago. Estonia is now an EU country where Skype was first invented. Stories keep things in perspective and should not be forgotten.
    They provide a rich source of material for writing projects.

  44. If everyone took the time to write one small post about something like this it would be a better world. Making us aware that there is a world out there beyond what we can see should make us more grateful for what we have here in the U.S.

This article's comments are closed.