Building Empathy through Storytelling

Storytelling has become a trendy word when
it comes to campaigning for NGOs. Storytelling makes abstract and big topics
small, personal and understandable. This is a different way of campaigning than
for example through presenting numbers and facts. On a conference on
storytelling and campaigning that I attended in November, some interesting and
inspiring campaigns were presented and the issues around storytelling were
discussed. Logically, a good story needs a clear beginning, end and storyline.
The experts at the conference also argued that a story needs the following elements:
a victim, a bad guy, a hero and, interestingly; a clear solution. But does a
good story or campaign always need this? Is it also possible to tell a story
just to raise awareness and create empathy for the issue at stake, without
offering a clear solution?
The campaigns presented during this day provided
some great examples to illustrate this question.  

Saskia Stoltz of Sazza and Power
of Art House
observed that campaigns have become more and more professional
in the international development sector. This is good, she thinks, but
sometimes she misses the fire and passion, because campaigns have to be in line
with the guidelines and do’s and don’ts of the organization. She is looking for
new ways to do campaigns, without logos of the organizations on it. A great example
of her work is Moving People, a campaigns tells the story of refugees by
spreading small statues of refugees in big cities in the Netherlands (did you
see them already? You can read more about the stories on



But here an interesting dilemma arises.
Whereas campaigns are trying to tell stories and give attention to important
issues, like climate change, refugees or women in conflict situations, there is
always an extra interest of the organization: they want to collect money, they
want to brand their organization, they want people to support their cause. And
this support is needed, in order to really bring about change. But would it
sometimes be enough to just tell stories for the sake of letting people know
about the issues at stake? For example, #WomenofSyria
brings the stories of how ordinary women in Syria are living their lives amidst
a war. The main goal of the campaign is to raise empathy for what is going on
in the country. Another great example is #SupportYemen,
a partner organization of Oxfam Novib that uses creative ways to raise
awareness for the uprisings in 2011, women’s rights and the current conflict in
Yemen. Their main goal is to show what is going on, without pointing fingers to
who is the bad guy or who should be blamed. But is this enough? When the
organization presented its work at the office in The Hague, they explained that
sometimes people would complain to them that they are not offering solutions or
showing what should change. But for them, the most important thing is to just
show what is going on. This brings a very powerful message and gives an
alternative story than what is portrayed in the mainstream media about the
country (if anything at all).


of one of the #WomenofSyria stories, by Ted Struwer

So, maybe by showing the stories of people
you can raise awareness and make people care about (forgotten) issues around
the world. But during the conference it also became clear that a ‘call to
action’ is important in a campaign. For example, the campaign on landgrabbing (Best Foodies
), raised awareness of the importance of land rights for women. When
people found out about this issue through the campaign, their immediate
question was: can I do something? Can I donate money or sign a petition? It
seems that if you want people to be involved, you have to give them the
opportunity to do something as well, so that they feel like they can make a
change and are part of the solution. Engaging your public through storytelling
is an important element in campaigning, according to the experts at the

The discussion also revolved around the
question: how do you reach the ‘non-usual suspects’? Most of the time you tend
to target people that are already involved with, or at least aware of, world problems.
How do you reach the people that are not, and that are not even aware of the existence
or the importance of the issues? There was no clear-cut answer to this, but in
my opinion, sheer awareness raising, the creation of empathy is already an
important first step. You can’t expect people to act upon an issue if they
don’t know about its existence. So, first it’s important to reach people that
are not aware of the problems so that they start thinking about it. A call to
action, associated with an organization or brand, can be the next step in
engaging people.


still from
‘the color of injustice’ by #SupportYemen

My main take-away from this conference and
the presented stories? You don’t have to be a professional campaigner,
communication specialist or have a big budget to tell a good story. The
campaigns presented at this conference where executed by a few individuals, with
a small budget. One final example I would like to share is Idealis, a campaign that is raising
attention to the questionable investments that insurances make and aims to provide
an alternative insurance. This group of people show that as long as you’re
convinced about your story and enthusiastic enough to bring it across, everyone
can raise awareness and start a campaign!

(And if you are interested, here
is another interesting read by Brandoutloud on how they deal with branding,
logo’s and stories in the campaigns they make.)

 Anna Gorter

Anna is working with the Women, Peace & Security(WPS) team at Oxfam Novib. A Masters student at Utrecht University,her ability to bring people together and put together events along with her passion on WPS will leave you inspired. If you need an energy boost from your afternoon dip, make sure to bump into her in room A.0.13 (or at 


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