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Renee Farris headshot

Upworthy and YouTube Share Secrets For Telling Social Change Stories

By Renee Farris

 How do you talk to people with whom you disagree? These days everyone wants to know the answer to that. Companies want to stand up for their values without alienating customers. Family members want to celebrate holidays without arguing. This question was asked at The Heart Series conference during a panel where representatives from Upworthy, YouTube and Kindness.org shared insights on what makes a message go viral.

So, how do you talk about a polarizing issue? How do you convince someone that the environment should be protected? That racial justice is important? That immigrants should be welcome?

“The first thing you have to do is disarm them with that human story because they’ll trust you more if they think you’re talking to them respectfully,” said Adam Mordecai, Upworthy’s editor at large.

“People trust their own community the most,” he continued. If you tell someone a political belief that’s different from their own and you’re not from their community, they have two choices: First, they can automatically presume you’re biased and have a secret agenda to change their minds. Or, they can believe that their preacher, their parents, their siblings and their friends have all been lying to them their whole lives. Furthermore, if they think that they’ve been lied to, they’ll wonder: “If this one thing is untrue, what about everything else I know?”

Mordecai summarized the dilemma: “They can choose to have the entire fabric of their existence destroyed or think that you’re biased.” Obviously, the easiest and most common choice people make is the latter. “So, you need to disarm them by giving them a friendly and human face to the issue first.”

Once you’ve disarmed them with a human story, hit them with one surprising fact. “The biggest thing we like to do with our content is find that one surprising fact that will really resonate with people that they wouldn’t have expected in a million years,” Mordecai explained. “If you have a piece of data that is really eye-opening or jaw-dropping, you can throw that at them after you disarm them with a human story first. And that gets them to start thinking and pondering without their entire brain exploding.”

He continued: “It’s really hard because sometimes you’re just so frustrated by the counter arguments and how they’re just being aggressive and think you’re out to get them. But if you disarm them and don’t take the bait and don’t let them think you’re giving the partisan nonsense, they’ll be more open to listening. You have to be really gentle with it, and it’s really hard.”

Tell authentic stories

Two other benefits of telling a story is that it’s more memorable and makes people care. In YouTube and Upworthy’s Five Fundamentals For Social Change Videos they advise: “Stories stick while facts fade. Find the story.”

Most people find raw statistics and data boring so they tune it out. When telling your story, make sure to talk to your audience like they are humans, not machines. “Not robots. Not 350 million particles per second. Give them the data in a way that they can connect to,” Mordecai advised.

What do people care about? Personal stories accompanied by powerful photos, videos, or other visualizations. Stories like that will help them care and remember the story you’re sharing.

The structure of a story

Make sure you apply the fundamentals of storytelling, too. Jason Djang, education manager at YouTube, says the fundamental structure of a story is three acts. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. The main character is a hero: You watch the hero take on a challenge, observe the rising action, and see the hero triumph in the end. You can see yourself in the hero. You can picture yourself in the hero’s shoes. Then, at the end, you can decide whether you are going to be like the hero and go on the same journey.

One word of caution though: When telling the story of the hero, be careful to champion others. You don’t want to come across as trying to be the savior of the world. “Tell the stories of people and the important things they’re doing on the ground,” Mordecai said.

“If you don't have a three-act story to tell, another way to think about content is to be useful to your audience," Djang added. “If you think about a view chart of a viral video, it’s going to peak and then it’s going to drop and then generally disappear from people’s memory. But if you produce and upload a useful video, that will have a life and perpetuity.”

For example, “The first person who ever published a 'how to tie a tie' video on YouTube is still making money on that video. So, I would think about: What sort of value proposition does your brand have that’s simply useful to the audience?”

Djang then asked the audience, “Who here has looked up how to do something on YouTube?” Almost everyone raised their hands. “It’s a visual medium," Djang said of YouTube. "It shows you things. So what can you show your audience that they would find useful that they might be searching for? That’s the way to capture a new audience, right?” So, figure out what information people might be searching for and then visually provide that valuable information to them to capture their attention.

Think about why you share content

If you want your message to go viral, it’s also important to think about why people share content.

“We share content because we want to communicate something about ourselves,” Djang said. We choose a particular video or photo “because the content communicates something better than we can say it ourselves.”

We’re all building our personal brands on social media, and we selectively choose what we want to represent us. So when you think about why people share content, think about why you shared your last piece of content. Did you share a video so you come across as informed? Or smart? Or caring? And what 10 words describe the content you just created? Are those words that people will want to use to represent themselves on social media? If so, they’re more likely to share your content.

Find your voice

YouTube and Upworthy’s guide also recommends that you stay true to your voice: “Your strength is your voice. Use it.”

If you create a video about racism, immigration or the environment, use the same tone you use with all of your other storytelling. If your strength is humor, use humor. If your focus is fashion, talk about fashion. It will be easier to tell your story, and your customers and fans will feel it’s authentic and be interested because they're already fans of your style.


Be bold

Another fundamental is to be bold, honest, and transparent. “Courage is contagious. Pass it on.”

The social change storytelling guide elaborates: “There are parts of ourselves most of us don't talk about because they don't line up with who we’re expected to be. It’s hard to share these things that make us feel vulnerable, but ‘going there’ (as long as you feel ready, comfortable and safe) can actually strengthen your bond with your community and show viewers it’s all right for them to ‘go there,’ too.”

Include a call to action

At the end of your story, have a call to action, the companies advised. “People want to help. Give them something to do,” they said in their the guide.

When people take the time to listen to you, they are likely to want to help. So, know what you’re trying to accomplish with your story, and give your audience a clear and simple call-to-action item they can employ to make a difference. There are a lot of possibilities. A call to action could be to change a perception, belief or behavior. It could be to donate to a nonprofit or start buying products from more conscious companies.

A call to action is also beneficial because it gives viewers’ emotions somewhere to go. It’s a positive outlet.

For example, climate change feels “significant and huge and overwhelming,” Mordecai posited. “A lot of content was made with, 'Hey, uh, you need to save the world, all billions of people, by yourself. Do it now,' and then audiences feel the pressure of the whole world on them and feel powerless to do anything because there’s no way they’re going to be able to take on this entire climate thing."

“You can talk about hard, depressing issues. You just have to give people somewhere to go with it," he advised, "whether it’s write a letter, whether it’s helping build a little organization in your neighborhood, whatever it is. That way they feel like they can do something positive which is a much better feeling and more productive than, 'Oh great, we’re all going to die.'”

Remember to listen

Finally, once your message is out there, stop and listen. “Communities are complicated. Learn from them,” UpWorthy and YouTube advise in their social change storytelling guide.

No one has the right perspective all the time. Sometimes you get something wrong. Listen to your community because they might point it out. Be introspective. Have meaningful conversations and engage in respectful discussions of different opinions.

So, there you have some basic tips on telling social change stories that go viral. And if you want to know more of what to do, check out the storytelling class Pixar and Khan Academy just started, the Creator Playbook for Brands created by YouTube, and Upworthy's deck How To Make That One Thing Go Viral - Just Kidding!

On the flip side, there’s also a funny video about how not to tell a story. It’s funny because so many companies make these exact mistakes. Don’t be one of them.



Note: If you enjoyed reading this article, make sure to check out The Heart Series two-day conference. It brings together conscious companies of all sizes to discuss how to make a bigger impact. It’s fun, engaging, informative, and good for networking especially if you live in Los Angeles.

The Heart Series will host pop-up events around the U.S. this year. First up is New York City, and you can sign up for event info here. The 2018 conference is Feb. 15-16 in Los Angeles. You can snag an early bird discount ticket for $279 right now (that’s a $500 discount *nudge, nudge*).

Photos credits: Paper Ban Studios

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Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

Read more stories by Renee Farris