This is Part 5 of a series in which I am explaining how each principle works within the specific context of online communities.
This week, let’s discuss the fifth principle: stories.
Stories are fundamental to humanity
Six total members showed up, including me, and we had an engaging and insightful chat.
To guide the second half of our discussion, I tossed out this question for discussion: If you could teach everyone in the world one concept, what concept would have the biggest positive impact on humanity?
Nicholas, a fantasy writer (among his many pursuits), answered immediately. He was resolute, as if he’d been preparing to answer this very question.
“The Hero’s Journey,” he said.
I followed up by asking if this was because a) people should know how to tell a good story, or b) people should understand the structure of many stories being told to them.
Nicholas’ answer was again resolute:
He went on to explain the universality of certain story structures, like the Hero’s Journey, among different cultures and throughout time, and what this suggests about our innate need as humans to learn and connect through stories.
So I hope it comes as no surprise that stories need to be a fundamental element of your community if you want to create significant engagement and connection among members.
If you want to bring humans together in a meaningful way that promotes belonging, stories have to be prominently involved.
Your community must encourage and facilitate the sharing of stories
Last week, we looked at the essential features that any online community space must have. Almost every one of them is there because its presence increases the likelihood that stories will be shared among members in a meaningful way.
In fact, here is a good litmus test for any feature you are considering for your community: does it make members more likely to share or consume stories?
- If so, and if doesn’t create an undesirable byproduct (security risk, excessive cost, etc.), then it’s worth adding.
- If not, what’s the point? (There may be one; just make sure you know what it is.)
Stories connect you to your members and connect members to each other. Expanding these connections is the only way to build a profitable community.
This is why one of your main jobs as a community leader is make sure that stories are a centerpiece of what you’re building.
Fortunately, there are many different types of stories to build around.
Six types of stories to work into your community’s content
Vogl describes four different types of stories that engaged communities share “so that members can understand the community’s authentic values and identity.”
- Origin story
- Values stories
- Vulnerable stories
- Personal stories
Let’s apply each of those to online communities, plus add two more that are worth considering.
1. Origin story
How did you come to be the leader of this community?
The answer is your origin story, and it needs to be woven into the fabric of your community.
As a community becomes more mature, it is possible that new members — especially those referred by existing members — may not be immediately aware of the origin story (though it shouldn’t be hard for them to discover it). But the people you invite to become members, especially the early ones, need to be keenly aware of this story, otherwise you may find it impossible to even get started.
The origin story matters for a few reasons:
- It communicates who the community serves and how it serves them.
- It further communicates the community’s values and how you embody them.
- It humbly acknowledges that people deserve evidence for why you are someone worth listening to and following.
And an origin story shouldn’t just be told; it should crafted. By this I mean: it needs to be an authentic story that is meaningful to the members and potential members of your community.
As Vogl explains, “There are many ways to tell any story by selecting what’s shared and what’s left out.” Your origin must be true, but that doesn’t mean it must contain everything.
For example, I graduated from Indiana University. This is a necessary part of the origin story for why I came to found The Assembly Call — a community for fans of the Indiana University basketball team. It is not, however, even a footnote in the story for why I came to lead the Unemployable Initiative, the THINKERS Workshop, or Primility.
So don’t wing it. Really think about and craft your origin story.
- What were the essential experiences that brought you to this point and demonstrate your ability to lead this community?
- Of these, which ones will illuminate something meaningful to your members about what being a member of this community means?
Answer these questions and you’ll be on the right track.
2. Values stories
Values are your community’s most important boundary.
But just because your community’s values help you attract the right members and repel the wrong members doesn’t mean you can take them for granted once people are inside.
These values need to be restated and reinforced in as many ways as possible. Sharing stories that illustrate your community’s values is one of the best ways to do this.
For example, one of our values for The Assembly Call is that our analysis of the program will always be delivered with a spirit of support. This means that while we may critique a player’s actions on the court, we will never critique the player as a person.
Because our content adheres to this value, we rarely get anyone in our live chats or in our private community who badmouths a player personally. (And it’s a good thing, because we have parents of players in our community!)
Well, one day I saw that a former Indiana player had shared some thoughts on Twitter about how much the words that players see online can affect their mental states. I retweeted it and shared this story in our private community because it reinforces the values of our community.
Seeing it written in a compelling way from a former player was far more impactful than anything I could have written or said.
This was an opportunity to share a story that reinforced an important value. We should always be on the lookout for these opportunities.
3. Vulnerable stories
Vulnerability occurs when we tell something to someone or to a group that we fear could lead to our rejection.
Some people are very comfortable doing this. Other people are as closed as a steel trap.
And this doesn’t just go for the sharing half of it. Some people are very comfortable receiving vulnerability from another person and listening with compassion, while others shy away because they are uncomfortable or too self-conscious about how compassionate their own response might be.
In other words, vulnerability is hard. This makes it hard as a community leader to create a space where people feel comfortable being vulnerable.
So is it worth the trouble? Absolutely.
As Ryan Holiday might say: the obstacle is the way. It’s precisely because vulnerability is hard that it’s such a worthwhile goal to pursue.
Your ability to be vulnerable with your members is what allows them to connect with you on a more personal, relatable level.
If you are trying to lead people to a transformation of some kind, but you never show any vulnerability, your members might start to believe that pursuing the path you’re advocating for is unrealistic. This is because the downside of holding yourself out as some kind of perfect example is that your members might actually believe you.
Similarly, your members’ ability to be vulnerable with each other is what allows them to connect on more personal and relatable levels.
People don’t want to participate in a community where everyone is perfect and no one has problems. They want to participate in a community where people have similar questions and problems to what they have, so everyone can work together toward answers and solutions.
So you need to maintain a consistent focus on facilitating vulnerability.
Some ways to do this:
- Create a piece of content that shares a major obstacle you overcame in your past.
- Post a discussion question to the group like: what is the biggest challenge you’ve overcome in the last year?
- Host a small group discussion in which you share a moment of vulnerability, then see if others follow suit. (They usually will if someone else goes first.)
And most of all: when you make a mistake that the community is able to see, own up to it, fix it, and share what you learned. You might fear losing face, but (depending on the mistake) it might actually be an opportunity for vulnerability that brings your members closer to you.
4. Member stories
This is a bit of a catch-all category for stories from your members that don’t fit into the previous two categories.
But other, even seemingly mundane, stories can matter because they can implicitly reinforce values while allowing members to learn more about each other.
The ice-breaker question for our Assembly Call private community is: what is your favorite IU sports memory? This allows members to immediately share a story that is undoubtedly special to them and fundamental to why they care about IU sports.
In the Unemployable Initiative, I start two threads every week:
- At the beginning of the week: what is your #1 objective for this week?
- At the end of the week: what was your biggest success from the past week?
I wrote recently about how I ritualize these two threads. On an even more basic level, they give members a chance to share stories about their own work and read what others are doing. This leads to understanding and connection.
Now let’s focus on two additional types of stories, which are especially useful for communities that are trying to lead members toward specific types of transformations.
5. Case studies
Case studies are valuable because they provide lessons for success wrapped up in a story, as opposed to just a list of things to do or not do.
They can be especially powerful in a group because they offer a formalized and safe way for members to be vulnerable — since failures and challenges are usually framed within the context of how they were overcome.
They also offer a one-to-many element when shared with the entire group. Now other members understand this member better, and will have a better idea of what common ground they share or what questions they might be able to answer.
6. Guest/Expert stories
One other type of story to consider is the guest who is not a member of the community but has something worthwhile to share.
- Sports coaches often bring in guests to share an inspirational story with their players.
- Communities based around education often bring in experts to share how they developed a particular skill and put it to use.
- You might find an article that is particularly illustrative of a community value and share it with everyone.
If the story is something that reinforces the community’s values and gives your members something useful in pursuit of their common goals, then it’s worthwhile.
We shouldn’t assume all of the stories will be self-contained among members. In fact, it’s our duty as community leaders to find stories from outside the group that will be meaningful.
Can you think of any other types of stories that I haven’t included here?
Even if it’s a subset of Member Stories, but you think it’s worth a more expansive discussion, comment below.
None of us pursue community building without taking some significant level of pride in the knowledge that we bring to a particular topic of importance to a group of people we care about.
But we must have the humility to understand that our knowledge is not enough to make us effective community leaders.
What will make us effective community leaders is our ability to communicate our knowledge through stories that resonate with our members, and our ability to make members feel secure and enthusiastic enough to share their stories with the group.
I will not be sending a new Primility newsletter next week (September 23rd). Instead, I will re-send Part 1 of this series, as we’ve had many new subscribers since then. Then I’ll be back with a new edition in two weeks, on September 30th.
Now here are some additional links on this topic …
What do Elon Musk and Walter White have in common?
They both connect with audiences. Why? Because of storytelling. I love the very first line of this interview: “Leadership is the art of inspiring others to make a story come true.” This is our role as community leaders, so we must be comfortable with stories if we are going to fulfill our role.
Why Leadership = Storytelling | Andy Raskin
Stories can play a special role within communities
This is sponsored content by a service called AuthorBee, but it makes a few important points about the power of storytelling within communities, like this one: “To be effective, community stories need to give each individual member of the community the ability to benefit from the contributions of many, while crafting a very personal experience of their own.”
Storytelling connects people and ideas
No matter how you slice it, stories just provide a richer and more engaging experience than a simple regurgitation of data, facts, or “important points.” If you want your message to stick, wrap it in a story.
What Makes Storytelling So Effective For Learning? | Harvard Business Publishing
A few quick tips for better storytelling
It will take you much more than reading one simple blog post to tell better stories, but these seven tips are certainly a good place to start. Don’t overlook the importance of embracing conflict — it’s what makes a story compelling!
How to Tell a Story Effectively: 7 Storytelling Tips | MasterClass
Thank you for reading this issue of Primility.
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Photo by Klim Sergeev on Unsplash