How to Tell Your ‘Story of Self’

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Supporters hold up hand-painted signs as Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, center, D-Ill., addresses a rally at Yanitelli Center on St. Peter's College campus in Jersey City, N.J., Wednesday Jan. 9, 2008. It is this way wherever Obama goes. Whenever Americans have been challenged, he tells them, there has been only one response. It comes back to him in a deafening roar that surges into a vibrating chant: "YES WE CAN!" (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Veteran organizer Marshall Ganz is is credited with devising the successful grassroots organizing model and training for Barack Obama’s winning 2008 presidential campaign. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

“Movements have narratives. They tell stories, because they are not just about rearranging economics and politics. They also rearrange meaning. And they’re not just about redistributing the goods. They’re about figuring out what is good.” — Marshall Ganz

Why tell stories?

Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools organizers can use to unite a movement. Your story is the “why” of organizing — the art of translating values into action through stories. It is an ongoing discussion process through which individuals, communities and nations construct their identity, make choices and inspire action. Each of us has a compelling story to tell that can move others.

Two ways to engage

Leaders employ both the “head” and the “heart” in order to mobilize others to act effectively on behalf of shared values. In other words, they engage people in interpreting why they should change their world — their motivation — and how they can act to change it — their strategy.

Two ways of knowing

Many leaders are good at the analysis side of public speaking: They focus on presenting a good argument or strategy. Alternatively, other leaders tell their personal story, often a tale of heartbreak that educates us about the challenge but doesn’t highlight the potential for successfully realizing the end goal.

An effective story of self has to have elements of both the analytical and the emotional. It is a story that involves the head and the heart — and moves people to use their hands and feet in action.

Action is inhibited by inertia, fear, self-doubt, isolation and apathy. Action is facilitated by urgency, hope, knowing you can make a difference, solidarity and anger. Stories mobilize emotions that urge us to take action and help us overcome emotions that inhibit us from action.

The key to storytelling is understanding that values inspire action through emotion. We experience our values emotionally — they are what actually move us to act. Because stories allow us to express our values not as abstract principles, but as lived experience, they have the power to move others to action as well.

Finding your story of self’s “choice point”

A story of self tells why we have been called to serve. It expresses the values or experiences that call each person to take leadership on a given issue.

The key focus is on choice points: moments in our lives when values are formed because of a need to choose in the face of great uncertainty. When did you first care about being heard, or learn that you were concerned about the issue on which you want to take action? Why? When did you feel you had to do something about it? Why did you feel you could? What were the circumstances? What specific choice did you make?

The three key elements of storytelling structure:
Challenge — Choice — Outcome

A plot begins with an unexpected challenge that confronts a character with an urgent need to pay attention, to make a choice — a choice for which he or she is unprepared. The choice yields an outcome, and the outcome teaches a moral.

Because we can empathetically identify with the character, we can “feel” the moral. We not only hear about someone’s courage; we can also be inspired by it.

The story of the character and their effort to engage around values engages the listener in their own challenge, choice and outcome relative to the story. Each story should include all three elements. It’s not enough to say, “I was scared.” You need to say, “I was very scared, I needed to decide, and when I did, I learned it was possible.” Challenge, choice, outcome.

Incorporating challenge, choice and outcome in your own story

There are some key questions you need to answer as you consider the choices you have made and the path you have taken that brought you to this point in time as a leader. Once you identify the specific relevant choice point, dig deeper by answering the following questions.

Challenge: What was the specific challenge you faced? Why did you feel it was a challenge? What was so challenging about it? Why was it your challenge?

Choice: What was the specific choice you made? Why did you make the choice you did? Where did you get the courage (or not)? Where did you get the hope (or not)? How did it feel?

Outcome: What happened as a result of your choice? What hope can it give us? How did the outcome feel? Why did it feel that way? What did it teach you? What do you want to teach us? How do you want us to feel?

A word about challenge: Sometimes people see the word “challenge” and think that they need to describe the misfortunes of their lives. Keep in mind that a struggle might be one of your own choosing — a high mountain you decided to climb as much as a hole you managed to climb out of. Any number of things may have been a challenge to you and be the source of a good story to inspire others.


If you’re having trouble getting started, here are some factors that may have contributed to your current choice to take leadership on your issue.

Click to watch activists share their stories of self.

Family and childhood: Your parents and family, experiences growing up, the community in which you grew up, your role models, your school

Life choices: Schools you went to, the career you chose, your partner and family, your hobbies, interests and talents, challenges you’ve overcome

Organizer experiences: Role models, your first experience organizing, your first awareness of the issue on which you want to take action

Focus on one key story — one event or one place or one important relationship. Take some time to think about the elements of your story in the context of the challenge, choice and outcome. In this case, the outcome might also be the thing you learned, in addition to what actually happened.

Remember, the purpose of telling your story of self is to begin to create common ground with your audience by sharing a story that reflects the values that brought you to work on your given issue, and where those values come from.

These tips for constructing your “story of self” are adapted from’s toolkit, which was compiled with help from Marshall Ganz and other organizing experts.

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  • Living Proof

    As tools of advocacy or agents of change, stories are not magic. It takes more than a story alone to move the needle. It takes focus and strategy, framing, a clear articulation of the better world to which a story points. Thank you for this important reminder.

  • Charles W. Artis

    The making of a hero, a cause, a movement comes when concern for the well being of others becomes more important than self preservation. Jesus Christ said and demonstrated “Greater love has no man than this: To give up his life for his friend.

  • Melisa Singh

    Great article. Liked the simplification of: “Challenge, Choice & Outcome”. I think that applies regardless of the type of story (fiction vs novel, etc). We’d love it if you commented on our site when we get it up and running at StoryShelter!

  • Michael Lambert

    David Coleman, architect of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), tells us that students are doing too much personal narrative in school, and is mandating, through the CCSS initiative, reading more non-fiction, less literature and more analysis writing. His claim is untrue. There is not enough personal narrative going on in schools. Just ask the college admissions committees who have to read college application essays.

    David Coleman, and the CCSS reform movement, is ripping the heart out of public school education.

  • Yeshua21.Com

    I appreciate the value and function of stories, but I am suspicious of those who would manipulate their narratives in order to manipulate others. A challenge from Anthony de Mello:

    “The trouble with people is that they’re busy fixing things they
    don’t even understand. We’re always fixing things, aren’t we? It
    never strikes us that things don’t need to be fixed. They really
    don’t. This is a great illumination. They need to be understood.
    If you understood them, they’d change.

    “Do you want to change the world? How about beginning with yourself? How
    about being transformed yourself first? But how do you achieve
    that? Through observation. Through understanding. With no
    interference or judgment on your part. Because what you judge
    you cannot understand.

    ” . . . A scientist observes the behavior of ants with no
    further end in view than to study ants, to learn as much as
    possible about them. He has no other aim. He’s not attempting to
    train them or get anything out of them. He’s interested in ants,
    he wants to learn as much as possible about them. That’s his
    attitude. The day you attain a posture like that, you will
    experience a miracle.

    “You will change—effortlessly, correctly. Change will happen,
    you will not have to bring it about. As the life of awareness
    settles on your darkness, whatever is evil will disappear.
    Whatever is good will be fostered. You will have to experience
    that for yourself. But this calls for a disciplined mind. And
    when I say disciplined, I’m not talking about effort. I’m
    talking about something else. Have you ever studied an athlete.
    His or her whole life is sports, but what a disciplined life he
    or she leads. And look at a river as it moves toward the sea. It
    creates its own banks that contain it. When there’s something
    within you that moves in the right direction, it creates its own
    discipline. The moment you get bitten by the bug of awareness.
    Oh, it’s so delightful! It’s the most delightful thing in the
    world; the most important, the most delightful. There’s nothing
    so important in the world as awakening. Nothing! And, of course,
    it is also discipline in its own way.” ~ Anthony de Mellow, “Awareness”

  • Jacqueline Farrington

    Excellent article. I use personal narrative in helping leaders form leadership identity and it’s a crucial foundation to building executive presence. Executive presence isn’t merely about “looking, sounding and behaving” like a leader, it’s developing one’s own identity as a leader, and that identity is formed in the choices we make and the values we live. Thanks for this astute insight into the use of narrative in leadership identity formation.