Tell it Right: National Research on Messaging in Child Advocacy

Shané Gooding
July 15, 2010

"Do the kinds of stories we and the media tell make a difference in how well people are engaged and inspired to take action?"

You bet they do. Those of us who work to improve the lives of children and youth often do incredible work with very few resources. We perservere. We measure, we adapt, we fight the good fight. What we don't always do is tell stories of our work in ways that generate interest, excitement and a sense that progress is possible. Without realizing it, many of us fall into the trap of communicating in a way that actually undermines our messages. With a little help, we can do a better job and create stories that build support for the work that is changing the odds for kids at risk.

In 2009 and 2010, Child Advocacy 360 (a SparkAction content partner) commissioned Douglas Gould & Company and The Topos Partnership to conduct national research on “Solutions Storytelling: Messaging to Mobilize Support for Children's Issues.

Through interviews, focus groups, surveys and "talkback testing"—which involved showing several versions of stories to a group of 8 to 10 participants and monitoring how the various story angles influenced the conversation—researchers were able to identify the elements of stories that are most effective when it comes to engaging and inspiring people to take action.

The video summarizes the research and the main findings, with specific tips for advocates, communications professionals and anyone looking to tell energizing and effective stories. The full research report and more resources are below.


More Resources

For access to the full 42-page PDF Report on the Research Findings, please visit's report access page.

The Executive Summary and the Strategic Recommendations for Advocates (which is very cool!) are available below as PDF files.



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We invite you to share your thoughts on the research. Do you have experience with solutions-based storytelling?

I was particularly struck by the finding that the traditional way to present a policy story -- first state the problem, then state the solution -- doesn&;t work. That once you state the problem, the audience generally tunes out, already feeling defeated. Learning that it is more powerful to lead with the solution than the problem has transformed my approach to discussing child and youth policies!

I agree with all that was stated, I have a blog, haven&;t work on it much but is call. Social Solution: An action Solution focus, not problem orient, way of thinking
Help you locate the problems you have to come up with the Solutions you need.© Mission Statement: Alliances in working with Company, group, individual, toward resolving problems, through communication, networking, researching ways to find a Solution. Building reliance on proven method on resolving conflict, being Solution focus, not problem orient.©

This report was not scientifically rigorous and has no information on whether people would actually take action. I think I&;ll wait until something more substantial.

I held various advertising positions with the Montgomery Ward Corporation from 1973 to 1990. We supported 400 stores in 40 stated with an annual national advertising budget of over $250 million. That means that every week we were "telling stories" that to more than 20 million people, showing what we offered at our stores and why they should shop there.

The tips for story telling are useful, but unless you have an advertising budget, with skilled writers and communicators, as well as the ability to reach thousands/millions of people on a consistent basis, your story is not being heard by enough people.

Few non profits have this type of money or talent, especially the smaller organizations. Thus, we&;re using social media and web sites in creative ways to reach more people. If you search Google for "tutor mentor" my web sites come up on the first page-- several times. It&;s because of consistent work I&;ve done for the past 12 years. It&;s not the result of having a big ad budget.

However, it&;s also because I talk about all of the tutor/mentor programs in Chicago, not just my own, and I point to these other programs, and a national network of peers, such as Spark Action, with links on my web sites and email newsletters.

It&;s also because we encourage all of our staff and volunteers to be constantly telling their stories of why and how they are involved.

We also organize events intended to draw programs together and to attract volunteers and donors. A Tutor/Mentor Jam concert on Aug 29 is intended to help with volunteer recruitment. A conference in November is intended to help with year-end fund raising. We&;ve hosted these for over 15 years.

We share what we do on our web sites with the hope that others will duplicate this in their own actions. We also link to more than 1800 other organizations who we think do good work, or tell good stories. Thus, people who visit our web sites find many reasons to return, not just a single program serving a few kids in one city.

It&;s only when thousands of youth serving organizations are telling their stories, and pointing to each other, on a continuous basis, that we might gain greater attention from the people we are trying to reach.

I like the focus on solutions over problems as a starting point to engage the listener. In the last couple of years I have changed my communications from the old problem solution presentation and have found much greater success opening with a clear definition of the achievable solution. This report helps clarify for me a process for communicating with others that has the potential to improve the emotional connection and produce greater overall engagement. The 5 main elements to a solution based story is easy for me to share with my team that will help them understand how to construct the communications for their specific audiences. We will implement the 5 steps in our next communications to make our readers aware that all Americans can make a significant difference today to bring light to the 1.5 Billion families with children around the world living completely in the dark. We will share with them the results from the Sudan where the World Bank reported that pass rates in grade school went from 57% prior to delivery of solar lamps to 100% two years after introduction of the solar lamps. Thanks again for a great report.
Eric Clare