We were delighted that the Virgin Group placed number five in Salter Baxter’s new {Influencers}100 index – highlighting the top companies shaping the sustainability agenda through social media. Below, Virgin Unite’s Madeleine Lewis shares her tips on storytelling for change.

Punk rocker/spoken word poet/politician Jello Biafra once said, “Don’t hate the media, become the media”. The digital revolution has given all of us the tools to have a voice. Whereas just a couple of decades ago, flows of information were centralised and dominated by big media and government, in this digital age, anyone can be a storyteller.

And that’s important, because storytelling is powerful. With stories we discover and gain strength from others like us, we develop empathy and build communities. Stories create the underlying narratives that give our lives meaning and purpose – change the stories and you can change the world.

In the last few years, brands have increasingly become publishers in their own right. Virgin adopted a publishing strategy a few years ago and when I joined the team back in 2013 my task was to set up a content stream dedicated to the power of entrepreneurial thinking to build a better world – the aim of the Virgin Group’s non-profit foundation, Virgin Unite.

Collectively, Virgin, Richard Branson and Virgin Unite have a reach of almost 25 million on social media – that’s a huge platform for change. We love to share the great work that the Virgin Group is doing around sustainability, but we also believe in sharing our platform with other people and organisations that are doing incredible and innovative things. We want to help other pioneers achieve their aims and that in turn makes for a richer experience for our audiences.

Here’s what we’ve learned about storytelling for change…

  1. Invest. Good communications of any kind requires the right people, time and budget. Look for hybrids: those who have knowledge and passion, as well as the talent and skillset. In digital communications particularly, passion travels. But even if you’re a one-man-band, invest in yourself – attend as many events or learning opportunities as you can, and ask your heroes out for coffee to get their insight.
  2. Engage the whole organisation and beyond. Make the most of the experience of people across your organisation or network to create ideas and content. They have the insight gained from working at the coalface, and they can be a very important sounding board when issues carry reputational risk. Those not in communications roles can often be intimidated by writing or content creation, but they can produce very engaging stories if you support and encourage them.
  3. Don’t be shy about being creative with how you communicate issues. For a long time, sustainability communications has meant dry reports, academic papers and niche discussions. Yet these issues are some of the most interesting and important of our times. Be bold, do things differently! We produce a weekly article rounding up positive news, we’ve looked back from the future to ask why space matters, and we’re always on the hunt for visual ways to explore the issues.
  4. Open up your platform(s) to other voices. It will help you create a much more interesting experience, connect you to new audiences, and could be a great source of new collaborations. Identify influential and insightful voices related to the issues you care about and build relationships with them.
  5. Ask questions; don't just tell people what you think, or what they already know. It’s become a cliché, but social media isn’t a one-way conversation so be open and make the most of your audience for new ideas, insight and research.  
  6. Last but not least, never forget what makes people tick. Millions of people watch the latest movies or pick up the latest novels, yet somehow we believe ‘professional’ communications should be different. But good stories are about people, about overcoming challenges, about what matters most in life; they are about hope over despair. Don’t be shy to bring these elements into your communications. Richard Branson is a great example of a storyteller who shares his life and passions alongside the big issues he cares about. This year he’s been waxing lyrical about his three new beautiful grandchildren, alongside tackling some hard-hitting advocacy issues, as diverse as drug policy reform and ocean conservation. His voice helps make these big challenges accessible, and brings a sorely needed humanity and intimacy.

We’ve seen great growth and results from our storytelling for change strategy, but it doesn’t stop here. We have huge ambitions for continuing our work, and most importantly, ramping up the change we create in the world. We hope you will join us for the ride!

What have we missed? We’d love to hear your tips and we’ll share the best here on Virgin.com in a couple of weeks.

- Background picture from Getty Images