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Use the art of storytelling to resonate

By Eric Seiberling

Nancy Duarte starts her book Resonate by describing a simple phenomenon in physics called "resonance." Resonance occurs when the frequency of an object's natural vibration responds to an external stimulus of the same frequency. Duarte then describes her son's salt experiment (turn the volume down). He put grains of salt on a plate and created complex patterns when amplified sound waves traveled through it. Connecting to the right frequency caused the salt to move into beautiful patterns with each grain moving to where it naturally belonged.

Tuning your message to the right frequency can create resonance with your audience and your community and cause people to act. If you want to transform the world, you must tune the message of Christ to resonate with your community.

Don't worry. You don't need a degree in physics to apply this phenomenon. Here are a few practical places to start.


You need to understand the "frequency" of your congregation and community and synchronize your message with the movement of those you are trying to reach. To determine the "frequency," ask what makes them move? What do they care about? What keeps them up at night? What problems do they need to resolve? Read Stop talking and start listening to your community for some practical tips on how to listen and engage your community.

If you don't tap into their unmet needs, your audience or lack of audience will see no need to invest time in your cause. Tap into the natural movement of their lives and add energy to effect change.

Next...where are you going?

Determine your SINGLE objective.

You must be very clear about your objective and the route to get there. Know what you are trying to accomplish. Is it fighting hunger in your community? Is it helping people to gain financial freedom? Is it boosting worship attendance? Determine a clear objective for your communications efforts.

If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. ~The Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland

Check out this church marketing plan tutorial for a step-by-step guide to develop your church's goals and objectives.

Next, you need to know your environment. How does your community feel about your objective? What steps should they take mentally, spiritually and physically to arrive at the objective you have set? If you want to end hunger in your community, you may need to start by building awareness that a problem exists before you try to raise money or secure food donations to solve it.

Tell a story instead of giving a speech.

Stories convey meaning.

As long as humans have been sitting around campfires, people have been telling stories to create emotional connections. In many societies, stories transfer knowledge from one generation to the next. Research from Harvard University suggests that sharing experiences through stories builds trust, cultivates norms, transfers tacit knowledge, facilitates unlearning and generates emotional ties.

Most stories connect the audience with a narrative larger than themselves. Stories bring to life underlying truths that people can apply to their own lives. Joshua Gowin, in his article "The Power of Stories," explains. "When you tell a story to a friend," he says, "you can transfer experiences directly to their brain. They feel what you feel. They empathize."

Learn the first rule of storytelling.

Focus on emotions. Support with facts as needed.

The key to telling stories is to give the audience - whether it is one person or a whole congregation - an emotional experience. The human brain translates a story into visual imagery. You feel emotions much more deeply and can recall them more clearly than any set of data.

This is why the Gospel story is so powerful. While you can learn theological tenets and facts of Christianity, the information comes alive in the stories of the Bible. You can empathize with Mary and Martha's grief at Lazarus' tomb. You can feel Christ's pain and anguish on the cross. You can feel the joy of the disciples at Christ's Resurrection.

Facts are not enough. There is a difference between being convinced by logic and believing something with personal conviction. Your audience may agree with your thought process, but they still may not respond. Why? People do not respond to logic alone. When you tap people's emotions, you can create the connection to drive change.

At Southwestern College, a United Methodist-related institution in Winfield, Kan., students take biblical storytelling classes developed by the Network of Biblical Storytellers International. Check out this organization's resources to learn more about becoming a better biblical storyteller.

Consider organizing a class or festival at your church. Bring in nationally recognized storytellers to help facilitate. Apex United Methodist Church, Apex, N.C., hosts an annual Optimist Music and Storytelling Festival which also serves as a fundraiser for childhood cancer charities. The festival features a day of music and stories for all ages during which the community is entertained by nationally known, award-winning storytellers and musicians. Trinity United Methodist Church, Huntsville, Ala., made headlines when they brought in a popular "newgrass" band to kick off their 18th annual storytelling festival.

Finally, create a strong call to action.

Determine the immediate next step.

Stories can move people to act on your cause as they identify psychologically with the characters and share their experiences. Tell them the one thing you want them to do next. Keep it simple and enable them to act immediately.

Like using stepping-stones to cross a river or stream, you need to focus on the immediate next step. Plan every interaction so it leads individuals to your objective. Using a combination of stories and simple next steps can create real change in your congregation or community.

Our faith is rich in stories of transformation and forgiveness. You can use the stories of Jesus, the apostles, John Wesley and many others to create fundamental change in your community.