Five Powerful Storytelling Lessons from the Women’s March on Washington

Young woman at Women's March

By Camille DePutter


So far, 2017 has been a year of protest.

The January 21 Women’s March started things off with a remarkable expression of women’s voices. Participation on Washington was estimated at over 500,000; protests around the world added up to something in the millions.

And the Women’s March was just the beginning. Women are galvanizing and using their voices — their stories — for change.

Our effectiveness will depend, in no small part, on our storytelling.

Whether you have a personal, professional or political message to share, it all comes down to this: How well can you tell your story?

If you want to use your own story to deliver a purposeful message, consider these four powerful lessons before getting started.

#1 Realize your story matters.

What made the Women’s March historic wasn’t just the size of the group: it was the platform it served for a diverse group of women’s voices.

Some of the speakers shared personal experiences, some urged specific action, some shared facts or ideas, some expressed emotion. And some women used music, poetry, call-and-response or other methods as a way to connect with the audience. All forms of telling a story.

And here’s the thing about good stories: before you can tell a story, you need to believe in it. You need to know its worth.

If you’re not sure whether your story matters, consider how your story can be used to inspire others, or to contribute to a collective conversation.

Think hard about it: why does it need to be shared? How can it be used for good?

Look to other storytellers for inspiration but know that your own story is yours. And it’s up to you to tell it.

#2 …But know your story isn’t the only one that matters.

It is a storyteller’s job not just to talk, but to listen.

The stage at the Women’s March was shared by women of diverse experiences: some spoke from a position of celebrity, some from their work in Congress, some from the arts, and one speaker referred to a past experience of imprisonment. This intersectional mingling of stories informed partially by (but not limited to) gender, race, and class serves as a reminder that one single story does not define us.

We are more than just one story.

With this in mind, try to seek out and listen to stories that are different from your own, representing different lived experiences. Be attuned and respectful to the diversity of stories women have to tell.

And while listening, really listen. Try to reserve judgement and instead focus on the words being said, rather than planning your response or interpretation. (This is especially important if you are used to being listened to. Make sure you’re getting quiet sometimes so you can consider what other people have to say.)

Listening fosters empathy. It allows us to make space for other people’s stories. It allows us to appreciate and understand the stories that may be different from our own.

Listening can also educate us. It may allow us to put our story in a different context, add a new historical lens, or incorporate a new perspective or idea that we didn’t have before.

It some cases, listening may challenge us. It may cause a spark of doubt, a lump in the throat, a concern that maybe we are no longer so sure of ourselves. Maybe we even made a mistake.

In turn, this questioning can lead us to review certain parts of our stories and rethink assumptions or judgements. This is a good thing. Just like any piece of writing, our stories get better as we evolve them, and in some cases, make edits.

It is important to remember this when you have the stage – whether on a platform at a protest, in your own living room, or while on a heated Facebook debate.

Own your story, love it, represent it well. But stay open to listening, to learning, and to creating space for other people.

Listening to other people’s stories will give your own story more depth, more context, more conscience. And our collective stories will only improve.

#3 Get crystal clear on your message

While some people had the stage for longer, most speakers at the Women’s March had a very short period of time in which to communicate their idea. Some had a mere 30 seconds to talk before their microphones were turned off.

Even if you’re not on the stage, protests invite us all to have a moment of succinct expression. If you have just one statement to put on a placard, what will it be?

As a professional writer, I have been asked to reduce word length or keep to a very short word count time and again. Every time, the reduced word count has made my work more effective.

If you want your stories to have more impact, try shortening them.

Why? It’s not that shorter is necessarily always better. But clarity is. A direct, unequivocal message tends will have more impact than one that is wordy, redundant or rambling.

What’s more, the act of editing will challenge you to get crystal clear on what exactly you are trying to say. A brief message demands that you express yourself bravely, unabashedly, using only the most essential words.

This isn’t easy. It means wrestling with your own ideas, clarifying things again and again until you have a distilled, effective message.

As a result, editing forces you to get to the heart of what you really want to say.

#4 Answer the question, ‘what’s next’?

Your readers/listeners want to know what’s coming next. They need something to do with what they’ve learned, whether it’s an action item or a lesson they can apply to their lives.

It’s okay to include painful experiences or feelings as part of your story. In fact, these are useful elements, helping us to connect as human beings. They can make your story powerful.

But if you leave people at the end of a story without somewhere to go, they’ll be lost.

When crafting your story, make sure you answer the question: ‘What’s next?’

That may mean giving your audience a take-away or motto to remember. It may mean giving them a specific action item to carry-out. It may mean posing a question to ponder. Or it may mean getting them excited or inspired about what is coming next.

Your ‘what’s next’ will depend on your story. Just make sure you’re giving your audience somewhere to go from here.

#5 Carry your audience

Think about your favorite orators, whether speakers in the Women’s March, famous speakers, or well-spoken women in your own community.

Pay attention not just to what they say, but how they speak. Typically, you may notice that the best speakers don’t yell the whole way through their speech. They take pauses. They find soft places and hard places; places to rise and places to fall.

This applies to writing and other forms of storytelling too.

When you write your first draft, go ahead and yell. Get out all the frustration, all the rawness.

But on your second draft, look for the places to carry your audience through some varying terrain. Take them through ups and downs.

Consider how you want them to feel as your story progresses. For example, is your story monotone in emotion? All anger or all sadness? Consider how to build in some contrast — such as humor or hope.

That might mean adding some softness or compassion to certain parts. It might mean tightening up and getting more fierce, more raw in certain parts.

A story is about movement. You are taking your listener from a certain place with a set of emotions and ideas, to a new place with a new way of thinking and feeling.

Where is your destination? Is your story’s purpose to inspire empathy and compassion? Is it to incite healthy frustration and lead women to action? Is it to bring people together in a sense of solidarity and mutual support? Do you want to offer hope, purpose, and meaning amidst uncertainty and chaos?

Up, down, over rivers, streams, peaks and valleys: your story is a journey together. And as a storyteller, you are the guide.

Where will you take us?