By: August Dichter

Cognitive science suggests that storytelling is the most powerful form of communication, because it puts people in the picture. Stories activate language centers in the brain, which create emotional responses and encourage empathy. 

In other words, we are more likely to understand and care about a topic when we see stories about how that issue affects the lives of real people. However, when the details of a person’s life need to be obscured to protect their privacy and safety, how do you put a human face on the topic? 

That was the challenge facing My Sister’s Place, a Washington, D.C.-area shelter for survivors of domestic violence. My Sister’s Place provides families that are trapped in the cycle of abuse with a safe environment, a community for life, and tools they need to achieve their goals. 

The Hattaway team worked with My Sister’s Place as part of our pro bono program, and together we began crafting a narrative that would motivate people to support the shelter’s important work—while also considering the safety of its clients.

Using the Power of Narrative

Hattaway’s Narrative Framework (see illustration below) tells us that in order to motivate audiences, we need to look at people’s aspirations, the obstacles that stand in their way, and the solutions to overcome those obstacles. Communications research shows that putting people and their aspirations front and center motivates individuals to pay attention and think about a topic, which is the first step toward changing their attitudes and behaviors.  

The question facing us was: How do we tell the story of My Sister’s Place in a way that will motivate the organization’s audiences, while protecting the privacy of its clients? To get to a research-based answer, we spoke with members of the My Sister’s Place community, conducted a focus group with potential donors and partners, and reviewed messaging from peer organizations across the country.

An Aspirational Narrative begins by putting your audience members in the role of the protagonist, so they “see themselves” reflected in your cause. The goals are their aspirations in life. The problems are challenges or needs they face in realizing those aspirations. The solutions are the things you do to meet those needs and help people achieve their goals. The call to action creates a sense of urgency and tells people what actions they can take.

Framing the Problem and Solution

In order to compel people to act, communication must clearly present the problem. However, our focus group revealed that sharing statistics of domestic violence was overwhelming to audiences. We needed to identify the problem without talking about it too much.

My Sister’s Place was not trying to eliminate domestic violence itself, but rather to provide its clients with a safe place to live. Their shelter’s solutions to this problem are unique and innovative. While most shelters provide only temporary housing, My Sister’s Place thinks holistically about a client’s needs. The organization runs housing assistance programs, but also provides emergency financial assistance and career development resources. It always keeps families together, and the staff even hosts birthday parties for each child in their care.

Understanding Aspiration

By reframing the problem and posing My Sister’s Place as the solution to that problem, we better understood the aspirations of the people the shelter serves—its clients wanted safe, secure homes; a normal life; and the ability to set their own goals. Highlighting these authentic aspirations made the message true to the hopes and values of the families represented.

This framing also made the message more compelling to the desired audiences. Cognitive research shows that people are more likely to respond to messaging that reflects their own values and goals. 

The values and goals of the clients at My Sister’s Place are widely shared, as shown in Hattaway’s American Aspirations survey, which explores the aspirations that motivate Americans from many different backgrounds and beliefs.

The bar graphs pictured illustrate the values and goals rated on a 1–10 scale in the American Aspirations survey. The percentages shown indicate the share of participants who rated these statements as a 9 or 10, or “extremely important,”
on the scale.

The clients My Sister’s Place serves are responsible, hard-working, and family-oriented, and they want to enjoy a purpose-filled life, while achieving financial security. Without giving away any personal details, this framing begins to draw a picture of someone you can visualize and relate to.

Winning Words

The words we use to describe people influence how our audience perceives those people. To people in our focus group, the term “families” emerged as a more compelling alternative to “survivors” or “victims.” “Family” is an ungendered, familiar term to which everyone can relate.

We decided to be strategic and limit the use of the term “survivor.” Though it is a popular term in the field of domestic violence, social science research suggests that it’s more effective to define people by their aspirations than by the obstacles they’ve faced in life. “Asset framing” promotes empathy and respect, which can encourage people to take action in support of the people in the story.

A New Narrative

Ultimately, My Sister’s Place believes that these messages present an alternative narrative to shift the national conversation about housing, domestic violence, and “victims” toward one about individuals’ aspirations. As it turns out, you don’t need to see their faces or know their names to care about them—you just need to relate to their aspirations and understand their challenges. 

We provided these insights and messages in a Message Manual, which includes a Strategic Storytelling framework to equip users to put the recommendations into action. This tool is helping My Sister’s Place engage with current and potential supporters by painting a clearer picture of the families the organization empowers, without giving away sensitive information. 

If you or someone you know has been affected by intimate partner violence, help is available:       

My Sister’s Place Helpline,

National Domestic Violence Hotline,

StrongHearts Native Helpline,

Hattaway Communications is dedicated to communications for impact. To view our application for Pro-Bono Communications Program visit this link.