Create a Container: Storytelling Strategies to Engage the Next Generation

So many associations have been trying to figure out how to keep their industries relevant as millennials and Generation Z replace baby boomers. One expert instructs associations to get these individuals to tell their stories, instead of simply pushing out their own.

When kids are deciding to learn an instrument, the accordion is probably not their first choice—creating an industry challenge the Connecticut Accordion Association is trying to overcome.

With its Bellows Open: The Great Squeeze Project, CAA is trying to increase awareness and interest in the instrument it celebrates by working with a local high school to introduce students to the accordion. After an initial presentation in December, any students who learned to play performed a concert together this past weekend.

What’s true for everyone—especially with millennials—is that people want to engage with the story.

But the conversation around how to engage new generations isn’t particularly new—especially as millennials and Gen Z began entering the workforce. The focus has been on effectively sharing a message. But Lori Silverman, author of books like Business Storytelling for Dummies and owner of Partners for Progress, says engaging the next generation needs to be about co-creating stories.

We’ve believed that storytelling is “solely about our ability to find the right story and to craft it in a compelling way that will make people resonate with our cause or with our group or with our industry sector,” Silverman said. “What’s true for everyone—especially with millennials—is that people want to engage with the story.”

With that in mind, associations must give individuals the space for expression, for telling their own stories around an experience. Silverman calls it “creating the container. What’s the container we’re going to provide to allow people to either capture and share their own stories or to co-create stories with others of what could be?”

Within that container, associations need to plant story prompts—open-ended phrases like, “Tell me about…” that encourage people to recall life events—as well as story triggers—a story or symbolic object provided with the sole intent of provoking stories from those who receive them. These allow members, or even nonmembers, to more deeply connect with the organization through the meaning inherent in their stories.

Containers can take many forms and exist in different spaces. Silverman recommends associations consider, “What can we do to provide an experience that allows people to share or co-create stories that they then give back to us?”

For example, an association can use the container of a survey with story prompts to gather members’ stories to inform marketing, conferences, or other functions. But to get members to dive deeper into their stories, it’s best to use in-depth interviews that employ special story listening techniques, Silverman explained.

During a conference, associations can encourage attendees to create group videos about their experiences. Consider providing staging, settings, or props that participants can incorporate. “Give them the opportunity to create new stories in that moment,” Silverman said. “Let them be spontaneous and very present. Resist the need to be [overly planned] with what’s captured here.”

Giving people the freedom to participate in the association’s storytelling creates deeper connections and lets them share that experience with others. While pursuing these means of engagement gives away some control over the direction and possibilities of the storytelling, associations should strategically design their container to ensure the intended purpose is still accomplished.

“You cannot create these sorts of engagements without thinking through and testing your story prompts,” Silverman said. “You cannot give people prompts and triggers without having done your homework to learn, ‘What are the possible reactions we might get so we lessen an unintended, negative consequence to a positive action?’”


Alex Beall

By Alex Beall

Alex Beall is an associate editor for Associations Now with a masters in journalism and a penchant for Instagram. MORE

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