Creating Story-Based, Narrative Content to Share Your Agency’s Mission

May 20, 2015

As human beings, we love stories. We like regaling our friends with tales from a recent road trip. We listen intently as grandma recounts that special moment she first met grandpa. Stories are how we relate to people. Stories help us form memories. Stories carry on tradition and culture from one generation to the next.

The story is an powerful tool, and that’s why we’re focusing on creating story-based narrative content at the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). Every Memorial Day weekend, our 25 overseas military cemeteries honor our fallen with special ceremonies. But for those who can’t be there, standing amongst the marble headstones, how do we convey sacrifice, honor and loss using digital tools?

This month, as part of our Memorial Day efforts, we’ve created a special campaign that tells the personal stories of six people who paid the ultimate sacrifice during World War II and are buried overseas. We’re doing this through articles, video, photos, and social media posts. We have more than 100,000 Americans buried and memorialized overseas from World War II alone. All of these people were sons, daughters, husbands, fathers, wives, sisters or brothers. So instead of focusing on the larger efforts of one unit, such as the 1st Infantry Division, or highlighting the societal implications to the end of the war, we’re focusing on how the war affected six families.

We’ve been able to do this by connecting with our audience, specifically the American World War II Orphans Network (AWON). This group includes the sons and daughters who lost a parent in the war. Fifty members of AWON are traveling to our Netherlands American Cemetery Memorial Day weekend to visit the final resting place of their fathers. In January, we began interviewing some of these men and women. Some were video interviews, and others were phone interviews. But through all of these, the AWON members supplied photos, primary source documents, such as letters and telegrams, and they shared their own perspective on what it is like growing up without a father.

1st Lieutenant Paul Donald Meyer and his wife, Elaine.
With these items, we’ve been able to craft a series called Profiles in Sacrifice, which we’re releasing throughout the month. And throughout Memorial Day weekend, while these men and women are in the Netherlands, we’ll be sharing content in real time. 1st Lt. Paul Donald Meyer, below, is one of the men ABMC has profiled this month as part of the Memorial Day campaign.

Every mission in the federal government can be exemplified by a person, a family, a community, a business, etc. Our agencies exist to maintain and improve the lives of Americans. Why not tell these stories? Why not put faces to our missions?

While it’s more time-consuming to create narrative based content, not to mention legally more complicated, your audience will respond.

Getting Started:

  • Consult General Counsel: Sharing personal stories does make content creation a bit more complicated in terms of permission and release forms; however, it can be done. Talk with your legal team and figure out what’s plausible.
  • Start Small: You don’t have to start with a large, rigorous campaign. Especially if this is new territory and you’re working to get leadership comfortable with a new approach, work on individual pieces and begin sprinkling in story-based narrative into your existing content strategy.
  • Remember, Stories Vary in Length, Complexity and Medium: The idea of story-based, narrative content can be achieved in a tweet or in a long blog post. The story can be simple or complicated. It can be done through photos, text or video. No one method is better or more effective. It depends on your audience and your goals.
  • Brainstorm a Plan: Develop a draft plan. Think about your audience, objectives and tools. What will mark success? This does not need to be lengthy communications plan, but rather a beginning blue print.
  • Use your Existing Network: People like sharing their stories. Use your existing social media networks to outreach and see who might want to share their story.

Next Steps—When You’re Ready to Start Collecting Stories:

  • Do your Research Ahead of Time: Before you begin communicating with someone, ensure you’ve done your homework on the topic. There’s no faster way to isolate someone then to make them believe you have no real interest in their story. You don’t need to be an expert, but you need to be able to ask smart questions.
  • Use the Phone. Video Chat. Meet in Person: Email is great for sharing facts, details, and photos, but it’s not great for understanding who that person really is. You need to hear their voice and their tone.
  • Give Them a Game Plan: Before you begin an actual interview, tell them exactly how the process will unfold. Tell them what to expect both during and after the process.
  • Listen: People will be open and forthcoming with you. Let them talk. Do not interrupt. Take notes.
  • Be Respectful and Sincere: When people open up to you, and share their personal story, they are putting their faith in you that you will be a good steward of their story. You have now become their voice. This is a big responsibility.
  • Thank Them: Whenever you communicate with the person, thank them for participating. At the end of the project, hand write thank you notes. Trust me.

These are some general recommendations to get you started on creating story-based, narrative content. If you can collect and share personal stories and perspectives, you can better share your agency’s mission.

Follow along with us Memorial Day weekend via our website, Facebook, and Instagram as we continue to share these personal stories.

Author’s note: I want to thank Geraldine Morenski, Billie Myers Meeks, Arthur Chotin, Nancy Meyer, and Patricia Rathje for sharing their stories with me as part of this project. All of their fathers are buried at Netherlands American Cemetery. Sarah Herrmann is the Digital Communications Manager for the American Battle Monuments Commission.