Professional Resource

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The Power of Stories

With one compelling story, we can build a relationship with potential advocates or policymakers, offer a new perspective and real-life experience, help them understand the impact of a complex issue, and change minds.

by Elizabeth DiLauro, Director of Advocacy, ZERO TO THREE

As early childhood professionals, we know the power of stories. We have seen young children drawn in to stories, captivated by characters and what happens to them. Families share stories with their children to strengthen relationships, connect them to their community, and offer important lessons about values. In classrooms and family child care homes, caregivers offer stories that spark conversation or teach particular concepts or processes. Young children engage with stories cognitively and emotionally—even physically as they act them out—in ways that can change understanding, behavior, and perspective.

And when we think about it, adults are not so different. It is not surprising, then, that stories are one of the most powerful tools in policy advocacy. With one compelling story, we can build a relationship with potential advocates or policymakers, offer a new perspective and real-life experience, help them understand the impact of a complex issue, and change minds. In your diverse roles, ZERO TO THREE members naturally collect stories about young children and their families. What can those stories teach concerned community members or your elected officials? Here are some tips for using stories in your advocacy:

  • Consider your purpose: As you advocate for children and families in your community, think specifically about your goal. Are you educating someone about the importance of the first 3 years? Do you want to draw attention to a specific issue? Are you asking for funding or legislation for a particular program? Make sure that your story is clearly and specifically linked to your purpose. (Click here for ZERO TO THREE’s federal policy agenda and information on the issues and policies that focus our work on Capitol Hill.)
  • Partner when possible: The most effective storyteller is the person who knows the story best. Whenever possible, invite families to tell their own stories. Think with them about what kind of support they might need, and volunteer to help. Frequently, families and professionals team up: families tell their stories, and professionals link those stories to research, a greater community context, and/or policy solutions.
  • Maintain confidentiality: Stories might live with you long after families leave your practice—or your life! Still, you must be cautious about protecting any identifying information about families as you share stories. In the end, your advocacy will be strengthened by your ethical professionalism.
  • Follow the arc: Stories usually have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Start by describing the family in ways that lead your audience to connect with and care what happens to them. Then, talk about the issues that challenge the family, emphasizing the ways in which these issues also affect others in your community, your state, or the country. Finally, talk about the programs or policies that have helped this family or that could help them resolve their challenges. This structure allows you to end with your purpose: What does this story lead people to want to do for young children and families?
  • Think broadly about how you might use stories: Use them to highlight your messages, successes, and challenges in conversations with not only federal, state, and local policymakers, but also in communications with program administrators or boards, early childhood coordinating councils, local business organizations, or the media. At ZERO TO THREE, the Policy Center tells stories from families in everything from informal conversations to formal meetings, on social media, in blogs and op-eds, and in Congressional briefings and visits with elected officials and their staff.
  • Edit: In your role, you might know a lot about a particular family’s story! A little information about context is helpful, but too much can be distracting. Think about what details contribute to your purpose and which are not necessary and can be edited out.
  • Practice: Skilled speakers will tell you that practice makes all the difference. Practice in front of a mirror, or, even better, in front of an audience! Ask for feedback about what your audience liked and what they would change.

Stories are so useful that this month, as part of our Think Babies™ campaign, ZERO TO THREE launched a child care story collection effort with the National Women’s Law Center. We want to help policymakers understand what is working for families and providers in our current child care system—and what is not. So, we are going to the experts, the people who can share their firsthand experiences! Do you have child care stories to share with us? Do you know of families or providers who do? Please invite them to participate: http://www.thinkbabies.org/tell-your-story/

Your stories matter too! ZERO TO THREE’s Policy Center is always happy to hear about your advocacy efforts on behalf of the youngest children and their families. Please let us know how we can help at PolicyCenter@zerotothree.org.

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