Context and Storytelling

Note: Recently, I started a new job. I wrote this post a few months back and I’m too lazy to change the present tense stuff about Glean to past tense.


Five years ago, I founded an agency (@getglean) that helps nonprofits find their voice and tell their stories. At Glean, we spend a lot of time helping our clients navigate the complexities of the issues they are working on. We then advise them on how to communicate their work back to their audiences.

Issues like human trafficking, clean water initiatives, government transparency, and women empowerment are complex. And thousands of people around the world are working hard to solve them. We’ve been lucky enough to help some of the most innovative groups in world working on those major issues.

Project after project, I kept wondering about how we as consumers engage with online content. How do we discover new news? How do we engage with the issues we read about? How much time do we give to an article before we forget it and move on? Can we change or influence how people interact with an article with design?

As online communicators we want to write in a way that is engaging, connects, and allows the audience to dive deeper. It’s through context that we can help influence how people engage with our content.

My theory is that we are not providing our audiences with the tools to engage and discover the full context of what we are working on. We only have a few seconds to to make a connection with someone online, otherwise we lose their attention in all the noise. For the last few months I’ve been quietly obsessed with trying to understand how we can use context to inform and to connect to people.

These are my thoughts on the problem and how we can start to look at context as a key focus of our communication strategy.

The power of context and storytelling

Context shapes every story that we tell, every article we write, and every design we create. Context is a power tool that interconnects people. It connects them through time, through a location, or commonality.

The content we create isn’t created in a vacuum. It fits within the larger story of the world. The larger story of time, space, and idea. And it’s from context we are able to connect deeper with our audience.

Think of the last book you’ve read.

  • Where was it based?
  • What time frame in history? Past, present, future?
  • What was the mood? Dark? Optimistic?
  • Who was the book written for? Teens? Adults? Adult Women? Grandparents?

These are all parts of context building in storytelling. And it’s the same for when we write a post, design, or create anything to share with the world. The things we read, watch, engage with are all because our context intersects with another person.

Context is about connection points.

There are a lot of ways our context shapes what we write or consume, but these are the main three areas:

  • Theme – the setting, physical location, and/or its time in history
  • Mood – the emotional aspects – style, tone, rhythm
  • Audience – understanding and reflecting the audience in a way that engages them. Age, gender, class, social status, and education are all parts of this.

There are a lot of different areas of context we can explore and over the course of the next few weeks I will do my best to dive deeper into each one.

Our platforms are not setup for writing in context

Over the last couple of years we’ve seen a lot of work go into making writing easier. There are lots of tools that allow for distraction-free writing.

Ghost and Svbtle are perfect examples of distraction-free online platforms. And it’s a great new step. I think if we can empower more people to write, the better off we all are. But, my biggest struggle is that in our effort to eliminate distractions, we’ve left out tools that can empower the writer to create better content.

A large part of the writing process is research. It’s spending time exploring a topic or idea. Research helps us shape our opinions, it helps shape our beliefs. Within our writing platforms we lack the basic ability to do research, to save or organize resources, and to easily share that research with our audience.

I want us to empower our readers to discover and to learn but it all starts with our writing. It starts with having the right focus as we start developing content. And the tools we use can empower us to think deeper about what and why we are writing. Focusing on how our writing fits into the larger content of the issue will help people engage deeper.

In the next post I’ll cover a few example websites and how they are taking a new look at this idea of context.

About the author

Jesse Orndorff

The founder of Glean, an agency for change. Formerly Innovation Program Manager at DAI. He's now focused on building technology and startups that work on challenging issues and doing social good.

Add Comment

By Jesse Orndorff

Jesse Orndorff

The founder of Glean, an agency for change. Formerly Innovation Program Manager at DAI. He's now focused on building technology and startups that work on challenging issues and doing social good.

Get in touch

I'd love to connect over social media. Feel free to Facebook, tweet, or snap at me.

Recent Posts

Categories