March 14, 2017

Bringing Storytelling Home

By Gayle Carney & Kate Purcell

Storytelling dissolves your audience’s defenses, medicine avoids the nauseating ask reflex and helps you connect to your audience. Stories that are memorable, urticaria spirited, malady earnest and vulnerable  attract human beings to each other. For two days, we hung out the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference in Chicago with experts in media and fundraising and more than 24 different perspectives on the art and science of telling stories. To sum it up our experience:


“Our brains are completely helpless against

the gravitational pull of a good story”

?  Leah Eustace

One “aha!” moment was that longer posts are proven to be more effective than shorter ones.  But if your eyes get blurry midway through this post, don’t skip over the how-to video at the end: Storytelling Tips to Improve Your Fundraising. Before that, we summed up our eight big takeaways with links to some of the presenters, resources and research to back them up. Here’s what we’re bringing home to you.

Tell one person’s story

Yes, one single person. Research has shown if people are asked to give $100 to help one child or $100 to help 10 children, they are more likely to give to the one child. Go figure. It seems that our brains can more easily wrap around saving one than saving many.

Simple is better

Storytelling has been all the buzz in the marketing industry for years now, but we can overdo it. Here’s the balance you want to strike: Leave out enough details so people can become part of the story. Insert enough emotion so they can feel a part of something bigger than themselves. If you can make your hero relatable, your audience will fill in the rest.

Visuals matter. Use them.

We associate narratives and storytelling with lots of words but visuals are just as, if not more, important as text. Sean Triner drove this home with great research to back it up. One in particular stood out to us: blog posts that include images produce 650% higher engagement than text-only. (Source: Adobe Intelligence Report) This has repercussions for every part of your communications strategy from direct mail (use design to break up the text and make room for photography) to your website. You shouldn’t have a single page without at least one image.

Data is great, but use it sparingly

Haven’t we spent the last five years telling nonprofits to be more data-savvy? It’s true, you need to know your numbers but as we all suspected, people don’t give to statistics. Data is necessary to share your impact, but it doesn’t make a compelling case for support. Peter Drury led an excellent session and his point, along with most other speakers, was that data should come after you’ve provided context with an emotional appeal. When you do share data, don’t overload your audience. Stick to one piece of data that backs up your story.

Keep asking “Why should they care?”

Mark Rovner, one of our favorite presenters, put it perfectly, “Organizational narcissism is the biggest enemy of fundraising.” To engage champions for your cause who offer their money, time and share your stories, you must make them care. However, our clients show us how living and breathing your mission can make it difficult to put yourself in the shoes of your listeners. In that moment, it’s not what you care about that’s important – it’s what they care about. Even more radical, one presenter suggested that if your donor communications are truly effective, your organization’s leadership will probably hate it. Why? Because it won’t be jam-packed with every nuance of why you are the most worthy nonprofit in the world.

Create a storytelling culture

Storytelling organizations are not created overnight. If you believe your best stories are waiting to be told, set an intention to uncover them, apply some simple techniques and it will happen. First, deputize one or two people to develop a storybank. They can begin to fill it using the approaches presenters offered us for eliciting stories from beneficiaries, donors and staff. A few of our favorites include:

  1. Lori Jacobwith’s process for unearthing stories involves speaking with people and listening for results and transformations. Then, when you go back through your notes or recordings, circle words that stand out and are emotional. Build your story around these words.
  2. Harvey McKinnon suggested to always listen for emotion or conflict. Then repeat back what people say and ask, “is there more?” Until there isn’t. And don’t forget to record!
  3. Equip Staff and Board members with prompts. Brainstorm some conversation starters that will get people talking about their experiences with your organization.
  4. Ask stakeholders for testimonials. This could be as simple as a social media push to your supporters asking, “Why do you love our organization?”
  5. Ask your staff about the people they work with: “Who can’t you stop thinking about?”
  6. Practice telling stories. Open your meetings with Board members and staff telling a story. It may feel awkward at first but over time, people will become better story detectives and become more comfortable sharing them.

Five Stories You Must Be Able to Tell

Everyone who represents your organization should be able to tell its stories. Here’s a synopsis from different presenters of the ones to work on:

  1. Your organization’s Genesis or Founding story
  2. Your Personal Commitment story
  3. Your organization’s Phoenix story (what it has overcome to get where it is today)
  4. An Impact story (how someone got closer to their goals because of your organization)
  5. Your organization’s Vision story

Raising More Money with Better Storytelling Tips

Here’s the link. It’s worth your time. They say it better than we could ever paraphrase.

Looking for ways to help your Staff and Board get better at telling your organization’s stories? We provide customized workshops and help get your storybank started. We’ll even help you to make your web content more engaging. Contact us at