Storytelling is more critical than ever for non-profits and for-purpose enterprises. In a world of information overload, the stories that capture and showcase your organisation’s impact in a compelling way are the key to strengthening connections with your supporters.
Nicole Richards, July 2018
Storytelling is the glue that binds us as a species. For millennia, stories have helped us learn from others, make sense of the world and express our shared humanity. Stories have the capacity to influence beliefs and behaviour.
As a non-profit or for-purpose organisation, stories are the threads that connect your supporters to your cause and your organisation in a meaningful way. Your stories are your frontline communication because they help existing and would-be donors see that they’re making a difference by supporting the work your organisation is doing.
It’s been said that we now live in the age of the attention economy. The increasingly difficult task of attracting and holding people’s attention means there’s more pressure on your stories to hit their target faster and more effectively. Here are five ways to sharpen your storytelling.
1. Start with why
Before you get started, step away from the keyboard or the video camera and ask yourself why are you telling this story? What is it that you need this story to do?
Are you looking to inspire action? Give a progress update? Raise awareness with a new audience? Respond to an information gap? Expand a conversation?
What kind of response do you want from the people who engage with your story? How do you want them to feel? What do you need them to do? How will you know if your story has hit the mark? Which metrics can you use?
Understanding the PURPOSE of your story will influence not only WHICH story you choose to tell, but HOW, WHEN and WHERE you tell it.
2. Know your audience
Presuming that your audience is deeply committed to your cause area or that they understand as much about the cause as you do is a common pitfall of non-profit storytelling.
Always bear in mind that you are NOT your audience.
How much do you really know about your audience? When was the last time you cross-checked assumptions? Is your intended audience the right audience for this particular story? How open are they to receiving information from you? What do you think about your organisation? How do they usually find and engage with stories? What motivates them? Can they relate in some way to the story you’re sharing?
RELATABILITY and ACCESSIBILITY are key. If your audience can’t find anything they can connect with, they’re unlikely to watch or read to the end. That doesn’t mean your story needs to be all things to all people, but you do have to work hard to find potential points of connection, and connection in this context means humanity (for more on this see point 4).
3. Think about structure
Because you’ve already contemplated your story’s purpose and its intended audience, you’re already in a stronger position when thinking about the most effective structure for the story.
Stories are more than a recitation of facts. Stories take us on a journey. The characters within the story are changed or transformed somewhere between the story’s opening and its end. A narrative arc is exactly that - an arc that builds your story up with just the right amount of detail and brings it through to a (hopefully) satisfying conclusion.
Ask yourself what impact your work has had on the community or person in your story. How have things changed?
Also consider who is the best person to be telling this story. The most powerful stories tend to come directly from the voices of the people in the story.
Now it’s time to decide upon which format/s you’re going to use to convey the story. Again, these choices will be influenced by your earlier thinking about purpose and audience. Video? Audio? Words on a screen or page? How will you share it? Can you integrate the story across all your organisational communications?
A word of caution – attention spans are shorter than ever. Keep your stories on point.
4. Find the human connection
When you’re telling stories in the social sector, this is the big one. This is where you’re really looking for the hooks and angles that will have the most impact with your audience.
The golden rule: ‘show, don’t tell’ is your key to success. Rather than telling your readers or viewers how to feel or what to think, show them through your story. Get them thinking.
Wherever possible, let the subjects of your story speak for themselves. Don’t put words in their mouth and don’t speak on their behalf. Look for standout quotes; use active rather than passive language and keep it real by including a few authentic details that add power and immediacy to the story.
On the flipside, don’t depersonalise your story by suffocating it with technical terms or unhelpful data. It should go without saying, but make sure you’re using inclusive, gender-neutral language – it’s 2018, there are no excuses.
5. Review. Refine. Repeat.
The only way to get better at telling stories is to tell more of them. Keep learning from each storytelling experience and stay open-minded.
Don’t be afraid of feedback, invite it. Look at the numbers in terms of responses or page views or whatever engagement metric you can lay your hands on. What are they telling you?
Use this information to build your knowledge of your audience and find the narratives that work best.
The more stories you tell, the better you’ll get.
The storytelling fundamentals shared here formed part of a broader Storytelling Workshop presented by Philanthropy Australia in May and June of this year. Philanthropy Australia members can access the full presentation on the Better Giving Hub.
Nicole Richards is Chief Storyteller at Philanthropy Australia.