Put Shakespeare’s Storytelling Skills to Work for Your Nonprofit

Guest blogger Kim St. John-Stevenson is the communications officer at the St. Luke’s Foundation of Cleveland, and a dedicated advocate for funding nonprofit skill building in Communications.

“To be or not to be, that is the question.” Most people recognize that as a classic Shakespearean quote, from Hamlet. But did you know the following quotes also come from Shakespeare’s pen?

  • A foregone conclusion. (Othello)
  • Come full circle. (King Lear)
  • Eat me out of house and home. (Henry IV)
  • Come what may. (Macbeth)

The fact that these and hundreds more everyday phrases were penned more than 400 years ago is absolute validation that Shakespeare knew a thing or two about telling a great story, and there’s lots for us to learn from this.

In a previous post, I talked about how nonprofits need to make their stories “stick,” a notion popularized by Chip and Dan Heath in “Made to Stick.” The Heath brothers, like Shakespeare, recognize that the hallmark of a good story is how memorable it becomes. In the nonprofit world, being memorable is critical to an organization’s visibility and long-term viability.

But telling a good story is only part of the equation. As anyone in the nonprofit sector can attest, nonprofits must also look to use data and outcomes, in addition to imagery, to tell great stories. Great stories are a precise blend of outcomes (conveyed in tangible data) together with a healthy dose of good storytelling and visual imagery.

For example, a public health organization wants to eliminate blood lead levels in children. But even clear, concrete and measurable data—approximately 250,000 children in the U.S. between the ages of 1 and 5 have elevated blood lead levels—isn’t compelling enough to motivate action. Instead, supplement the data with a photo of a child with a warning label on her face that reads “Warning: Contains harmful amounts of lead.”

That’s the beginnings of a great story. Add a doable call to action (Get Kids Tested) and you have a great story!

Much of the brilliance in Shakespeare’s words is their brevity. In the iconic King Lear, Shakespeare simply states “He dies, ” to simply mark Lear’s end.” I recommend you apply the same brevity to your outcomes-based stories: For instance, a food bank is named “food bank of the year.” The food bank’s outcomes that led to the honor tell the real story, when you connect them to a person or family that have been better served due to these changes:

  • More efficient operations
  • Enhanced customer service
  • Increased distribution of nutritious foods to local hunger centers

Take a cue from Shakespeare—tease out those outcomes, situate them in an individual or a small group, weave in some compelling visuals and tell your stories.

How does your organization meld together personal profiles, outcomes data and visuals to tell compelling stories, or what do you need to know to make that happen? Please share your question or advice here.

Guest Blogger on March 29, 2012 in storytelling | 2 comments
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  • Thanks Kim for this article! I really like it. You’ve helped us re-frame a situation so we can start thinking in ‘story’ and then be able to share that story. I like it so much I’ve added it into my curated content on biz storytelling and then pushed it out on social media. You can see it here at http://www.scoop.it/t/just-story-it. Keep writing such great material!

  • Jessie White

    Hi Kim,

    My name is Jessie and I work for a company called Misfit Inc who, in partnership with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, is running a project called Happy Birthday Shakespeare. The goal of this project is to gather bloggers from all around the world to share how Shakespeare has influenced/touched their life. Bloggers will publish their posts as close to the 23rd April as possible and we will link to their posts from a central platform – essentially a giant birthday card to the Bard! Here’s what we did last year.

    If you would like to be involved, please email me so I can give you all the details.

    Thanks and best wishes,


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