Put Persuasive Storytelling to Work for Your Nonprofit

Most successful communications products, both print and online, have something in common. They begin with a real story about a person or situation that motivates the reader to read on. And, just like a good novel, the story features interesting characters, a rich context and a compelling plot. Think “Anna Karenina,” not Danielle Steel.

Storytelling cuts through the mass of information surrounding us. So, instead of being bombarded with facts, names, figures, and other chunks of information that dull your prospect’s interest, a story lead makes what you’re trying to say seem personal and exciting.

For example, instead of promoting a two-year-old program (and promotion is the first step in fundraising) with a promise of being able to provide “provide art and music classes for 8,400 children in 450 Philadelphia elementary schools that currently offer none at all,” you can lead with a story like this: (NOTE: This is a fictional scenario.)

“In 2001, fifth-grader Arlene Sherman was one of the first elementary school students in her Philadelphia district to participate in the Art for All program. Arlene, who had never before had art or music classes in school, found that she loved to sing, and had a talent for it. After three years in the program, one of her middle school teachers took Arlene to an audition for a city-wide children’s choir, and she made the cut. After three years as the lead alto in the choir, Arlene is now the student choirmaster, and has started a choir in her own high school. Thanks to Art for All, Arlene now loves music, and has honed her singing talent. Even better, she’s spreading her passion, and her knowledge, with fellow students.”

When you use a story like this, you must tell the truth. Exceptions are stories that you clearly label as based on imagination by saying something like “Imagine ..”

Well-told stories (or case studies, which for promoting programs and services serve the same purpose) enable your nonprofit to communicate more effectively. Through compelling stories, you:

  • Sound experienced and expert.
  • Present your information in a way that makes people enjoy reading it and remember it more easily.
  • Avoid barriers of excess information.
  • Pull together many independent facts and figures into an easy-to-absorb whole.
  • Show (and not tell) your reader what you’re really delivering.
  • Make your message more manageable.
  • Give your audiences an easy way to understand (even visualize) and explain his participation decision (to volunteer, to give, to serve on the board).to himself and others.

There are nine elements to any good story, whether storytelling lead, novel, or movie. A good story:

  • Is relevant to your audiences.
    Know your audiences and what they care about. Choose an example, and craft the story, to focus on those passions.
  • Is usually about a person or people.
    We’re far more attracted to stories about people than stories about machines, ideas, strategies, or the like.
  • Carries an underlying message.
    The message in a storytelling lead is usually your promise or an idea that leads directly to your promise.
  • Is dense with detail.
    Details give stories (and promotions) a texture of credibility
  • Is entertaining, and entertainingly written, as the story builds, and ultimately, surprises.
    A story about a kid in music class isn’t as exciting as Arlene’s success story. Evolution or adventure makes a good read.
  • Isn’t too long.
    Ever been to a movie that you felt ended two-thirds of the way through? You probably wanted to (and maybe did) walk out as the story dragged on. If you’re writing a storytelling lead, don’t make your audiences suffer the same way.

So when you’re shaping the messages for your next campaign, annual report, or service/program promotion, see what stories you can find and feature them in your copy. And, take one step further to fortify your stories with photos and testimonials if possible.

When you do, I think you’ll see what a difference a story can make, and find lots of applications for stories in your nonprofit’s communications.

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