By Sarah B Lange under Fundraising, Individual Donors, Marketing on January 21, 2021

Have you ever met an amazing storyteller?

Their story is SO engaging and SO compelling that you stop what you’re doing to listen to what they’re saying. It’s not just what they’re saying, but HOW they’re saying it.

If you’re not already a good storyteller, you might you’ll never be one.

But YOU can be that storyteller – the one that captures everyone’s attention.

You HAVE to be that storyteller. 

In a noisy world, we need to tell our stories to grab people’s time and attention — not stories about ourselves or our organization, but the stories about our clients; the people, animals or patch of the environment that’s counting on us to do our job, and to build a community of people who care about the problem and the impact it’s having on them.

Becoming a storyteller doesn’t mean you have to be the center of attention (in case any of you introverts out there are already feeling nauseous!), but you DO need to make the recipients of your services the center of attention for your donors, volunteers, and fans through good storytelling.

Why is storytelling important?

Storytelling is crucial, because it’s through stories that we connect to each other, to the world, and to our deepest humanity. The feelings evoked by a powerful story are stronger than anything our response to facts and figures (even for data nerds, like me!).

Fundraising is, at its core, a heart-centered activity. While data is important — because people need to know you’re having an impact — sharing the story of a former client and the struggles she’s endured with her children, how your supporters helped her overcome them, where she is now, and how she’s doing, will help your community feel connected and invested. Stories like these will make them want to support her — and those like her — at any even deeper level.

I know you’ve got hundreds of stories of the people you’ve supported through your work – you just have to gather them! Here’s how to make sure those stories capture the imagination, hearts, and wallets of your donors:

  1. Stories need a beginning, a middle, and an end. Be sure your story had a strong beginning, some tension in the middle and resolution at the end.  Before you start writing, ask yourself, what is the point of this story? Be sure your reader/listener gets that point from beginning to end!
  2. Pique their curiosity. What if I told you we’ve figured out a way to eliminate childhood cancer?  Using a bold, provocative statement perks people’s interests and entices them to hear (read) the rest of the story.  Storytellers call this an “inciting incident.” We are, by nature, curious beings — tapping into that tendency by using provocative questions opens the window wide for the rest of your story.
  3. Evoke VAK! No, Vak is not the name of some mystical storytelling guru living in the mountains, but rather stands for Visual Audio Kinesthetic. Use Visual, Audio, and Kinesthetic (hands-on/experiential) modalities to immerse a person into a desired experience or state. (If a story tells 1,000 words, think about the impact of video!)

    When the mind begins to imagine emotional and sensory experiences, parts of the brain light up as if it’s actually happening. Using these cues to describe “the adrenaline racing through your body,” or the “tragedy that brought you to tears,” will shift the audience from passive listener, to feeling like an active participant.

  4. Engage in Conflict Resolution. Two traditional storytelling elements are conflict and resolution. Your story should outline the problem, then show how your agency/ approach/intervention provides a resolution. Be sure to come at this from the CLIENT’S perspective, not yours! Exit interviews or follow-up surveys with people who have benefitted from your services is an easy way to collect stories!
  5. Appeal to Self-interest. The truth is, we’re wired for self-interest (otherwise, we wouldn’t survive!). Leveraging people’s self-interest helps you connect with them more quickly and on a deeper level.  Help the reader/listener understand how getting involved or providing support makes them a better person. What do your supporters care about? (If you don’t know, time to conduct a donor survey – if you want help with that, let me know!)
  6. Shock and Awe. We humans think in patterns. We take information in, try to make sense of it, spit it out. A break in that cycle is like a splash of icy water on our face. It’s why movies like The Sixth Sense and Fight Club are captivating — the plot twist breaks our mental pattern.  Plot twists don’t always need to happen at the end. You can open with a paradoxical statement or introduce it later on. Incorporating pattern breaks anywhere within a story increases its impact.
  7. Create an Inventory. Stories are the perfect way to illustrate and impart a lesson!  Use your personal experiences and those of your clients to build up your inventory of metaphors and illustrations. Doing so enables you to add more color to your stories.
  8. Know your Story by Heart. The best stories come from the heart. Know your story by heart, but do not memorize it. Use your authentic voice. Speak from the heart. This is not a dissertation, it’s a story.
  9. What’s at Stake? Get some skin in the game!  Stakes are essential in good storytelling. What do you stand to gain or lose? Why is what happens in the story important to you? If you can’t answer these questions, then think of a different story or a different way to tell this one.
  10. An Ending. Whether it’s a hopeful or a tragic ending, don’t let your reader/listener get all the way to the end of your story only to have it peter out!  Ending with a powerful statement, and a call to action is a great way to make sure the story hits home and sticks.  If the story has tragic elements to it, make sure the call to action mobilizes your listeners so that they don’t feel powerless in the face of overwhelming forces.

Find clients, members or someone else in your organization that has a really powerful story to tell.  You might be surprised by the number of clients, volunteers, board members and other stakeholders who are willing to tell their story. The best way to capture it is on video, but if they’re reluctant to get on camera, capture it in writing. Be sure to snap their photo! How many of them would be willing to tell their story to a small group of donors or potential donors? Or to a legislator?  Or on stage at an event?  Find out who right in your midst could tell their own story.

There are many “channels” you can use to share your story — in newsletters, at annual meetings, various social media platforms, in email blasts or as part of an action alert.  For one client, we sent out quarterly story postcards — client photo and a quick summary of their story, with a link to the full story on their website. The response was phenomenal!

You can create both long and short versions of stories to use easily across different communication channels.  And if you memorize some of the stories in the form you want to share them, you’ll be ready for when you have a last minute interview opportunity or the next time a reporter calls.

As you’re putting together your strategies and plans for 2021, make sure you take the time to think about your storytelling strategy for your organization! Pull your team together and brainstorm the who, what, and where, and you’ll be amazed at what sharing a story can do for your organization, your fundraising and your mission!

Ready to hear all the good stories you’re about to tell.



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