Those of you who’ve heard me speak before know how much I believe in nonprofit storytelling. And I’m not the only one. It seems that every conference these days has a session on the topic, and the internet is rife with articles about why you should tell stories. But what we don’t see as often is the how. How do you find your stories, gather them up, write them and then use them. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Everyone is talking about storytelling We learn about why stories are important But, what we don’t talk about as much is what goes on in our brains that makes stories work That’s what I want to talk about today
Stories get and keep the reader’s attention Help you communicate better Enhance your credibility Linger longer in reader’s minds Get your message passed along further and faster Not only that, but people believe information more readily if it’s delivered in story rather than through statistics.
Let’s start with how we make decisions. If you ask the average person on the street to describe how they make a decision, they’d describe it something like this (read it through) It’s a very logical process
In actual fact, decision making isn’t logical at all Research has shown that our subconscious makes a decision a full seven seconds before we are consciously aware that we’ve made a decision And, as I’ll talk about in a minute, we’re completely incapable of making decisions if our emotions aren’t engaged
Most organizations I talk to struggle to find stories. It’s not that the stories aren’t there… they are. It’s just that they aren’t being told or kept track of. In other words, there isn’t a culture of storytelling within the organization and the fundraisers, who are looking for the stories, are constantly pushing, pushing, pushing. Let’s talk about some ways you can create pull.
The most important thing to do is open up your ears and pay attention: Carry around a notebook Listen to what’s being said around the water cooler Ask someone who’s been with your organization a long time to talk about the early days What’s your founder story? Talk to the people on the front lines Think about your own story… why are you doing the job you do? How have you been touched by the cause you work for? Attend your charity’s events Keep an eye on the blogs At the end of every day ask yourself “what happened today that would make a good story?”
Website Reply devices Surveys Information packages Receipt packages Newsletters Facebook Blogs In person or over the phone brainstorm with staff a few times a year -the more you ask, the more you’ll change the culture of your organization
Whenever you’re gathering a story, this is your essential equipment. In fact, I suggest you keep it with you at all times (I certainly do). If you don’t already have this stuff, go out and buy it right away. You need a digital voice recorder… you can get a decent one for under $100… and you need a device like the one on the right that connects to both your telephone and recorder. It’s called a telerecorder. This will allow you to record both sides of a telephone conversation. Or, you can download an app like TapeACall on your smart phone, then use Rev.com to transcribe A notepad and pen for obvious reasons. Why a box of tissue? Because many interviews will make either you or the person your interviewing… or both… cry. In fact, if tears flow you’ll know you’ve gone where you needed to go and you’ll be in the perfect frame of mind to start writing the story.
People sometimes feel intimidated when they here the word ‘interview,’ so I suggest you simply suggest setting up a time to talk to them about their story and ask a few questions Always use a recorder: you’ll not have to take notes and you’ll capture everything you need Whenever possible, do your interview by phone
Set up a time that’s convenient. If they ask for your questions in advance, try to dissuade them… you don’t want them to be overly prepared Consider sending them a sample of the kind of story you’ll be writing: particularly if it’s for an appeal Ask them for about 45 minutes of their time (but, if you already know the person is a talker, suggest an hour). Ask what number you should call them at, or where you should meet them. Be prompt. Let them know how the story will be used Let them know the process… how long before they see a draft, for example. Ask them how much time they have for you… and stick to it! Let them know that they have full approval of the final product Always let the person know you’re using a recorder Offer that if you ask anything that makes them uncomfortable, to just let you know
Are the right person to do the interview? Be honest with yourself: if you’re a pretty closed person; have trouble expressing emotions and are uncomfortable when people share intimate details about their lives with you, find someone else to do the interview Even if you are the right person to be doing interviews, make sure you’re the right person to be doing this interview: Prostate Cancer = man; ovarian cancer = woman; women’s shelter = woman Be honest with yourself: sometimes we’re too close to the cause to do an effective interview. For example, if you’re an ovarian cancer survivor, it will likely be difficult for you to conduct a good interview that focusses on that topic Find and read everything you can about the person before the interview, but don’t hesitate to ask them to tell the stories again You’re doing background research so that you know what kinds of questions to ask If they say ‘well you can find all that out on the internet’ respond with how important it is for you to hear it in their own words You’ll have a better interview if the interviewee knows you’ve done your homework and that you’ll ask challenging questions as a result of it Always write your questions down in advance… this will help if there’s a lull in the conversation and it will remind you to touch on all the things you need to touch on Make sure you’re in a place where you won’t be disturbed FOCUS (close your email, mute your phone, close your door)
Share part of yourself Warm them up by talking about a news event, weather, their city. For example, “So you live in Halifax. I was there last summer with my kids and we had one of our best vacations ever.” Remind them why your speaking to them… what it’s for and what role you play Be prepared to let the conversation go off on tangents… sometimes your best stuff comes out that way. On the other hand, it can also go off on a tangent that’s not relevant to the story… be prepared to steer the conversation back to where you need it to be. “That’s really interesting, but can I ask…” For complicated topics, like medical research or pure science, where the interviewee is talking in jargon, stop and ask him/her… how would you describe that project/your work to your 80-year-old great aunt? What does that lab work mean to the average person? How will it impact them? Can you tell me about a particular patient who’s benefited? Ask a question, and then pause. When we’re nervous or uncomfortable, we have a tendency to get chatty. Don’t… just wait and let the person you’re interviewing gather their thoughts Always ask open ended questions Don’t be afraid to confirm: “And how old is your granddaughter? What’s her name? When was that?” Don’t ignore the uncomfortable… but warm the interviewee up before you ask them If the person begins to show vulnerability, don’t back up… go forward Don’t let them get away with generalities… Example “That was a difficult time for me.” respond with “how difficult?” “why was it difficult?” Look for specifics, details and examples
If you can, start writing right away… while you’re emotional. You’ll write your best stuff this way. Don’t worry about typos or finding the perfect sentence to start off with… just write. If you write something that makes you want to hide or erase, keep going straight to that feeling. You’re on to something If you can’t write immediately, take the time to jot down a few thoughts: what part of the story stood out for you the most? Was there a particular quote that spoke to you? Write these down because they’ll be harder to remember later.
Always write stories in the first person Write as you speak: short sentences and paragraphs Write at a grade 6 level (google “turn on readability stats in word” to find out how to do that) Like any fundraising appeal, the story should have an introduction, a problem, a solution and a result. You want to paint a picture in your donors’ minds so they pay closer attention, understand more easily and respond emotionally.
Slovic conducted an experiment: Ordinary citizens were asked to contribute $5 to alleviate hunger abroad In one version, the money would go to a particular girl, Rokia, a 7-year-old in Mali In another, to 21 million hungry Africans In a third to Rokia, but she was presented as a victim of a larger tapestry of global hunger People were less likely to give to anonymous millions like Rokia. But they were also less willing to give in the third scenario, in which Rokia’s suffering was presented as part of a broader pattern In fact, in another version of the experiment, Slovic added Rokia’s brother to the mix… and donations went down
Donors already know how to leave a bequest. They feel the charity is being kind of preachy Put your hand up if the planned giving information on your website focusses on how to leave a bequest. stop talking about how to leave a planned gift and start talking about why your donors should leave one to you. Focus on inspiring the donor. How do you inspire them? Tell them about the future you believe in. Tell them about your hopes and dreams. Show them what you’ve been able to accomplish, and the amazing things you’ll be able to do in the next 25 or 50 years.
Think about how the story will be used and write accordingly Website Letter Newsletter article One good story can be used many ways and many times. Just as you’re getting sick of the story, donors are starting to hear it.
Always send them final draft… including graphics and set up Remind them what it will be used for Be prepared for them to reject things/re-write If you’ve set them up properly in advance, particularly if you’ve shared a sample story with them, they’ll be less likely to re-write What if it goes horribly wrong? I’ve twice (in hundreds of pieces of writing) had donors ask that they not have their stories used once they see the final draft This almost always happens in cases where the story was very fresh or evolving (give example of breast cancer patient) My advice is to stay away from those stories, if possible, and to prepare your storyteller very well in advance so they know what to expect Remember to send a thank you note to the donor, or whoever the storyteller is, along with a copy of the final product (or a few copies) Follow up after a few months and let the donor know what their story accomplished… the impact it had If, for some reason, the piece doesn’t end up being used… let the donor know… they’re probably looking for it to appear Don’t forget to put a note in the database so that others know that you’ve gathered and used this person’s story
Writing Workshop: Collect, Write and Share Your Own Legacy Stories
Collect, Write and Share Your Own Legacy Stories
Leah Eustace, M.Phil., CFRE, ACFRE
Chief Idea Goddess
“The cat sat on
the mat is not the
beginning of a story.
The cat sat on
the dog's mat is.”
~ John le Carré
Why stories are awesome
• Keep the reader’s attention
• Help you communicate better
• Enhance your credibility
• Linger longer
• Get passed along
• Raise more money!
How we think we make decisions
How we actually make decisions
Look… and listen
• Listen to what’s being said around
the water cooler
• What’s your founder story?
• Talk to people on the front lines
• Think about your own story…
• Attend your charity’s events
• Keep an eye on your social media
• At the end of every day ask yourself
“what happened today that would
make a good story?”
•Introduce your main character
•What obstacle does the character need to
•Intro your organization (include donors)
•How can your donors help fix the problem?
•Why are you the right organization?
•Call to action
The identifiable victim
“If I think of the
mass I will never
act, if I think of the
one, I will”