February 25, 2019

Why organizations should tell more stories

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Child under the rain in Mali (photo by Riccardo Mayer).

Child under the rain in Mali (photo by Riccardo Mayer).

By Jessica Scadron
Social Harmony

Storytelling is an ancient practice that’s been passed down the generations, from before the written word to our current digitally driven platforms.

How can this ancient practice serve nonprofits whose survival depends on the actions of others, whether they be funders or volunteers? For one, it puts a face on the issue and shows that you’re talking about real humans. While data is important for showing reach and impact, studies tell us people don’t identify with numbers – they don’t donate, petition, volunteer, or sign up for a newsletter because they saw a big number. Human emotions – what drives people’s behaviors – are triggered by stories.

Numerous books and studies have come out over the years about the importance of telling stories. Wired for Story is a bible for many communicators charged with driving behavior change among constituents. The Storytelling Animal is another. As Bruce Wydick, author and economist, wrote, “…In the battle for hearts and minds of human beings, narrative will consistently outperform data in its ability to influence human thinking and motivate human action.”

Take this example: If you read about how a college success organization helped 3,000 students get into college you might have a positive thought, then move on. But if that statistic is coupled with a story about a young individual (let’s call her Jasmine) who survived multiple foster homes, poverty and abuse, and detailed how she overcame the odds with the help of the organization, you’re likely to pause. You may even consider volunteering or making a donation to support the organization’s mission of helping kids like Jasmine create better lives for themselves.

Stories trigger connection and humanity. Painting a clear picture of the effect an organization has, it becomes clear to potential supporters why it’s important to invest in that organization.

While many nonprofits know the importance of telling stories, many don’t have the time or staff to vet, collect, write and promote their stories. With the intent to make your life a little easier, here are a few steps that may help you tell the amazing stories of how you’re helping the people or cause you serve.

Step 1: Research your audiences’ motivations

Figure out what your priority audiences care about and use that to determine what stories to tell. If you’re trying to reach partners, zero in on what’s most important to them, like partnering with organizations that have skills they don’t. If you want to reach funders, they want to see impact and how their investments will help you reach more people.

Step 2: Choose your story

Once you figure out each audience’s motivating factor, find the best stories within your organization to support your claims. To reach partners, illustrate how your organization works with partners and has helped them meet their goals. If you want to secure funds for child health, tell the story of how a child’s life was changed because of your work.

Step 3: Create your story structure

Now that you have your story picked out, create an outline for how you’d like your story to flow. If you’d like to interview the story subject, craft interview questions that get to the heart of how your organization has helped that person.

Step 4: Write your story

It’s easier than it sounds. You don’t have to be a master writer. Remember that you have everything you need. You know better than anyone why you do what you do. Write the story through that lens.

As they say, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Don’t get too caught up in the editing process – it can last an eternity. Decide what’s good enough for your organization, and get those stories out there.

After you’ve had a chance to test these steps, I’d love to hear how the process is working for you! Message me: @jesscadron

Jessica Scadron founded Social Harmony, a social impact firm that provides communications strategy and implementation to organizations changing the world. Find her on LinkedInTwitter and email.
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