June 1, 2010

How nonprofits should be using storytelling

The importance of storytelling to nonprofits from JD Lasica on Vimeo.

Expert gives tips on how to bring causes to life

JD LasicaWhen it comes right down to it, nonprofits and public-benefit organizations have a hard time telling their own stories. They assume that the public shares their passion for the cause, and so they move on to conveying dry stats and research reports to buttress their case instead.

Wrong approach.

Cave painting of a dun horse at Lascaux, France

Cave painting of a dun horse at Lascaux, France. At 17,000 years old, the oldest story?

They should be telling stories. Suzanne N. Smith, head of Social Impact Architects in Austin, Texas, discusses why storytelling is so important to nonprofits — and, indeed, any organization. She gave this 15-minute video interview at the recent Social Enterprise Alliance Summit atop the Hyatt in downtown San Francisco.

Says Suzanne: “I’ve seen nonprofits bury themselves in text and data, and we’ve forgotten the stories that are inherent in the work that we do.” Her stirring presentation was about how to surface those stories and balance them with the hard data that makes nonprofits effective and efficient.

Why do nonprofits have a hard time telling their own stories?

“You remember things when they’re in a storytelling format two to seven times more than you do than if you just get the text alone.”
— Suzanne N. Smith

“I think we drink our own Kool-Aid and think what we do is such a great idea — why wouldn’t people want to help the homeless or be a mentor? And we forget that … we have to use persuasion and influence … to get people to believe in those same things the way we do.”

Watch, embed or download the video on Vimeo

Stories are our universal currency, and they help us break through the clutter of the 3,000 messages we’re bombarded with each day, she says. But there’s hard science behind why storytelling is so important. In research on the brain, scientists have found that hearing a story rather than simply reading text fires up a richer set of connectors, it sparks emotions, it summons up connections with memories, and so “you remember things when they’re in a storytelling format two to seven times more than you do than if you just get the text alone.”

Suzanne recommended these books as providing effective communication strategies:

Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini
Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds
A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink
Meatball Sundae by Seth Godin
Continue reading