How many of you have taken Andy Goodman’s storytelling seminar?

Pretty mind-blowing, huh?  Andy unlocks the secrets of good story-telling, decoding a formula for narrative going at least back to Aristotle’s Poetics.

There are easily thousands of non-profit communicators who have passed through Andy’s program.  But here are we are mostly all agreeing that “storytelling is really really important,” but for the most part the non-profit remains really bad at it.

Not for lack of trying.  And props to those who have made the effort, a handful with notable success.

Andy ruined my life because I was so enraptured with the mechanics of story-telling that I enrolled in UCLA’s online program in screenwriting.  Today, one year and one and a half midnight-scribed screenplays later, herewith are some thoughts and perceptions that may be of use.

What the heck is a story anyway?

One screenwriting guru, Michael Hauge, boils all stories down to three elements.. They are

  1. character;
  2. desire;
  3. conflict
  4. .

That’s it.  You have those three, and you have a story.

By character we mean our protagonist (or hero, loosely defined).  Roughly 99% of the time the protagonist of a good story is a single individual (or humanized cartoon character).  If your story casts your organization as the protag, you’re dead at the starting gate.

Desire doesn’t mean lust or greed (necessarily) but a burning need to change the protag’s world somehow – to obtain something, to get rid of something bad, to restore order to the protagonist’s universe, or to escape a threat.

Conflict simply refers to the obstacles that arise that prevent the character from getting whatever he or she wants.  Write this down or memorize it: once the protag gets what he/she is after, the story is over.  Your audience is looking for their car keys and putting their coats on.

The essence of every story is what the protagonist does and must endure to get what they want (or what they needed).  Or not…

So if character, desire and conflict make up the chassis and engine of the car, what is the fuel?


If your reader or listener is not emotionally engaged in your story, you’re done.  In a bad way.

Karl Iglesias is one of Hollywood’s most eminent script gurus and is the writer of the eminently readable book “Writing for Emotional Impact.”

This is how Karl puts it:

Good writing is good writing because you feel something. It’s why a great movie can be three hours long and you don’t even notice, while an awful ninety minute one can stretch into eternity. It’s why psychologists call movies “Emotion Machines.” The experience of emotions is the most compelling reason we go to the movies, watch television, read novels, and attend plays and sporting events. And yet, emotional response is a subject too often overlooked.

Emotion, not logic, is the stuff of drama. Emotion is your screenplay’s life blood.

I belabor this point because, in my humble opinion, one of the cardinal fatal flaws in non-profit storytelling is lack of emotion.

I’ll spare you the whatnot about three-act structure and other screenwriting conventions.  They may or may not relate to our challenges as world changers and rabble rousers.  Happy to steer anyone to one of the zillions of books and websites on the subject if you are so inclined.

Five Fatal Flaws Of Non-Profit Storytelling

So why do we non-profits talk so much about storytelling, and achieve so little?
Let’s make a story out of it.

  • Our protagonist:  You, the committed, soulful, talented caring individual who rather than trading hedge funds or worse becoming a lawyer chose to change the world for a living.
  • Our desire: to harness the power of narrative to end homelessness, stop global warming, end the genocide in Darfur, ensure health care for all, etc.
  • Our obstacles; Here is a starting list of things that get in our way.  It’s our effort to overcome these obstacles that make the heart of our story.

1.    Fear of Emotion. Maybe you’re not afraid of emotions, but your organization probably is.  We are a very left-brained lot: highly educated, literate, rational folks.  We tend to look down our nose on emotion – passion, love, fear, tension, lust, rage, etc. – as noise in the system, something to be minimized.

That’s ironic given that our donors and constituents are engaging with us in a fundamentally emotional way.  It feels good to give.  It feels good to speak up.  Rage – at wrongdoing, at injustice, at suffering — has been the lynchpin of social change movements since the beginning of time.  Ever wonder why your online activists keep sending those letters to Congress even though in their heart of hearts they know no one is reading them?   It gives them the FEELING of having done something.

If your story is not designed to engage emotions above all things, don’t bother.

Helpful hint: numbers and statistics are emotional novocaine.  Leave them out.

2.    Bad casting.  This is one of Andy’s favorite peccadillos.  Here’s a typical NPO story: Something bad happened.  Our org came and fixed it.  The end.

When we cast ourselves – worse, our organization — as the hero of the story, nine times out of ten that’s boring.  No offense, your organization is awesome.  But people have at best tenuous emotional relationships with organizations, not enough to sustain emotional engagement.

Helpful hint: next time you write a story, make someone who benefits form your organization the hero – a flood victim; an unemployed steel worker; a disenfranchised woman in the Sudan, etc.

3.    The “everyone can do it” myth.  Good storytelling is really hard.  Hire writers – or engage your org’s very best ones — to craft your most important narratives.  Lots of great NP writers like Kerri Karvetski are just waiting for the phone to ring.  Or, consider hiring one of the tens of thousands of poor souls who, despite their talent, are waiting tables in West L.A. with an unsold stack of scripts on their night tables.  They are easy to find.

4.    It’s “story telling,” not “stories telling.” More is not better.  In fact more can be worse, if you have not worked out your org’s central narrative (aka “brand story”.  A multiplicity of stories may confuse rather than inspire.

What’s your central narrative?  It’s the story (obeying all of the above criteria) that expresses the heart and soul of what you do.

Andy Goodman suggests you develop a handful of core stories, what he calls the “sacred bundle.”  I actually disagree in part – it’s important first to craft that essential, ”goes to the heart of why you exist” story — then you can develop alternatives, sequels, prequels and whatnot.

Helpful hint #1: Don’t attempt to do this by committee.  Badness will ensue.  Honestly, the fewer program staff are involved, the further you will get.

Helpful hint #2: Your central narrative may well be the story of how your org came to be founded.

Helpful hint #3: Often, the best story that goes to heart of what you’re about is the main piece of direct mail your org uses to bring in new donors (aka “the control acquisition package.”)  Go see your direct marketing people.  If it’s not a free backpack or some crap like that, it might be story gold.

5.    Happy ending syndrome.  This is a tough one.  If we want to organize and rabble rouse we need to tell stories that don’t always have happy endings.  We are in essence asking our constituents, like Broadway Danny Rose, to step into the narrative and help craft the ending.

A great example of a story done well is the one titled “coping with a broker’s lies and greed” is here:
On the other hand too much doom and glom drives people away, so your darkest stories need to be leavened with hope, not goody two shoes stupid hope, but credible hope.

So, protagonist, how you doing?  Feeling up to the journey?

If you feel a little overwhelmed by it, then you’re on the right track.
P.S. Some great Hollywood examples of cause-based story telling: Syriana, The Killing Fields, The Year of Living Dangerously, Norma Rae, Rendition.