Most of the guidance we see lately for storytelling is less about how to tell a powerful story and more about how to tell a respectful one. That’s important too of course, but there’s no real point in telling an inoffensive story that has no emotional impact.
You have to do both. This post assumes you are upholding the dignity of your subjects and avoiding tropes like white savior. This brings us to the challenge of telling a story that moves the emotional needle.
Most of the principles we use as fundraisers are identical to those used by novelists and screenwriters. Warning: it’s fairly easy to explain but not always easy to pull off. That’s why my favorite Flannery O’Connor quote is “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.”
So here are the essential elements of an impactful story:
Step One: identify your protagonist. Protagonist as in singular. If you’re not Stephen Soderberg make the story about one single person. Your organization is not a protagonist. Your team is not a protagonist. One. Single. Person. Pro tip: you can use a composite character, just disclose that the person you are talking about isn’t real but their experience is true.
Step Two: Make your protagonist relatable. Relatable doesn’t necessarily mean likeable. Tony Soprano was relatable. Marty Byrde in Ozark is relatable. Both are abhorrent people. What makes them relatable is that they have qualities or experiences that resonate with you. Screenwriters generally choose from a handful of options. People who are unjustly accused of something are relatable. Funny people are relatable. People who are suffering in ways you might identify with are relatable. Lonely people are relatable. Cue Disney: kids who lose parents are relatable.
Step Three: Give your character a single must-achieve goal. Dorothy wanted to get back to Kansas. Frodo wanted to destroy the ring. John McClane wanted to rescue his wife from Alan Rickman. Your character might have as a goal landing a job, or getting health insurance, or stopping a coal-fired powerplant or winning a lawsuit. Without a concrete singular goal, your story will get muddy and confusing.
Step Four: Add a lot of conflict! Why are nonprofits so squeamish about conflict? Why do so many nonprofit people seem to look down on emotion? If the story doesn’t have emotional impact, there’s not much point in telling it. Anything that gets in the way of your protagonist achieving their goal is conflict. Unemployment is conflict. Poverty is conflict. Racism is conflict. But it’s not enough to invoke the words poverty or racism or joblessness; you have to show it. Your reader needs to be able to see the conflict like a movie in their head. That’s a topic for its own blog post.
Step Five: Give the story an ending. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, and in many fundraising situations it shouldn’t.
Step Six: Explain the point of the story. Why are you telling this story? Perhaps because it illustrates a need the donor can help address, or shows how the donor’s support can help make a difference. Make that explicit.
Like I said, it’s all fairly easy to explain and hard to do. That may be why so many nonprofit stories end up earnest and boring. With practice, though, anyone can create a story short enough for an email appeal and with enough emotional impact to attract a gift.
Sea Change offers a day-long workshop that will transform your and your team’s storytelling prowess. It’s our favorite workshop to give and the stories that participants write are truly moving. Give a shout if you want to learn more.