Flannery O’Connor — accomplished Southern Gothic writer extraordinaire — said, “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.”

That’s exactly why I think there’s more talk about storytelling in non profit circles than practice. Writing a story is hard — even for the pros. It takes skill. It takes creativity. It takes an understanding of the basic structures of storytelling. And it takes practice. Years of it.

Sea Change is committed to celebrating the craft and practice of storytelling — particularly in the non profit space. As part of this vision, we facilitate workshops to help non profit leaders and volunteers learn and practice the ins and outs of storytelling so they can express their passion and engage their audiences.

Recently, Mark and I facilitated a workshop at the National Audubon Society Convention — a gathering of leaders within the Audubon community. Here’s a quick overview of what we covered — the DNA of storytelling — and one of the stories written by a participant.


If you are reading a post on storytelling, you probably don’t need convincing that stories are an important way to engage your audiences. Even so,  I do want to emphasize that audiences go to movies and read stories in order to feel something. That’s what they are craving. You must appeal to heart instead of mind when crafting your stories. This means fewer stats and more stories (see DNA structure below).

Further, in order to make people care (about your cause or your issue), you must first make them feel.


1. Small Story & Significant Saga

We tell small stories to exemplify the larger significance of that story. For instance, you might tell  the story of a young gay man kicked out of his home by his parents to shed light on the pervasive problem of homeless LGBT youth and to engage someone to volunteer at a shelter.

Small stories engage our audiences and get them to feel and care. The significant saga helps our audiences know why the small story matters — What’s the point?

Hat tip to screenwriter Scott Myers for the SS/SS formula.

2. Character

All stories need a single protagonist — and no, your organization is not your protagonist. Throughout your story, the audience needs to feel what the protagonist feels and they need to relate to the protagonist (even if he or she is despicable). Tony Soprano — as violent and womanizing as he could be — was relatable as a family man, a conflicted son and a troubled patient.

3. Desire

Your protagonist needs to have a single desire or goal. What does your protagonist want? You must clearly articulate this to have a great story.

4. Conflict

This is the heart and soul of the story. The reason why many non profit stories are boring is that we include too little conflict because we are conflict averse. What is getting in the way of your protagonist reaching his goal? Think of two or three barriers your protagonist faces. This should be half of your story.

One of the barriers could be a strong villain. This is another reason why many non profit stories fall flat. We are simply afraid to call out our villains.


Think about a story you want to tell.

1)    What is the story’s significant saga or message?

2)    Who is the main character?

3)    Why should we care about him, her (or it)?

4)    What do they want? (Specific!)

5)    What’s standing in his or her way?

Once you have a solid outline, you can start crafting your story.


Here’s an example from Jack Stewart — a participant of the Audubon Convention workshop.

Phoebe: A Story of Desire
By Jack Stewart
Arkansas Audubon Society

The Phoebe that comes to our yard in mid March is the same bird who was there last year. We hear him announce his name “phe bee” as he once again lays claim to the territory around our home. We go to the window and find him, freshly arrived, either struggling to balance on the clothes line or perched on the eves above the garage door.

To us, the return is an indicator that winter is receding and “the Renewal,” with its riot of color and song, is about to begin. Not that a Phoebe is a riot of color, far from it, he is more a subdued minuet in chocolate brown, darker on the head and cocoa on the wings and belly. But every feather is perfect, and his eyes are dark and bright.

And, of course, his song is hardly melodious, being nothing more than a monotonous repetition of his name, yet to us it sounds brave, for this bird returns early, before spring is a certainty.

All through March and early April we listen to the repetitive song “phe bee, phe bee” and begin to grow uneasy, for what good is a territory without a mate? Down the hill from us the Phoebe near the abandoned cabin has long ago attracted a female. They have even begun nest building. Still, our bird sings on, his two notes a packet of desire.

Some mornings, before we are even out of bed, we hear a change in our Phoebe’s song. Slightly, higher in pitch and with an excited cascading twitter. We know a female has entered his territory. From the window we spot him literally all aquiver as anticipation appears to ripple through his little body. He flies to a spot above a window ledge and pauses, then off to the top of a vent pipe. Another bird follows him about as he shows off the possible nest building locations within his territory.

Later in the day the little guy is back on the clothesline, tail still flicking with energy, yet the “phee bee, phee bee” has taken on a tinge of desperation. For some reason the visitor was not satisfied and moved on. The season is advancing and that female may have been his very last chance.

We wonder, is there something wrong with our feathered friend? He seems healthy with his perfect feathers all in place. He takes good care of himself. He is brave and constant. His song is strong, he’d no doubt protect his young and mate from an intruder ten times his size. No, nothing wrong with the bird, we decide, it must be his territory.

My wife takes two short pieces of board to fashion a shelf, which she nails on the south side of the garage, an area we rarely disturb. We wait. Within two days we hear the familiar excited twitter, he has another visitor. Immediately, as though he knew it was built just for him, he shows her the shelf. She is enchanted with the location, and no doubt with him for finding such an ideal site.

Generations of phoebe’s have raised families on that shelf. It is amazing how much happiness a small change in our back yard has brought to us and perhaps to the phoebes as well.