Stories have incredible power. Great stories make people feel something, and those emotions create powerful connections between the audience and our causes. Through stories we can share our experiences and create emotional responses that can persuade people to want to be part of what we are doing to make the world better in some small way.
The history and meaning of storytelling
Until very recently, stories were primarily seen as just another form of entertainment. Sure, we thought they make life much more enjoyable, but they don’t really play a necessary role when it comes to survival. Wrong. It’s role in our lives is far more crucial than we we once believed. Turns out that story has been crucial to our survival from day one.
Story is how we make sense of the world. Story is what allowed us to imagine the future and to prepare for the unexpected. As a result, story and our brain evolved in tandem. But for writers and communicators out there, the real breakthrough is the discovery of what triggers that sense of pleasure we feel when a story hooks us. It’s not lyrical language, great characters, realistic dialogue, or even vivid images. Curiosity is the thing. Curiosity is the trigger.
In other words, the desire to find out what happens next. That feeling of pleasure, it’s actually the rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It’s our brain’s way of rewarding us for following our curiosity until we find the answer. This information is a game changer for organisations. If we can understand the underlying factors that make stories compelling we can use these to great effect to raise awareness and drive support for our causes.
Stories are about people and, more specifically, their lives
A story is a simulation that allows the reader to experience what the protagonist goes through. But how do we get the reader to empathize with the people we are helping, with the cause they represent? By letting them feel what they feels.
Why is this so important? Because neuroscience has revealed that every decision we make and every reaction we have is based on emotion. Emotion comes first and reason follows. If we’re not feeling, we’re not conscious, and when it comes to storytelling, if we are not feeling, we are not going to keep reading. What do we feel? We feel what the people in our stories feel.
This is why everything that happens in our stories need to be about how the people we help are affected by the problems we are seeking to address. In fact, everything in a story gets its emotional weight and meaning based on how it affects their lives. If it doesn’t affect them, even if we are writing about colossal disasters or serious problems, it will lack power, and therefore will not influence people to support us.
— AmnestyInternational (@amnesty) February 18, 2014
A great story must have conflict
Without conflict, you don’t have a story. The same goes for telling stories about your cause. There needs to be a threat, your audience needs to care about the implications of inaction.
This photo was taken in 2000. All homeless people around 30yo. 1/3 died in 3 years. Only 2 are still alive today pic.twitter.com/vMeA1eDy1m
— Mark Horvath (@hardlynormal) January 21, 2014
Connected to this is the need to express how dependent you are on their support. That turns out to be surprisingly hard for most people – and organizations – to do, because they don’t like to admit weakness, or uncertainty, or anything remotely associated with flaws. We are used to talking about what we have achieved, but what about the people we have been unable to help, those that continue to suffer that need our help but we are unable to help, that we have failed to help. I loved this blog post by Invisible Children because they openly shared that they had not been able to reach their fundraising target and would not be able to deliver all the programs they had hoped to. As well as demonstrating clearly the link bwteen fundraising and the programs they fund it also allows peopel to share the loss of what will not not be delivered. I think this type of transparency requires a lot of bravery.
A great story involves a turning point
Stories are about struggle leading to change. For a story to move there needs to be a feeling of transformation, a moment in which life has changed in some way. Even more powerful is a story that shows how a person has changed, how they have faced or experienced challenges and how they have changed through these experiences.
When you write stories focus on that transition, show how life has been transformed or changed or how a person has emotionally changed through their experiences or the work that you have been able to achieve.
While we often show images of the problems that people face (for example when there is an international disaster) we don’t often show the context of these problems. What were their lives like before? How has it affected them or changed them? It can also be really powerful to revisit the places where disasters occurred and show how their lives have changed and improved following these events since our involvement in those communities.
But turning points don’t just need to be about huge events. They can, and should, be personal. Stories about people faces challenges on a personal level, the small details can be extremely powerful. They can allow people to connect and feel and understand in a way that communicating large stories cannot. (I should say that big stories should always be brought back to the small details, the way that people have been affected in very personal ways – it is the details that make something real to people).
Great Stories Begin with a Meeting or a Journey
Behind every supporter there is a story. What was the moment that lead someone to support your cause and why were they compelled to take action, to seek to change the world in some way. What event meeting or moment brought them to you. These moments of personal change, the experiences that lead us into journeys are always fascinating.
I still remember reading a story, written some years ago now, abouta mother who was fundraising for the Musuclar Dystrophy Campaign. Her son Benedict had been diagnosed with a rare form of musuclar dystrophy. One morning over breakfast her other son Sebastian, told her about a dream he’d had the night before – that the whole world was made of chocolate – the trees, the houses, everything! “I had a dream that I could fly over the tree tops and visit everyone,’ added Nancy, her eight-year-old daughter. Then in a heartbreaking moment her son Benedict, piped up, ‘I had a wonderful dream too… I dreamed I could run.”
Meetings or journeys also begin when staff visit projects and the locations where they work and meet the people they help. Meeting people who are affected by the work we do and recording our responses allows potential supporters to share our experiences and responses and in turn connect with what is happening and the importance of getting involved.
Unfortunately a lot of the time non-profit staff themselves can be quite separated from the work they do and the people they help, particularly if they work in fields like international development where they may never visit the places where they had helping to bring incredible change. It is therefore critical that those who do visit programs and meet the people they help are supported to share stories not just create awareness externally but to support staff internally to feel engaged and part of the work that is being delivered.
The emergence of digital communications has provided non-profits with so many tools to help them share stories, but no matter which medium you ultimately choose, it’s important to think about how you can tell your stories in a compelling way.