Understanding the nature and practice of storytelling can be powerful tools to help us convince potential donors to support our causes. The framework and structure of stories, developed over thousands of years, when applied to fundraising can enable us to write copy that is compelling and which ultimately helps to convince people of our values, our goals and the worth of the work we are delivering around the world. That’s the power of storytelling.

A good story grabs people and wont them them go. It compells them to continue reading. It engages them and makes them want to lear nwhat happens next. Fiction works within a very precise framework, rules that have emerged through the study of fiction, that can be applied to other fields where writing is an essential tool of communications. Quite simply, the way good stories are structured can tell us a lot about how we can sell better.

Explaining the power of storytelling

What gives a story its powers? A scientific answer can be found in Brian Boyd’s wonderful book, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, (Harvard University Press, 2009)

This elegantly written book assembles a mass of scientific evidence, drawing on evolutionary theory, ethology, linguistics, artificial intelligence, game theory, anthropology, economics, neurophysiology, analytic and experimental philosophy, epistemology and psychology, and shows–scientifically–why storytelling is so important. Boyd explains what it is about the apparently frivolous activity of storytelling that makes it so powerful.

Boyd argues that “humans are hyper-intelligent and hyper-social animals.” By lining up key elements of intelligence, cooperation, pattern-seeking, alliance-making, and the understanding that other beings have beliefs and knowledge of their own, stories make us stronger and more effective as a species.

For Boyd, story is “a thing that does” rather than “a thing that is”. It is a tool with measurable utility rather than an object for aesthetic admiration. Attention is the reward that listeners bestow on the storyteller.

Boyd analyzes successful stories to prove his point. The second part of the books zeros in on two famous stories: two works of fiction: Homer’s Odyssey and Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!

Boyd mines The Odyssey not so much for its beauty or its meaning but for its sophisticated treatments of survival and reproductive success, particularly issues of cooperation within social groups. The instinct for justice compels listeners to attend to the horrible punishment of Penelope’s freeloading suitors. For Boyd, The Odyssey is about the acceleration of intelligence in the interests of preserving the social order. Odysseus is deceitful yet honorable because his cause is just.

Boyd’s book is engrossing and deftly reasoned. It assembles the scientific evidence which explains why some stories speak to audiences across cultures and generations. The most successful storytellers apply themselves to the listeners’ dilemmas—not just to amuse, but to make them fitter to triumph in the contests of life.

Giving you the power of great storytelling

Whether you are writing a summary for your company’s “about” page, a news story or a fundraising page, fitting everything important into a concise yet engaging narrative is a challenging task. There are six elements of good storytelling, and you can use it to make any story more interesting, engaging, and memorable.

1. The introduction

Where you set the scene and tell your readers everything they need to know to understand why what you’re about to say is important. According to Crabb, this is the only beat that should include any summary.

2. Add the inciting incident

The question that your story is asking OR when the protagonist (you or your company) is faced with a challenge. This is a great place to show vulnerability; people are often wary of doing this in professional scenarios, but it makes a big impact when it’s done well. If you share struggles or failures in the beginning, the accomplishments that you describe later will resonate even more with your audience since they will be rooting for you to succeed.

3. Create tension

in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention — a scarce resource in the brain — by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviours of those characters.

When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts — by first attracting their brains.

4. Raise the stakes

A series of moments that give weight and context to the inciting incident. This is a great place to get specific and provide details that will make your story more memorable. People glaze over when you focus too much on broad strokes; details give your story a local habitation and a name. At this point your audience should understand the inciting incident and be intrigued as to how your story will end.

5. The main story

This is where we see the inciting incident come to a head (aka the climax). This is either the answer to the question we asked in the second beat or where the protagonist solves his or her dilemma — a pivot or a change (even if it’s just a shift in attitude) should occur.

6. The resolution

In the fifth beat, you have an opportunity to highlight what makes the story unique. If you’ve just described a failure or challenge, this would be the time to reflect on what you learned. This is also where you could try to convince your supporters to donate to your campaign, sign your petition or support your cause in some way.