Information overload. Analysis paralysis. Noise. Clutter.
It’s a crowded digital landscape, with thousands of messages and notifications being consumed by our supporters each day.
How can nonprofits get their message seen by the right people?
How can we not only get heard – but listened to?
Pixar’s Andrew Stanton gives this answer: “Don’t give them 4. Give them 2+2.”
That’s where storytelling comes in.
The power of storytelling in undeniable, and has not changed since humans began to communicate.
Great storytelling is the best way to grab the attention of your supporters, as well as get them to listen to what you have to say.
Storytelling gets at the heart of how humans process information.
When we hear stories, we immediately relate them back to an existing experience to determine how we feel about it.
Humans are inherently narcissistic in this way.
But this characteristic is precisely what makes storytelling so effective for marketing purposes.
There is no doubt that online communication prioritizes stories and, even more so, a good story with a compelling photo.
This is good news for nonprofits because organizations across the world are making a significant impact on the lives of others and they have inspiring stories to tell.
The issue is that many nonprofits are small and stretched thin, with no formal marketing department, let alone a trained copywriter on staff to write the stories.
So how can even a small nonprofit write captivating stories that your audience will love?
Use these five basic building blocks for your nonprofit storytelling.
First block: The hook that grabs you.
WBUR, the Massachusetts NPR affiliate, tells masterful stories.
Their trained journalists have an eye for which stories are going to capture people’s attention, hearts, and minds.
Take the example of a recent story that appeared on the site.: “Unusual Support Group Brings Together People Affected In Different Ways By Suicide.”
The first two sentences immediately draw you in and pique your curiosity.
“For Steven Palm, the blazing days of July are the toughest time of year.
The Taunton resident lost his 14-year-old daughter, Kacie, to suicide in July of 2014.”
Our innate human nature wants to know what happened. We crave more details.
We want to finish the story.
Second block: The relatable character.
After you hook me in, the second building block is to introduce the main character of the story, in their own words.
From the WBUR article:
“We made it through July 17 again [this year],” he says. “A lot of people reached out to us, which is always good. We have a lot of support.”
Who is the main character of your story?
Show their perspective. Show their emotion.
Show us how they felt, not just what they did.
Studies have repeatedly shown that featuring the story of one person or one small family works better to persuade and to entice the reader than talking about the thousands or millions affected by an issue.
Our brains want to relate to one person and their universal human struggle.
Third block: Descriptive details.
You don’t have to be a professional novelist to draw out details from the person, the environment, and the situation.
Another example, from the article:
“Matulis’ home is a 270-year-old colonial furnished with antiques.
Candle lamps on the wall give the living room a cozy glow.
The table, where nine people sit on this summer night, is covered by an ivory embroidered table cloth. It’s decorated with coasters that say “Laugh Often” and “Life is Beautiful.”
The little details entice our senses and bring us even deeper into the story.
It increases our ability to believe in the character, and makes the situation seem more real.
Make a list of at least three small yet vibrant details you can use that will enhance the story and captivate the reader.
Fourth block: The problem.
There is a reason that you are telling stories about your nonprofit work and the people that you serve.
You want to highlight the problem and the issue that you are working on, and that the person is going through.
In the fourth block of captivating storytelling, you convince me that this is actually a problem worth caring about.
That it’s timely and relevant. That I need to pay attention now.
Too often nonprofits start out here – with data and statistics that don’t grab my attention or pique my interest.
Data doesn’t make me passionate about the cause, but numbers and research can help me understand that this is in fact a real, tangible problem that needs solving.
In the WBUR article, the writer doesn’t share statistics about suicide (they are easy to find in Google).
Rather, she tells us what happens when people who suffer a loss from suicide don’t get treatment for their grief:
“Being stuck — in fear or anger or depression — makes people avoid or abandon life goals, Matulis tells the group.”
Fifth block: What now?
Effective nonprofit stories draw the reader in, get them curious and interested, encourage empathy with a relatable character, showcase the problem, and then ask for an action.
Why do all the work of getting your supporters worked up and passionate if you aren’t going to tell them how to get involved?
(News stories often don’t take this call-to-action route, even though they often share helpful resources at the end, like WBUR did by sharing the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and the Samaritans Statewide Hotline.)
Ask for a specific action, and use language that would inspire someone to act. Words like “learn more” and “get involved” are vague and confusing.
Use powerful call-to-action words and phrases like:
- Join us
- Join the movement
- Help people like Dave
- We can do this
- Let’s work to prevent suicide
- Let’s join together
Think about how you can invite your supporters to be a part of the solution by asking them to do something small, like sign up to get more stories like this in their inbox, or to watch another video on the topic.
Don’t Be Afraid of Emotion
The hard truth about storytelling versus using data to connect with supporters is that people tend not to remember bullet points; they respond to emotion.
And feelings, not analytical thinking, drive action and donations.
Dale Carnegie reportedly famously said, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.”
Stories will help you express your mission to people who may know nothing about you or your cause initially.
Statistics may shock and awe for a moment, but they will rarely get people to act.
And getting people to take the desired action is the key because that is what nonprofit communication is all about!