There is a lot of confusion today about what a story is and what it isn’t. There are more choices than ever when it comes to storytelling formats: tweets, videos, newsletter and annual reports.

I had the pleasure of attending Enterprising Nonprofits, where John Trybus, Deputy Director of the Center for Social Impact Communication (CSIC) at Georgetown University, shared his research and strategy on bringing stories to life.

Essentials of Storytelling:

1. An Effective Character

The most compelling, effective stories have a single character as their focal point. This is the person whose life has been impacted or changed by your organization – and it doesn’t always have to be a beneficiary or client.  Any of your organization’s stakeholders – from donors, to volunteers, to the founder, to staff, to board members, can have terrific stories to share.

Perhaps just as important, resist the temptation to position your organization as the main character. The focus should be on a single person; that is what people connect with.  Your story should focus on the universal needs of your character such as acceptance, belonging, safety, self-respect, independence or growth.

2. Trajectory

Think about the stories you tell in your daily life. Chances are, they have one central characteristic in common—they are about something that happened. For a nonprofit story to be effective, it has to capture the “what happened,” whether this is a transformation, a discovery, a journey or an experience.

Each story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. This structure is traditionally referred to as a plot, but we prefer the term trajectory.  It implies momentum – energy that pulls the reader or viewer forward, ideally to the conclusion of the story, at which point they are presented with a compelling call-to-action.

3. Authenticity

If the trajectory of a story is its skeleton, than authenticity is the meat that adds critical substance to those bones.  Authenticity is what sustains the connection between your audience and your character throughout the story, and what ultimately compels them to follow through on your call-to-action. It’s what creates emotional resonance, which countless studies have shown is essential for successful fundraising. Appeal to the heart, and you’ll appeal to the wallet, so the saying goes.

4. Action-Oriented Emotions

Stories should convey emotions that move people to act and marry these with clear, easy-to-find pathways to get them to those desired actions. Specifically, you want your stories to be framed in terms of what we call action-oriented emotions.

Guidance on what makes an emotion “action-oriented” or not can be found in the book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, by Jonah Berger. In particular, he has isolated a single characteristic of the emotions that make someone want to do something (like share an online article)…….Physiological arousal.

5. A Hook

Stories should capture the audience’s attention as quickly as possible, giving them a sense of whose story it is and what’s at stake. It seems the attention span of the average internet user is lower than ever.  According to a 2010 study by Visible Measures, 20 percent of video viewers abandon watching after the first 10 seconds: this grows to 44 percent who abandon after 60 seconds.

So it’s clear that, as storytellers, we need to provide something compelling in those first 10 seconds or 28 percent of the text on the page.  What you need is a hook.

According to Lisa Cron, author of the book Wired for Story (2012), a hook can indicate “all is not as it seems…that something is about to change (not necessarily for the better). Simply put, it provides a reason to care.

Cron’s definition of a solid narrative hook includes three questions that must be immediately answered for your audience:

  • Whose story is it?
  • What’s happening?
  • What’s at stake?

Click here for a complete guide to strategic and sustainable nonprofit storytelling.

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