What's in a story?

We’re reminded regularly of the importance of stories. They can be attention-getting ... can resonate with readers ... can make, or hammer home a point ... 

But what constitutes a good story? And, how do you tell it? In thinking of how I approach this, there seem to be three distinct steps. 

1) Begin at the end.

What’s your point? What’s the moral of the story … the conclusion you want the listener or reader to reach … the next step you hope they will take?

As a fundraiser, this may seem obvious: the ask. But I’d argue for a much broader perspective, that of donor development. For your ask to succeed, you must first establish a mutual understanding of the need and the urgency to fill that need.

While an organization may want to raise money to refurbish a historically significant artifact – such as a vintage airplane,  for example – the first task may be to establish or reinforce that this item does have significance.

A hunger relief agency might want to reinforce the importance of nutritional balance or the impact of hunger on a child’s ability to learn. A social services agency might need to establish the costs of not taking action. And so on.  

2) Make it real.

Every story has characters & conflict. You create the characters for your reader and describe the conflict they endure as you move (with them) toward the goal you've established. 

There are many forms in which “heroes” and “villains” can interact. Citizen soldiers come together to defend freedom against the forces of fascism. An innocent child is rescued from horrendous disease. A creative and committed researcher makes groundbreaking discovery.

How can you personify this movement in a way that provides both rational and emotional support? 

3) So what?

There’s a difference between significance and relevance … and establishing the former doesn’t guarantee the latter.

Sure, saving this historical artifact can preserve history. But it can also serve as tribute to the values that history represents (the men and women who risked their all). Perhaps it can even help convey the lessons learned and thus carry those values forward (daring and resolve, even in the face of overwhelming odds) . 

Even more importantly, consider with whom you are talking and what role they may play in this story. How do you involved the reader and and make them a part of the hero’s journey? Do they experience a similar dilemma? Can they help resolve the conflict?

While I said at the outset there are three distinct steps, these are not always well-delineated.  In fact, you must weave them together seamlessly for your story to work. This is seldom a linear process and may move forward in fits and starts. 

In many cases, I may open the story with an attention-getting nugget or two, step back to establish context and set direction, and then periodically bring in additional details to help keep the reader moving in the desired direction. 

What story-telling "tricks" seem to work well for you? 

Lessons from the Master (#1)

The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it.

(I received a copy of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast for Christmas, in anticipation of an upcoming trip to Paris.)

The sentence leapt out at me. Some stories are like that. Letters, too.

Which makes it so unfortunate when personal preferences get in the way. Somebody's rules. Like:
• get the ask in by the third sentence
• repeat the ask at least three times
• focus on the one most important thing you want to convey
• I'd never say things that way

There's a delicate balance between the science and the art of fundraising writing.

Unfortunately, sometimes experience (not necessarily scientific) gets distilled down to the formulaic.

Which at best begins to sound artificial. And at worst, will stifle the story all-together.

Stories: A Cautionary Tale

Here at M&C, we write stories. Lots of them. Stories about challenges overcome, lives transformed, hope restored. It's one of the best parts of my job--helping nonprofits truly put a face on their good works. But that doesn't mean every story is worth telling. Here are a few cautions when it comes to stories.

1. Overused subjects--A lot of nonprofits have a go-to story ... often a recipient who is easy to reach and super willing to help. Problem is you see that story everywhere ... shortened on the website, in the annual report, the lead in the direct mail letters. It can make your non-profit seem like it's helping fewer people, not more.

2. Too complicated--Avoid stories that have too many twists and turns or find a way to simplify. Ask yourself what's the one crystal-clear message you want a reader to take away--and distill from there. If that's not possible, find another lead.

3. No pictures--Not a die-hard rule, but a picture is worth a thousands words. We try for those stories first.

4. Off the beaten path--A lot of organizations will step in and offer special services for a unique situation. This is a great thing, but not always the story you want to be shouting from the rooftops. It can create confusion about who you are and what you do. Emphasize your core programs first and be consistent.