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Can the art of storytelling help charity communications?

We all love a good story whether in the form of a humorous anecdote, a play, a novel or a loved one’s reminiscing. But have you ever thought about what makes these stories compelling?

Do we carry these attributes through to our fundraising and campaigning messages? Clearly, the answer is ‘not all of the time’; if we did, fundraising and awareness building would be easy.

Therefore, it’s probably worth reviewing a few basics. According to Thaler Pakar from Neurocooking, if we all think about the last story we heard and felt compelled to share, it’s likely there will be several common attributes:

  • The story is fairly short, probably taking no more than three minutes to tell, and most likely taking no more than 90 seconds.
  • There is a clear beginning, middle, and end, which assist you in remembering and retelling the story.
  • It offers some surprise: an unexpected statement or outcome, perhaps, or an unlikely hero.
  • It was personally relevant to you and there’s a reason why the person with whom you shared it would find it interesting.

In professional storytelling and creative writing circles, these attributes are known as brevity, clarity, narrative arc, relevancy, and surprise. In other words, the story has to have sufficient meaning, substance, relevance and power to be worth repeating (for we all want the viral effect to work for us).

For charities (and indeed any brand owner) the crux is relevance and the likelihood of sharing the story. These underpin future activity and without them, no viral benefit will be possible. Who is going to retweet or post a dull story on their Facebook page? In 2009 it’s these tools which reach a far greater audience than the literal word of mouth.

I would add to this list of attributes ‘legs’, which is a term I used when coming up with campaign themes which needed to underpin multiple tactical activities. It suggests stamina or staying power and stories which have this longer life-span will generally be retold more often and for longer as they remain powerful and relevant. Just look at Biblical parables as examples of stories which many people still perceive to be highly relevant.

So far I think this is all common sense but we don’t always apply these lessons as well as we could. Here’s a charity example to illustrate the point.

Yesterday, I received the first of this year’s Christmas raffle tickets to sell on behalf of a health charity I occasionally support but won’t name here. The mailpack contained several tailored elements but they were not linked together to tell me a whole story.

That said, one of the elements contained a mini-story of the founders who were spurred on, by the untimely and tragic deaths of their children, to set up this worthy organisation and grow it into the successful fundraising charity it is today. I found this element compelling (and am indeed repeating it to you!), it followed a clear timeline from start to middle to end and was told in only a couple of paragraphs. I would imagine that to the right audience, this story also has ‘legs’ as the tale of human perseverance in the face of tragedy and the resultant selfless activity is hugely positive.

But they’ve told me this story before. I know how it starts, middles and ends and without any content to make me think or feel differently, I wasn’t inclined to do anything differently. What seemed to be missing was Pakar’s ‘surprise’. This doesn’t mean the charity should have included something to induce heart-stopping shock, but there should be something that makes the reader stop and think for a moment; and then do something.

The other elements of the mailpack seemed to dilute the impact of their story and without the ‘narrative arc’ to draw it all together, I think the end result was less powerful than it deserved to be. With the increasing use of video and social media by charities, these rules are arguably more important than ever as target audiences are receiving greater volumes of stories from a wide variety of sources. We need to score very highly on relevance (to the target audience and to our ask), brevity and the kind of impact which means viewers and readers will repeat our message to others.

It’s also worth remembering that these rules apply to all audience communications; from individual donors to journalists and from Trustees to corporate partners. What is relevant and powerful to each may be different but the principles still apply. Our ‘surprise’ element should make them want to do something, even if it is only to tell their friends, family, colleagues and boss what we told them.

If anyone has any examples of powerful charity storytelling, please do share them so I can post them for everyone’s benefit.

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