EPISODE 5: Storytelling
Updated: Jan 25, 2021
Inspire action with a well told, authentic story.
I will never forget that day. The sun was just about to set. The window blinds cut the rose-orange light into a hundred pieces and threw them across the carpet. Fireman Sam was on repeat. I can’t remember how many times he and Jess came to the rescue that evening. But I didn’t care. Time and time again each scene was played out with meticulous accuracy. A plastic fire truck wheeling its way along the floor to each new emergency.
I could have watched him for hours, wrapped up in the warm glow that follows a hectic day at the zoo. I didn’t try to engage, and he didn’t ask. He wasn’t oblivious to my company. Just comfortable with it. And I, for one, was quite happy to watch each episode unfold.
It was quite a change from the first time I babysat, when his parents returned home to a large smear of poo on the carpet (his, not mine). We all learned a lesson from that one. It's all about planning. No more short notice. Tonight’s event had been organised well in advance.
I failed when it came to teeth brushing, but aside from that, when his parents came home, all was right with our little world. I had to say goodbye the very next day. Three years at university and 10 month’s befriending, and this little boy and his family were the three people I was going to miss the most. I knew they would explain why I wasn’t there to go with him to his after school club next Tuesday. But I don’t think he - or they - will ever know just how much these months meant to me. How much they would be part of who I am now.
You might wonder why I’m telling you all this.
It’s not not a story I share very often. But it’s an important one.
This is my ‘why’. Or at least, a big part of it. Something changed in me that year. I knew when I left university I wouldn’t go into the corporate world. One way or another I was going to do something that mattered. Something that made a difference.
I’m telling you this because I want to give you an insight into the person behind this blog. To connect with you on a different level. And also, in a round-about way, to make a point. Why? Because stories like this matter. In more ways than you might think.
Not just for children: the science of storytelling
We all have books that we remember as children. Perhaps they were read to us by our parents, or by a teacher at primary school. Often embedded with deeper morals and meaning, they are an important learning tool, and that doesn’t stop. Even as adults, we love a good story. More than just escapism, stories build familiarity and trust. They create connections between people and ideas, foster a sense of intimacy and shared experience. They even make you more open to learning .
They also inspire action.
It was Paul Zak who discovered the behavioural effect of a neurochemical called oxytocin. He also went on to prove that a compelling narrative (i.e. a story) has the power to trigger a release of this chemical in our brains . Why do we care? Because oxytocin is linked to feelings of empathy . And it is empathy that can inspire post-narrative action, including (and I quote) ‘increased generosity in humans’ .
You can probably see where I’m going with this.
What makes a good story?
Stories, then, are fundraising gold. A tool to help charities connect with their donors, engage with them on a deeper level and inspire action. You see them everywhere - but they don’t always work. If all it took was simple ‘once upon a time’ then a fundraiser’s job would be refreshingly easy. And we all know it isn’t.
A good story has lots of different components. There’s loads of reading on the subject, but as a copywriter, I wanted to share some of the most important elements I think your story needs to have:
First, there is the protagonist. Your story needs a subject, a human face that people can relate to.
Ideally, it will be told in the first person - a direct account of lived experience (although a well chosen third person can work equally well).
It will have a narrative arc. That is, a baseline situation, disruption, climax and resolution. Generally speaking the greater the contrast between before and after, the more impact your story will have.
If you can, take the time to include descriptive details and encourage your readers to paint a mental picture with your words.
But don’t make them up or over-embellish. Often it is the simplest, most authentic stories that strike a chord.
I always advocate taking the time to talk to the person whose story you are telling. It doesn't matter if it isn’t always the Queen’s English. Capture some of their words and phrases and use them to bring a real voice and personality to your narrative.
Finally, your story needs to have a heart. This one is hard to prescribe, but I genuinely believe that if you feel it when you write it, your audience will feel it when they read it. And that’s what you’re looking for. An emotional response.
As I write the above, I am conscious that we need to take some time to talk about the ethics of storytelling. Stories are sensitive things, and there has been more than one occasion when charities and non-profits have been known to exploit them. So in reading the above, I ask that you take the below on board too...
The ethics of storytelling
As a fundraiser, I have so often been told to put my donors first. To make them the hero. To put the solution in their hands. But I, like an increasing number of others, want to challenge this status quo. Because behind every story you tell is someone else’s life. A personal, lived experience that needs to be respected.
As much as you need your next direct mail appeal or fundraising campaign to bring in the big bucks, we have a responsibility to people whose stories we tell. They are the person we should always put first. It might be the perfect hook. The perfect face for your campaign. But telling someone else’s story is not your right. It is a privilege. So please, take the time to tell it well.
I was going to use this next section to help you find the right way to tell your story. But by timely coincidence, last week an email hit my inbox that did the job so perfectly, I want to share it here. From ‘exploited program participant to empowered storyteller’ Nel Taylor knows what it’s like to be the subject of a story that’s sold. So she set out to do it differently - creating seven rules to make sure she is always telling other people’s stories ethically.
SEVEN WAYS TO TELL STORIES ETHICALLY
by Nel Taylor
Click to read Nel’s advice in full.
Finally, when it comes to stories, it is important not to limit yourself. You don’t always need to rely on your service users or beneficiaries for inspiration. Good storytellers will open their eyes and their hearts to a world of narrative possibilities.Why not look inside your organisation? I’ve shared my why, and I am sure that most people working with you are there for a reason. You could also look to your volunteers, donors and supporters. Why did they choose your organisation over every other? I doubt the answer is ‘just because’.
You could ask your community to come forward and share their own stories and experiences with you. There is real value in authenticity, and user-generated content is about as authentic as you can get. And you never know when you might just strike gold.
“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” Orson Scott Card
 Boris, V. (2017). What makes storytelling so effective for learning? Harvard Business Review.
 Zak, P. (2014). Why your brain loves good storytelling. Harvard Business Review.
 Zak, P., Stanton A., Ahmadi, S., (2007). Oxytocin increases generosity in humans, PLoS One, 2(11).
 Zak, P. (2015). Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative, Cerebrum.