Tell me a story
Submitted by Anonymous on Fri, 07/29/2011 - 09:44
By Bonnie O'Neill Meyer, CFRE Vice President, Chief Creative Officer
When I first began traveling for business (many years ago!), my boss told me to think of every person sitting beside me on an airplane as a book waiting to be read.
I didn’t always take his advice. I confess I haven’t “read every book” sitting next to me. Still, I believe I could write a book about several of my fellow passengers:
• The Navy Seal who survived a brush with death on one deep dive … and later consulted with the producers of Red Star Rising, starring Sean Connery.
• The man sitting in the middle seat with the elegantly monogrammed cuffs. I finally realized I was sitting next to Emanuel Cleaver, then mayor of Kansas City (now a U.S. Congressman). Our flight was delayed, and the mayor was trying to get home in time to fix supper for his kids.
• The man getting high-fives from virtually everyone boarding the plane. This turned out to be Paul Maguire (I had to ask), a color commentator for NFL television broadcasts. I was especially interested in hearing about his football career with the Buffalo Bills during the OJ Simpson era.
• And then there was the woman in the window seat who didn’t wake up when the plane touched down. By the time we got to the gate, I asked the man on the aisle if he was a doctor (he’d been reading medical literature), and if he could try to find a pulse. Yes, he was a doctor, but no … although he tried, he couldn’t find a pulse. The doctor and I waited until paramedics boarded the plane. The first words from the lead paramedic? “Oh, it’s her again.”
It seems that when it comes to our personal lives, we understand intuitively that stories help us relate to one another. Scientific research confirms — as if it weren’t obvious — that our brains are essentially hard-wired for stories. We all tell stories, and we see ourselves in others’ stories. Why then is it so hard for us to tell stories about our nonprofit organizations and institutions? Time and time again, you and I read or hear the essential facts about an organization’s mission, including proper facts and statistics to back up a case for support. Impressive? Perhaps. But it’s not enough.
If we want people to value the work that we do, to remember the impact of our work, to be compelled to get involved, then we need to help them relate to the stories of how our work makes a difference in the lives of those we serve.
I recently asked our staff about stories — stories received from our clients — that had made a particular impact on them. The responses came quickly. With no research at all, they simply shared meaningful stories that had made a strong and lasting impression.
Are you leaving indelible impressions with friends and donors to your organization? Are you telling your stories well?
Take a cue from the opening line of a print ad written by the legendary John Caples:
“They laughed when I sat down at the piano.
But when I started to play…”
This ad promoting music lessons ran for decades, virtually unchanged. Why? Because the story resonated with readers. They could picture themselves in the story. Authentic stories resonate. People who hear your stories should be thinking, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that too,” or “I know exactly what you’re talking about.”
Jesus told parables, stories packed with wisdom. We relate to these stories … we visualize ourselves in the parables. And we remember them. The parables are useful to us in helping us grow in our understanding of God.
I would encourage you to build a culture of storytelling within your nonprofit organization. Encourage staff to share stories that demonstrate the impact of your work. Circulate a “story of the month,” and invite your colleagues to contribute their stories. You need a methodical process for collecting great stories.
A story well told will seem like it just rolled off the tip of your tongue. In truth, it’s not that simple. In order to tell a story that commands attention, expect to invest chunks of time spread out over several days. Write a first draft quickly, but take time to refine the choice of words and the sequence of your narrative.
Storytelling requires work, but never doubt that the investment of time is worth the effort. There’s no better way to communicate the impact of your mission in ways your donors and friends cannot forget.