The power of storytelling

All human beings have an innate need to hear and tell stories. In our sector we are doing tremendous work that is often powerful and intriguing. To explain your mission to prospective donors and volunteers, to reporters, to businesses, to funders . . . tell your stories!

Here at RMA, we often remind our clients and colleagues about the power of storytelling. Here are ten considerations as you strengthen your ability to weave stories into your mission communications—along with a few quotations to reinforce why stories matter:

1. Most of us are programmed to cite data and statistics. As nonprofit sector leaders, we want to be credible and taken seriously in the “bottom-line” world. We assume “corporate types” are only interested in measurables. Of course, numbers are important–but don’t necessary lead with them. “Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.” (Robert McKee)

2.  Storytelling is the ultimate cross-cultural bridge, a timeless way to make strangers into friends. A story is the perfect opening or closing to a speech—or before you launch into your data-heavy powerpoint. “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” (Ursula K. LeGuin)

3.  Storytelling can be particularly effective in cultivating major gifts and winning over funders and the media. “Stories are how we learn. Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” (Robert McKee)

4.  People are inundated with print, electronic and verbal messages, so a story helps your organization stand out. Asking the people you serve to participate in a funders meeting, telling their own story first-hand, can be very effective. “We can tell people abstract rules of thumb which we have derived from prior experiences, but it is very difficult for other people to learn from these. We have difficulty remembering such abstractions, but we remember a good story.” (Roger C. Shank)

5.  Appreciate that the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of your nonprofit mission is probably more powerful and intriguing than the ‘what.’ Notice how often you repeat your standard “we do this and this program” speech. That’s the what. Try to focus on the why and how. “If you tell me, it’s an essay. If you show me, it’s a story.”(Barbara Greene)

6.  Allow time for your listener(s) to ask questions and respond. Once you have planted the seed through a strong story, you have accomplished much to engage them. A good story sparks a dialogue that you likely would not otherwise have. “Stories have power. They delight, enchant, amuse, enchant, touch, teach, inspire, motivate, and challenge.” (Janet Litherland)

7. Set aside five minutes in every board meeting for a story. Not every story will resonate with every person, but over time, each board member will realize that a particular story is ‘the one’ they would feel comfortable telling and re-telling in the community themselves. This is an important tool in coaching your board to be ambassadors and cheerleaders for your mission. “Stories are the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.” (Howard Gardner)


8. You may know, but may not be telling, your nonprofit’s best story–or you may not know it. Your-day to-day role may well remove you from the direct service or direct contact with the people you serve. Be sure to ask your staff and volunteers to share their anecdotes with you. What would the community look like if your organization didn’t exist? What is the most unforgettable thing a client/volunteer/child ever said to you? Go back and research or interview your founder. Notice what story you tell when your best friend sits down with you and asks, “So what’s new at work?”

9.  Why aren’t you telling your best story? Perhaps you believe that it wouldn’t present a polished, professional impression to a reporter or funder, or perhaps you believe that to share a story is disrespectful to a client. You may also have this impulse that you have to ‘tell it all’ (i.e., an elevator speech chock full of facts) about your nonprofit when you speak with someone new. These are all barriers that can be overcome with common sense and a little preparation. In the end, there is value in weaving stories into virtually every situation.

10.  A good storyteller is flexible and adaptive. Be ready to switch gears if the moment isn’t right. Be ready to follow up with the numbers, facts, percentages, etc. that the left-brained people in your audience will respond to. Be ready to listen if the donor wishes to share a story of his/her own.

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Garberson
    August 23, 2012

    Telling a recent story at a board meeting is such good advice. I have seen the way that it snaps people’s attention away from their to-do list or day-to-day bustle and back to the organization’s mission. It’s important to reignite their passion from time to time.

  2. Susan Liehe
    August 27, 2012

    You’re so right! You’ve embedded information and passion into your audience when they find themselves repeating the story elsewhere. When a friend asks your board member, “So, what’s new with that nonprofit you’re involved in?” or the board member is at a backyard BBQ and chatting with folks . . . it’s a natural.

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