Telling stories for the human connection
It’s not enough just to tell people what you do, you need to SHOW them.
We can tell people over and over what our organizations do, what impacts we are having, but our audience might still not really GET it. But tell them personal stories about your work in action? They’re hooked – they can see clearly what change you are making and how they might fit into your story.
Why telling human stories works:
Imagine you’re working to create a community-led solution to homelessness. If you just talk about the number of shelters you’ve opened up, highlight the percentage of people who have found employment through your job placement programs, or talk about the partnership you’ve developed with local law enforcement, people have an idea of what you do but are left to connect the dots themselves.
If, instead, you tell the story of Joe, a formerly homeless transgender man living in your city, his history that led him to the streets, how he got involved with your skills training program and the job he’s held now for over a year that’s got him back on his feet – people can really see the value in what your program does. If you focus on Thandi, the volunteer at your center who trains people in computer literacy and administration every Tuesday, you’re giving people an idea of how they might put their skills to use in service of your mission. If you talk about Sandra, the police officer who has changed her way of interacting with the homeless community through a year-long partnership between your staff and the department, your audience understands some of the intangible benefits of your community relationships.
What stories to tell:
You can tell any story that illustrates a facet of your work – anything from a training program, a community fund, a partnership with a local business, or a resource you’ve developed. The key is to focus in on the people involved in those stories – the trainees, the donors, the community members.
I like to start by focusing on collecting and telling a few fundamental stories that illustrate the core work that your organization does. These are stories that aren’t necessarily tied to a specific donor or project, but that broadly show your mission in action. You can use these in all sorts of ways through your publications, website, donor appeals, and more.
Then get granular. Build a deep catalog of stories that you can draw on to incorporate whenever you talk about your work. Focus on stories from a variety of points of view – beneficiaries, staff, volunteers, partners, you name it. Show your change in action for real people whenever you can.
(Of course, make sure you have permission to tell the story from all involved, or keep personal details anonymous. You can tell a powerful story even without using real names and faces!)
Where to tell your stories:
You can tell your stories anywhere you talk about your work! Have a donor report coming up? Include a firsthand story from the point of view of a person taking part in a donor-funded training. Website? Capture an evergreen story of the people benefitting from your organization’s mission and vision. Speaking at a conference? Have a story of how someone personally benefitted from a guide you produced on hand to illustrate your impact or the need for more investment in a resource.
Your stories can also take any format that you’re comfortable with – written content with static images, video clips, audio stories overlaid on images, short social media posts, you name it.
How to capture good stories:
There are in-depth resources on this one, but here are three rules of thumb:
First, clearly define who the story is about and what you want to illustrate. Who is involved? What change do you want to show? What is the back story? What is your organization’s role, and what is that of a donor or partner?
Second, gather your inputs. Firsthand accounts from those involved in your work make the impact you’re talking about more tangible. Well-captured quotes lend credibility and move your story forward.
Third, keep it short. As with all content, the more concise you can be the more you’ll keep your audience’s attention.
Don’t forget visual storytelling!
While it’s critical to get the words right, it’s equally as important to capture the visual element of the story you’re telling. Spend some time getting the right visuals – powerful images of individuals are great, but images of your story in action are key. If you run a school mentoring program, make sure to show the mentors actively interacting with the kids, not just a static group shot. Even stories that don’t lend themselves to traditionally “good” images can have a visual component. Do you develop software that powers an innovative health technology? Focus on showing that technology at work and who is benefitting from the end product. And don’t forget the captions for static images to give skimmers the full story in brief!
OVER TO YOU
What kinds of stories are you telling about your work? Are you talking about the impact you’re having on actual human beings? How do you inject human elements into more abstract program work, like policy reform, technology, infrastructure, networks? Dig deep, there’s always a story there somewhere.
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