The one sentence that will change your storytelling forever

“All story is manipulation. Is there acceptable manipulation? You bet. People say, ‘Oh boy, I was moved to tears in your film.’ That’s a good thing. I manipulated that. That’s part of storytelling. I didn’t do it disgenuinely. I did it sincerely, I am moved by that [story] too. That’s manipulation.”

– Ken Burns, Director and Producer of Documentary Films

There is one sentence that will change your storytelling forever. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first…

Story Builder-Bring It Home

Are you concerned that storytelling is too commercialized? Too salesy? Maybe even beneath us? Too emotional and schmaltzy? Manipulative?

Or, maybe you just don’t know how to tell a story the right way?

We can fix that.

Why your stories must connect to audience emotionally rather than relay facts

Do you want to get into and stay relevant in the lives of your donors, volunteers, advocates? You won’t get there with Excel Spreadsheets, tables, graphs, and a punch-list of accomplishments.

We’re all for data-driven organizations, especially when it comes to targeting and segmenting. But real connections are made through authentic emotions. Warm and fuzzy ads were 2014’s Superbowl audience favorites for a reason: they were the ads that connected emotionally.

Neuroscience reveals that we make decisions based on emotion rather than logic. This is a big part of why stories are so important to connecting us and impacting us. Even our stock market is driven by emotion, not logic.

So here’s everyone’s problem: donor retention and event participant rates are at all time lows and trending down. It’s expensive to acquire new donors and we can’t keep ’em once we get ’em. The squeeze play is on. Donors are aging and dying. Finding and keeping new donors takes real skill in today’s crowded information and entertainment market. Tactics like the right targeting, the right telephone call at the right moment, the right thank-you, are all important to donor retention, but tactics alone don’t win loyalty in today’s crowded market. Emotion wins the day.

For some nonprofits that connection is already deeply emotional because someone is living with cancer, or Alzheimer’s, or schizophrenia, or another deeply personal issue that keeps them emotionally connected on a daily basis. More often than not though, your mission doesn’t have a salient daily presence in people’s lives so it’s up to your stories to make an emotional connection.

The one sentence that will change your storytelling forever

We’re giving you a ton of valuable advice on storytelling in this series, but this one sentence is the key to everything. It will change your storytelling forever.

So far in this coaching series, we’ve asked you to collect raw stories with emotions, sensory details, and a pivot of change. Right? We’ve also shared that a good story isn’t enough. It’s how your story makes your audience feels that really matters. That connection. Right?

Here’s how you bring it all together, to create impact and loyalty for your organization. And yes, this is manipulation -“Ken Burns style.” You are intentionally landing your meaning with this formula. It’s really really okay to connect the dots for your audience. It’s why you exist. It’s why you are telling this story as opposed to Ken Burns telling the story of Prohibition to entertain us.

Here’s the one sentence that will change your storytelling forever:

We *donor and organization together* help *beneficiary* + *benefit* + *feature.*

Here’s how you bring it home and land it.

Outside of a story this one sentence formula might read like your tagline or elevator pitch:

  • Your generous support helps low income children get into college because they have access to personal tutoring.
  • Together we make sure that a loving couple actually get the chance to be parents with infertility treatments and support.
  • Because of your support we help at-risk kids have fun, get better grades, and stay out of trouble by connecting those kids with pre-screened adult mentors that are a positive role model at a pivotal time in their lives.

In the context of a story, your formula might read:

Thanks to your support of our defibrillators-in-schools campaign, an entire family has been saved and a mysterious death solved. At age 16, Emily collapsed on her gym’s wood floors during volleyball practice. Coaches were about to jolt her with a donated automated external defibrillator (AED) when the machine indicated her heart had started beating again. But get this: the AED ended up saving her family. The data it collected while hooked to Emily helped point her doctors to the right diagnosis: a genetic heart condition that puts Emily, her mother, sister, uncle, and 6 yr-old cousin at risk of cardiac arrest at any moment. They never knew. Emily and her family now all have implantable defibrillators that monitor their hearts and can shock them back into normal rhythms, preventing a fatal heart attack. It’s already triggered once to save Emily again. The mysterious death? Back in 1979, Emily’s maternal uncle died in a wrestling match at 16. Until now, no one knew his cause of death until the AED revealed the family’s genetic condition.

Sam was deployed in Afghanistan when Jessica was due to give birth. Your generosity helped get Sam home in time to hear his son’s tiny first cry.

Remember that freshwater well you helped us build in Uganda? Before the well, every day Helen had to choose how to parse out what little bit of clean water she had to last the full day. Now that she has a steady source of clean water, she can bathe daily and says “I feel beautiful for the first time.”

Ideally, stories should be less than 2 minutes in length. No longer than 70 seconds is better. Emily’s story above timed out to 65 seconds to give you an idea of length.

Next week we’ll explore how to modify your story for different communication channels.

Your Turn: Write your story and post it below

Write a story using our Story Builder: Bring it Home template and post it in our comments section below. I’ll be happy to give you feedback on your story.

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Storytelling series

We’re running a series of coaching blogs to support your organizational storytelling. Here are links to the posts so far in the series. Stay tuned for tips on how to modify your story for each communication channel.