How do you find a good story?
If your organization wants to communicate well with donors – in a way that moves them to feel connected to your mission – you’ll need stories.
Stories are how we relate… and have been forever. It’s a human thing. Consider Neanderthal cave art. Even before we were Homo sapiens, we were sharing stories through art.
It’s also thought that stories trigger hormones, especially oxytocin. This hormone can make us feel closer to other people. It’s the bonding hormone. And that bonding is what makes stories such a powerful tool for us when trying to connect with donors.
But where are those stories hiding?
Look in your own backyard. People your nonprofit has helped? Your program staff? Current donors? Someone in your community your nonprofit works with?
Any and all of these paths can bring you to a hidden treasure.
But first, you need to unearth that treasure with an interview – or several. And how you do that can be the difference between a compelling story and a trite advertisement for your organization.
Interview tips to get a great story
1. Have a sense of where you’re going
What kind of story do you need? Will it be used for an appeal or a newsletter? What’s your message?
What do you know about your interview subject? How might they lead you to a good story?
You should have a sense before you begin about what you need. But you should also be ready to discard that sense. Because the most interesting stories pop up when you least expect them. So have a destination in mind, but be ready to step off the path.
2. Begin the interview with assurances
Your subject may feel nervous about sharing a story – especially if it’s a difficult one to think about. So your first job is to put them at ease. Introduce yourself. Have a little chit-chat. Let them start to feel comfortable.
Then assure them that they’re in control. They can share whatever they like now. And they will have a chance to see what you write before it’s public. (This can derail a great story later, but your subject’s control and dignity are most important.)
3. Record the conversation
Even if you’re a master of the age-old art of shorthand, there’s no good way to take enough notes and also focus entirely on your subject. So record the conversation. (I use Fathom, a free Zoom app. It records and transcribes the conversation. Use the link and you can skip the waiting list.)
Of course, you will tell the subject that you plan to record your chat. And again, if they object, you’ll have to be ready to try to scribble and think at the same time. So do all you can to put them at ease. I tell everyone I interview that the recording is only for my records. And that I want to be sure I get accurate information from them… not distorted by my notes.
4. Start with basic biographical information
This is usually an easy place to begin. Ask them to tell you about themselves. Once people feel comfortable with you and know you’re listening, they’re happy to tell you about themselves.
5. Listen with complete focus
Go ahead and jot down some things you want to ask. But once the conversation starts, your job is total concentration. Yes, you’ll be directing the conversation, but gently. And when your subject is talking, they need to have your complete attention. This also makes them feel comfortable sharing more.
And be comfortable yourself with quiet. Don’t jump in because there’s a pause. Judge if the person you’re talking with is thinking, or finished talking for the moment. Give them time. This is often when good nuggets present themselves. Quiet is your friend!
6. Ask good – and open-ended – questions
If you’ve been listening well, you’ll have some good questions. Try to avoid questions that can be answered with a “yes” or “no”. Instead, ask questions that invite your subject to think… and, again, give them space to do that.
Follow up on anything interesting. “Tell me a little more about that” can be helpful.
“How did you feel?” is another good question. You’re not Joe Friday, and you don’t just want the facts. You do want the feelings, so make space for them.
This is the key part of the interview. Don’t rush, follow any leads, clarify any questions you have, and let them feel free to go wherever they want. It’s their story, after all.
7. Magic interview questions to end with
Ask your subject if there’s anything they’d like to add. Then be quiet. Let the quiet sit for a bit if necessary.
Then ask what they’d want to say to your organization’s donors if they had the chance. Again, leave room for them to think and answer.
8. Ending the chat
Thank them for sharing their personal story. Reassure them you’ll treat it with the care it deserves. Ask them if they have any questions for you. And tell them where to reach you if they think of anything else.
You can find the best stories
Stories are how we humans communicate. So finding the best stories is an important part of good donor relations. Whether you’re creating an appeal or reporting back to donors about what their generosity has done, a good story says so much more than any list of stats or facts.