If you’ve been wondering why I’m making such a fuss about stories, read on.
Here’s the thing. Insiders (that would be you, nonprofit hero) understand all the details. We eat, sleep, and drink our organizations’ missions – the “why” of our work.
But almost none of your donors or might-be donors do.
They have their own lives and their own whys. Next to those, yours are secondary.
But a story can help change that – if only for a moment.
Change someone’s understanding
Humans are amazing.
“When we tell stories to others that have helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it, can synchronize,” says Uri Hasson from Princeton University.
Stories are how we can help our readers see our ideas as their own.
Keep your story simple to be effective
We like to think of modern humanity – of ourselves – as multitasking masters. (Honestly, what else are you doing as you read this? Listening to music? Glancing at your phone? Sorting a spreadsheet?)
But when sharing a story, simpler is better. Complexity is a roadblock on the trip from your words to their brain. Less complexity helps activate the brain regions that make us relate to a situation and activity in a story.
Plus, if you’re writing for donors, practicality says you’ll need to keep it simple if you want someone to read it. That’s why shorter words, shorter paragraphs, simplified ideas work better. (And yes, making something less complex can be hard!)
Remember to avoid your insider jargon, too. Use it enough and your reader’s brain will learn to just ignore it.
What does it cost?
Here’s an idea to chew on from Lisa Cron.
Think of real drama as the internal struggle that the plot catapults your protagonist into, forcing her to take action whether she wants to or not. If taking that action doesn’t cost your protagonist dearly on a deep emotional level, then it’s not a problem. Nor is it a story. Even if, on the surface, something big happens.
If you want someone to not only scan what they’re reading but take it in, you want that drama. And the drama means internal struggle.
Your plot doesn’t have to be right out of James Bond. But what’s happening in your protagonist’s head should be fraught. Meaningful. Hard. (No, not jumping out of airplanes!)
Every choice is not only an acceptance of one path but a rejection of another. And it’s that rejection – how much it hurts, how hard it is – that pulls a reader into the story.
If there’s nothing difficult, there’s no story.
And if you’re writing for donors, that shouldn’t be hard. If your mission is critical, if your work is in urgent need of funding, then you need to find that point of choosing and make it your reader’s choice, too.
“I could put this letter down now and go on with my life,” your reader thinks. “But now I feel for this person. And I’ll feel bad if I don’t do something.” Give, or not give. That’s the choice for an appeal, right? Why choose “give”? Because it will feel better.
For example, Jane is a young mom with a newborn baby. The baby has health issues and she’s frightened for him. So she hasn’t been going to work, and now the rent is due… and she doesn’t have any money.
She could leave the baby with her neighbor, but the neighbor has 4 kids of her own to watch and Jane isn’t sure her baby will get the attention he needs…
…Or she and the baby could find themselves without a home.
Either choice is hard. Scary. Life-threatening, even.
What should she do? What would you do?
That’s when you can offer an alternative to two bad choices. By giving today, your donor can help – enroll the baby in high-quality childcare, maybe. Or find Jane housing support so she can care for him.
Now your donor – who has become personally invested in Jane’s story and life – can avoid making that hard choice in her own head. Making a gift is now a great answer to an awful problem.
What is it I want to say? What story can I tell?
Before you even start, think about that question. It’s why I love Jeff Brooks’ simple prompt: “What I want to tell you is…”
Think about that question. Think about a story that will take the idea and plant it in some brains. And think about how you share the story – illustrate the cost to your protagonist, and how your donor can help.
We’re all of us a mix of good and bad characteristics – and they can change in any given situation or at any time. But when you share a story that pulls a reader into someone’s struggle, you’re offering them the chance to act on their altruism.
That’s why you want to focus on the “why” of it all. The action – the “what” – is just the external face of the “why”. Just like what your organization does is less important than why.
Lisa Cron offers this idea. Take it with you – I sure will!
The takeaway is this: we don’t come to story to find out what someone did – Bob snapping at a barista; your protagonist making fat jokes – we come to find out why they’re doing it.
Go tell some powerful why stories so your readers can choose to be their own heroes.