"Mommy, Will You Tell Me a Story?"
And Mommy says: “OK, honey. You see, your father and I work very hard to make a nice home for you. We shop for specials at the grocery store, and we’re putting away money for your education, and … “
Susie: “But, Mommy, I want a story about that red-nosed reindeer.”
Mommy: “Honey, I can’t tell you a real story because there are privacy issues involved.”
Enough. You get the point. And maybe you even remember when you were a child, curled up in your mother’s lap, saying, “Tell me a story.”
Have you changed? Apparently, yes, if you’re like a lot of nonprofit executives. You’ve forgotten how much you used to love a story.
But your donors haven’t forgotten. They haven’t changed.
So for goodness sake, why don’t you tell them stories? A lot of nonprofit executives seem to be on a mission to force their donors to digest the statistical facts about their crusade. And then they wonder why they don’t raise more money.
They ignore the fact that enjoying stories is something that seems to be an inseparable part of human nature. We grow up listening to stories. Later in life we buy novels and read long stories. And we go to movies, and we watch television. And everywhere we turn, there’s a story.
Recently, for example, The Wall Street Journal printed an article about major economic shifts and got into the facts simply by telling a story about a specific person. It’s the same with shows such as “20/20” and “Dateline.”
Or pick up a copy of Reader’s Digest and discover how many articles open with a story.
Back to charity executives — they need to review basic marketing techniques and strategy. The facts are the steak. The story is the sizzle. And the sizzle sells the steak. We all know that. Duh.
But what’s either forgotten or ignored is that telling a story engages a prospective buyer for a longer period of time, and the longer you engage the customer, the better chance you have to make a sale.
In other words, to apply this to nonprofits, the decision to make a contribution to your charity is a process in the donor’s mind. First, the donor has to recognize the problem … then has to understand a solution … and then has to realize that your organization, if the donor helps you, can solve the problem.
But just how do you get prospective donors to understand the problem? Certainly not by bombarding them with three paragraphs of numerical proof that your organization is really, really good. That approach fails to engage the reader.
Just start telling stories
Perhaps it’s time you stop fighting human nature and just start telling stories. It should be a real story with a real person’s name. Or it could be a story that’s true, but you use an alias for your character, and you tell your reader that right up front.
Or the story could represent a dire situation, based on representative case histories. And again, you say that right up front in the story. There’s no dishonesty in that. No deceit. Your story becomes a miniature of the entire work of your charity.
So just when in the letter do you start your story? The first paragraph!
A lot of writers feel obliged to work their way toward the story and throw in several paragraphs of warm-up copy. But unfortunately, the reader might just flip the letter aside and go on to something else before ever getting intrigued by the story that’s buried farther down in the copy.
This isn’t just a theory. It’s been tested. Many times. The story is far more important than your case history and rationale, and facts and figures.
One technique is to begin — in the first paragraph — the story about a person right at the moment when all seems to be lost forever. Then flash back quickly and move toward that dramatic moment. But don’t end it yet.
Move on to something that’s even more terrible. And when all seems lost, move toward the resolution.
Sometimes you wrap up the story in a neat bundle, have a happy ending and show how your organization helped this individual overcome or handle the difficulties — and that small story stands for the organization’s entire work. Other times you can tell a story and not give it a happy ending — let it hang.
Some other technical stuff:
- Work out a plot before you start writing the story. Plot is usually built around a conflict involving the main character. You have to move from one crisis to the next.
- Only have one character. Never tell the story of two or more people. When you do that, it’s a report, not a story. Your reader can only assimilate one lead character when a story is in a letter format. Also, never throw in a bunch of names that are hard to pronounce. When you bring in a second name, you force the reader to move away from the main character. That’s deadly in a letter story.
- Make your setting real. Provide enough detail to give the reader a quick mental snapshot of the setting.
- Conflict is the heart of a story. And the conflict has to increase in order to build dramatic tension.
- Keep it tight. Keep your descriptions sparse. Don’t stray from the conflict you’re building.
There are a lot of other techniques involved in telling a good story, but my purpose right now is simply to encourage you to stop fighting human nature and start telling stories. Instead of quoting figures about starvation, tell the story of one mother who is watching her child starve. Instead of explaining in great medical detail the principle causes of lung cancer, tell about one single person who died from it.
Stop trying to prove your mission with facts. That gets to the wrong side of your donor’s brain, if at all. Get into your donor’s psyche with a story, because right next to the donor’s story lobe is the check-writing lobe — and they are closely connected.
Jerry Huntsinger, founder of several marketing companies, has written letters signed by U.S. presidents, famous folks and not-so-famous folks. He has long since retired to his airfield, where he flies radio-controlled planes. But since his wife has many expensive hobbies, he continues to create freelance packages, many of which are major controls today. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.