5 Foolproof Ways to Successful Storytelling That Raise Money
Content is the heart of your successful fundraising strategy.
If you don’t sell it, you won’t connect with your audience. And if you don’t do that, you haven’t got a snowball’s chance in you-know-where to persuade folks to give to you to further your mission.
This is where learning to become a master storyteller comes in. I know you’ve heard this before. Storytelling is the meme du jour. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay real attention. We’re in a content marketing zeitgeist.
This is why I’ve included content marketing as one of the 5 Fundamentals to Guarantee Nonprofit Success in 2016. (Note: If you’re new to “content marketing” take a brief tutorial on it to learn about the value it offers to you and your constituents.)
Master storytelling—your most essential content-marketing technique—if you want to get noticed and make a difference in our digitally revolutionized society where word-of-mouth, social sharing and social media shape your brand’s perception.
Stories are your ultimate content-marketing tool.
They enable you to talk with potential donors in a tangible, easy-to-understand manner to activate their imaginations, to draw them in. Your goal?
- Get inside folks’ heads.
- Get them on the edge of their seats.
- Get them to jump off of their seats.
- Get them inside your story.
- Make them the story’s heroes.
Today, I’m giving you five simple steps to create a winning outline for all your storytelling. That’s it—just five things. Can you commit to that?
Your success or failure at storytelling will shape your future. The world is filled with stories. How do you get yours noticed?
It’s all in the telling!
If you can master these few tricks, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a consummate spinner of tales that will not only “stick” with folks, but will impel them to jump into your story so they can give it a happy ending.
5 Keys on How to Tell a Memorable, Actionable Story
In a nutshell, the secret to success is this: The five-step perfect story structure. All the great novels, movies, television shows, plays and speeches use this structure to keep people engaged. Ready? This will change your life if you commit to it. Use this for everything and anything that calls for your listener/reader/viewer to take a desired action.
Do you remember learning to write an essay? You had to begin with a theme statement to introduce the content that would follow. The same holds true for the perfect story. Begin with a premise introduction. Tell us where and when the action takes place. Introduce main characters. Briefly describe their backgrounds. Your premise sets up the scene to follow in the imaginations of your audience members, enabling them to see a mental movie while you tell a story.
For example, I recently helped the Grameen Foundation revise its year-end nonprofit appeal letter. Here’s how it laid out the premise:
The look on Justine Kamuron’s face tells a story.
Though she’s resilient, her life has been tough.
She can’t read or write.
Her parents wouldn’t let her go to school.
She got married at just 18.
She and her husband spent long, exhausting days working their farmland and caring for their seven children—still not earning enough to make ends meet.
Once the premise has been described, it’s time to introduce the conflict. These are obstacles which must be overcome, and are necessary to provoke the curiosity of your audience. Conflict creates questions in people’s minds, such as “What will the character do next?" or "How will these struggles be resolved?”
For example, in the letter I described above, it went on to lay out some of Justine’s struggles:
Justine woke up early, spent most of her day under the hot, equatorial sun, tending to her crops or milking her cow, and came home late. But despite the hard work she put in day in and day out, her farm often didn’t do well.
A bacterial disease that’s common in her area of the country caused her banana trees to wilt, and she didn’t know how to fix things. Sometimes, swindlers sold her fake seeds that didn’t yield any crop at all.
Doesn’t that make you want to hear more of the story? Conflict makes folks curious to learn what happens next, and excited to find out whether there could be a happy resolution.
3. Conflict escalation
Once a conflict is introduced, you want to get your audience beyond curiosity—to the point of needing to know the outcome. This requires you to escalate the conflict and increase the tension in the story until it reaches a climax.
In other words, you allow your audience to suffer a little with characters to feel their pain and frustration. When our empathy is triggered, we become receptive to whatever comes next because ending their suffering ends our own.
For example, the folks at the Grameen Foundation laid on a few more hurdles to be overcome:
- Unpredictable weather
- Cattle diseases
- Little to no education
- Limited opportunities for daughters to climb out of poverty
The foundation drew a portrait of Justine’s life that made the reader eager to learn if there could be a resolution.
Here’s another example:
Many years ago, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I worked, needed a new boiler. I wrote a grant proposal so we could buy one. Sounds dry as dust, but I told a story. A story about real people. You see, the violinists need to have warm, supple fingers in order to expertly bow their instruments. Without a working boiler, we had no hot water. So they couldn’t go run their hands under the sink before a performance. Their stiffness made their playing stiff. They were paying thousands of dollars to train to become the musicians of tomorrow, yet they were swaddled in mittens while attempting to play sensitive instruments. Can you imagine how that might feel? Apparently, the foundation to which we applied could—we got $50,000!
This is the point at which the story could go either way. The obstacle can be overcome, or the main character can fall into the abyss. A climax scene is the most exciting and critical part of the story because it shows how a conflict finally is resolved. Show the climax scene in detail so your audience members can clearly see it in their imaginations and feel it in their empathic brains.
For example, instead of just saying that the Grameen Foundation trains “knowledge workers” to help educate people like Justine, it wrote:
The turning point was when her neighbor, Mrs. Chebet, became trained as a Grameen Foundation Community Knowledge Worker.
Mrs. Chebet was given a smartphone loaded with a database of information on the region’s weather, good farming practices, how to treat crop and cattle diseases, and where to get the best seeds at market prices.
She told Justine how to prepare for bad weather, collect rainwater for irrigation and stop the bacterial wilt that was affecting her banana trees. She also told her where to buy the best seeds, so Justine would no longer have to worry about the fake seeds being sold at market.
The goal of every story is to illustrate a point. The conclusion has to clarify that point for the audience members in such a way that they’ll want to act. People remember what they hear last, and you want them to carry that with them so they don’t forget.
For example, in the Grameen Foundation story, we’ve been following the point that Justine’s destiny and life trajectory could be changed—if it could be made to intersect with a person who would educate her and give her the necessary tools to overcome the obstacles in her path. But “knowledge workers” don’t just fall out of trees. And that’s where readers come in. With their philanthropic gifts, they can fund a knowledge worker and change a woman’s life. And the life of her family. And her village. Hence the compelling call to action.
You can open the door to a transformed life right now—one gift touches many people.
Remember that storytelling is something people naturally gravitate to. We're wired that way. So if it's your job to build a bridge between the world's most pressing problems and the people who want to solve them, storytelling should become your best friend.
Most people want to make our world a better and more caring place. Telling a compelling story designed to influence people to do something positive they’re already predisposed to do, something that matches their values and makes them feel good—is a fine thing. Don't you agree?
If you like craft fairs, baseball games, art openings, vocal and guitar, and political conversation, you’ll like to hang out with Claire Axelrad. Claire, J.D., CFRE, will inspire you through her philosophy of philanthropy, not fundraising. After a 30-year development career that earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award, Claire left the trenches to begin her coaching/teaching practice, Clairification. Claire is also a featured expert and chief fundraising coach for Bloomerang, She’ll be your guide, so you can be your donor’s guide on their philanthropic journey. A member of the California State Bar and graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco.