The big takeaway of Andy Goodman’s workshop: your organization should have a handful of stories (5-6) that every one of its staff, from leaders to volunteers, know by heart. These stories verify that we’re making good on the lofty promises of our mission and values statements. (Take a quick look at any nonprofit’s mission, usually posted on its website, and the need for concrete proof with a human face becomes obvious).
So how to craft these stories? Turns out, we all already know how, instinctively. In the workshop, we had two minutes to think of a story on a designated theme, then two minutes each to recount them in rapid succession around our tables. We brainstormed qualities our stories had in common: a hero, an emotional hook like humor or nostalgia, a colorful sense of context, obstacles to overcome, a resolution.
While the basics come naturally, Andy talked about bad habits he sees over and over again in nonprofit storytelling. Here are three common pitfalls to avoid:
1) A protagonist is a person, an individual, a singular hero. Your organization cannot be the protagonist. Take a closer look at individuals benefiting from your services. You can aggregate multiple real people into a single fictional person to tell a more compelling story, as long as your content remains true and you provide a disclaimer.
2) Your hero must face obstacles. Smooth rides are boring stories. Your audience will feel no connection to a hero without challenges. Barriers build tension, suspense, urgency. Don’t tell a story in which your organization solves the world’s problems in one fell swoop; it won’t ring true.
3) Lose the jargon, lose the stats. Tell a story as though you’re having a conversation with a friend. Use language that speaks to people regardless of industry.
Armed with newfound confidence in our storytelling instincts, and constructive criticism to guide improvement, we each spent time fleshing out a story. Volunteers stepped up to an open-mic to share, and–mostly because I felt I owe it to this blog (and my mentor)–I braved my visceral fear of public speaking and gave it a shot!