3 Ways to be a (Better) Storyteller

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.

The best stories are not necessarily original or complex. Pixar packs a masterful, timeless, and very simple story--capturing the complete arc of a relationship--into six minutes in its 2009 animated feature "Up."

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!

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4 thoughts on “3 Ways to be a (Better) Storyteller

  1. I am so sorry to have missed this workshop! I signed up for it, but my daughter’s baby came 2 1/2 weeks early, so I had to drop everything and fly, in the face of a great blizzard, to Chicago to welcome this tiny girl into the world. The baby is adopted and we had a week to get to know the sweet young couple who knew they couldn’t give her a good life when they had not yet been to college. So they gave her up to my eager and loving daughter and her husband. Little Ruth Anne is sleeping in her NC crib right now, and I am on duty tonight so her parents can get some sleep.

    Oh, but I digress. Storytelling is so important. I want to find ways to tell stories in social media, especially Facebook. Not so many commercials about programs. It is so much more difficult to get that kind of content from staff. It almost requires participation in the program to capture the power and craft the story.

  2. Now *that’s* storytelling! So incredibly exciting. Congratulations to the whole family.

    I like your drive to tell stories and not just add to the promotional noise. I find it tricky on FB and Twitter to keep a narrative thread going over time. It’s also tough to “share” admin duties on Facebook and Twitter in ways that support broader staff participation, though I’m not ready to give up just yet (and the AP’s staff guidelines gave me some new ideas).

    Blogging, on the other hand, has been an amazing (verging on magical) catalyst for storytelling at my institution (http://blog.phillipscollection.org/). I really like storytelling through video too. In both blogging and video production, the communications expert can dream up and/or help to shape a meaningful story but enlist the protagonist (curator, visitor, conservator, artist) to speak directly for him or herself.

  3. Pingback: The Story of Self, The Story of Us, The Story of Now | Talking About Talking

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