Net Tuesday Toronto: How to Tell Stories That Get Results

tierneysmith's picture

This post was originally published on TechSoup Canada and is written by Kristen Scott.

If you’re anything like me, you’re always on the hunt for a good story - something to post on your organization’s blog, share on Facebook, tweet to your supporters, or publish in your newsletter. Sometimes this is easy - a great story lands in your inbox overnight and you can’t wait to share it with the world. Most of the time, however, coming up with a brilliant story is not easy. In fact, it can be pretty darn hard.

Fortunately, at last week’s Toronto Net Tuesday, Lisa Horvat of Strategic Storytellers was there to help us all write a happy ending during her presentation “How to Tell Stories that Get Results.”

Net Tuesday Toronto crowdAccording to Horvat, not all stories are created equal. Some stories really strike a chord, while others fall flat. So how do you know if your story is a winner? Horvat says there are five elements that make great stories:

1. Great stories are memorable

Great stories stick in your mind long after they have been told. You think about them when you’re walking down the street or during your daily commute.

2. Great stories show rather than tell

A great story will make you feel like you’ve had the experience yourself because it will paint such a vivid picture of what happened that you feel like you were there.

3. Great stories are trustworthy

A great story is something you believe wholeheartedly to be true.

4. Great stories are inspirational

The best stories make you feel good. They are brimming with hope and show you that the world is full of possibility.

5. Great stories spread

Great stories are the ones you tell over and over again and which your audience then goes on to also tell over and over again.

A word of caution - even if a story is good, it may not be the right story. There’s a big difference. A good story may have all of the qualities listed above, but it might not be the right story for your audience. Or it may not be the right time to tell it.

Now the right story - the right story will move our audience both because it has the qualities listed above, but also because it is being told to the right group of people at the right time.

There are some stories however, that may never have their day in the sun. Typically, these stories display one of the following qualities:

  • Sad stories that leave people feeling powerless - it’s okay to tell a sad story, as long as you also imbue it with hope and leave people feeling empowered to make a difference.
  • Stories for stories' sake - stories that don’t have a clear reason for being told won’t connect with your audience. Make sure that any story you tell relates back to your organization and its mission.
  • Personal stories - personal stories can be great, as long as there are components of the story that will be interesting to people who don’t know you.

Now, when it comes to your best stories there are typically two types of stories that are best told within the nonprofit context:

Explaining stories

Explaining stories are told to illustrate a point or bring statistics to life. They build a vivid picture of your organization and are used to build trust.

The objective of an explaining story is to grab your audience’s attention and make them want to learn more. An explaining story likely won’t make your audience take an immediate action, but it will prime them to take action in the future.

This campaign by 100,0000 Homes is an example of a great explaining story:

Donor-centric stories

The goal of a donor-centric story is to compel an individual to act - whether you’re asking them to donate to your cause or become a volunteer.

In these stories the donor, not the organization, is the hero. And the most important message is that one person (i.e. the donor) can make a big difference. In order to to relay this message it’s important that the donor is able to relate to the story being told, or to the individual in the story.

This video by Invisible People is a powerful example of a variation on the donor-centric story:

You may be asking yourself: where do these stories come from?

If you work for small organization you may have a hard time always coming up with fresh and engaging stories. Fortunately, your colleagues, board members, donors and program recipients are excellent sources of stories - so listen hard. Talk to people in your organization about what motivates them - why do they come to work everyday? Chances are there’s a gem of a story just waiting to be unearthed.

However, if this tactic doesn’t work you can always try another technique - approaching the data your organization has collected from a different angle. If you take the time to analyze your program data in a different light you may find the thread of a great new narrative.

Just remember, any story you decide to run with should be PHAT (and no, this is not a reference to Blessid Union of Souls circa 1999.) PHAT stories show passion, display a clear hero and an antagonist (or obstacle), and have the power to transform the audience.

After the hard work of developing a great story is complete you may think it’s time to put your feet up and let the story do it’s work. However, creating the story is only the beginning. A great story has no impact if it’s not heard by anyone.

When it comes to using your story Horvat has a few top tips:

Practice: practice your story on anyone who will listen - colleagues, friends, family. Watch people’s expressions as you tell the story. Do their eyes light up? Does their body language show you that they are interested in what you are telling them?

Use Social Media: social media is a great way to spread your story. However, don’t just broadcast it to the world like you’re making an impersonal announcement. Tell your story on social media as if you’re telling it to a dear friend. If people feel like you are talking “to” them instead of “at” them they will be more likely to connect with the story you’re telling.

Select a Handful: choose a handful of people to tell your story to, either directly or indirectly. These people shouldn’t be chosen indiscriminately, they should be carefully selected because of their connection to the cause or their status as an influencer.

Listen: offer your story as a way to encourage others to share theirs. Stories are reciprocal. Think about how often conversations with your friends are just the passing back of stories - you tell one, they tell one, you tell one, and on and on.

Make a good first impression: if you’re going to tell a story, make it count. Telling a story purely for its own sake is obvious and dull. Your audience will see right through you and won’t be as interested to listen to your stories in the future.

Give, give, give: stories are gifts. Give them freely and without the expectation of anything in return.

Presentation slides & Recording


Recommended Reads

  • Make to Stick by Chip & Dan Heath
  • Stories that Sell by Cassie Hibbard
  • Improving your Storytelling by Doug Lipman
  • Squirrles Inc. by Stephen Denning