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Stories are powerful. From the beginning of humanity, stories have been how we make sense of the world, share wisdom, and explain our existence.

Storytelling is the most powerful tool nonprofits have at their disposal. All good stories engage audiences, influence their behavior, and inspire them to share the emotion felt from the story. It’s used to start movements and create social change.

The importance of online storytelling for nonprofit fundraising and advocacy is evolving quickly. With the use of social media, sharing good stories have become easier, faster, and cheaper than ever before. Yet for most nonprofits, stories are underutilized.

Everyone knows when they hear, watch, or read a good story. We know how to identify one, but how do you create one?

Creating an impactful story
In order to create a story, you have to first understand your audience and who you want to reach. Are they your Board? Existing donors? Young professionals? Knowing your audience and understanding what drives them will help you pick out the best story to create.

Developing a plot is the next part of a story. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath suggest that there are three dominant plots that inspire people to take action.

  • Challenge Plot - This plot is about a protagonist succeeding against an enemy. Obstacles seem insurmountable, but they inspire us by appealing to our appreciation for perseverance and courage.
  • Creativity Plot – This plot is about someone making a mental breakthrough or solving a problem in a unique way. Creativity plots make us want to do something different and try new approaches to solve problems.
  • Connection Plot – This plot is about people who develop a connection across a divide—racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic, etc. These stories make us want to help others. They are about our relationships with others.

When crafting a plot for your story, you can follow a basic structure that has been proven to work well. Create a story that has each of these five elements.

  • Intro/Hook – This is the opening that pulls your audience in. Introduce them to your protagonist. Pose open questions to keep your audience engaged.
  • Struggle/Context – Explore your protagonist’s story of struggle. Make the struggle feel overwhelming and insurmountable. Use details and anecdotes that make the struggle feel real to help your audience understand how hard it was.
  • Moment of Change – Something happens and it changes the protagonist’s life forever. It could be that your organization helps them glean insights about their life. Your protagonist grows. Show the change through vivid, personal details of how their life is different now.
  • Resolution – Relate your protagonist’s story to a larger context. This might be a chance for someone from your organization to have a sound bite that communicates how your protagonist’s story is representative of so many more or relates your vision statement. Focus on creating an emotional response to your story; don’t suddenly switch to a rundown of numbers.
  • Call to Action – Always end with a call to action on what you want the viewer to do. Always. Actions can be to donate, share, sign a petition, or more.

For more story creation tips, download our free storytelling ebook.

Tips on picking the right medium and channels
What’s the use of a story if you can’t reach your audience with it? You have to choose the right channels and medium. Cara Jones (Storytellers for Good) and Joe Lambert (Center for Digital Storytelling), two of our expert storytelling panelists at our NTC session this year, share their insights.

Tip from Cara: Save emotion and motion for video
Video is the best medium for emotionally resonant stories told by characters themselves. Cluttering these stories with facts and information can interrupt the emotional flow. Video is also the best medium for active, visual stories with lots of what is called “natural sound.” If your story involves people or things moving, sounds of things like cars, hammers, or people singing, yelling or talking to one another, video will be the best way to share it.

Tip from Cara: Save facts for print
Nonprofits often have compelling facts and statistics to accompany their stories but this type of information is better expressed in text at the end of a video or outside of the piece instead of through soundbites. Statistics and facts are also most easily digested through print as people can read at their own pace to absorb them.

Tip from Joe: Social media isn’t a silver bullet
New media skimming, with messages that we think are appropriately bite sized, may not actually be doing much more than making us feel generally connected to the idea. I no longer believe they are what motivates engagement. You cannot Facebook your way into social change.

Tip from Joe: Don’t be afraid to use long-form stories
Deep and powerful stories require solemnity and reverence to absorb. Most contexts of media do not invite serious engagement about the issues that we are trying to tackle as nonprofit professionals. One of the reasons documentaries, non-fiction books, and in-depth personal reflections are powerful is they force us to stay in the story long enough for the issues to be worked through and absorbed.

Of course, if you are already in the community, and have been engaged by the issue from whatever level, they are fantastic as information sources and mobilization strategies, and do lead to successful motivation to take a given step. I generally believe superficial memes invariably create superficial commitments, and powerful stories come from much work.

Content from The Starter Guide to Video Storytelling by Annie Escobar from ListenIn Pictures and Rob Wu from CauseVox. Read Cara’s thoughts on story trends and Joe’s thoughts on story mediums/channels, part 1 and part 2 respectively, of our series on storytelling.

Rob Wu is the CEO and a Founder at CauseVox. Recently, he raised $125,000 in 10 days via social media and crowdfunding.

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