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4 Nonprofit Storytelling Tips From Psychology

From ancient cave paintings to modern neuroscience, evidence abound that humans learn and communicate best through stories. Therefore, stories can be a powerful tool for nonprofits.

Stories can raise awareness for a cause. Stories can illustrate social impact. Stories can connect individuals and create a community. Since science has shown our predisposition to connect to stories, we can also use science to help us craft better stories.

Follow these 4 nonprofit storytelling tips from psychology to improve your story and better connect with your audience.

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1) Follow A Pattern

Human think in patterns. Each day, our brain take in an enormous amount of information. Our brain processes the information and tries to spit out logical conclusions. In order to do so, our brain uses shortcuts.

Patterns provide such shortcuts. One can argue that humans are “smarter” than other animals simply based on our ability to recognize and store numerous patterns. Evolutionarily speaking, our brain’s ability to accurately recognize patterns and thus predicting the future conferred significant advantage in our survival.

We are hardwired to be happy when we were able to accurately predict the future. Therefore, stories that follow a predictable pattern are readily accepted and enjoyed by our audience. One classic storytelling pattern is the hero’s journey.

  1. Hero is confronted by a challenge or conflict.
  2. A solution is presented to the Hero.
  3. Hero’s problem is resolved.

You can find this pattern in many popular stories.

  1. Cinderella lives with wicked stepmother and was locked away.
  2. Fairy Godmother visits Cinderella and delivers her to Prince Charming.
  3. Cinderella and Prince Charming live happily ever after.

Check out this example from Neverthirst:

It follows this classic storytelling pattern of presenting a problem, a solution, and the potential for a better future.

How you can apply this nonprofit storytelling tip from psychology: When presenting a story, follow a pattern of problem, solution, and resolution. Such pattern works well for the stories about how your nonprofit was founded or success stories about your community.

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2) Break The Pattern

While patterns are readily accepted, breaks in patterns can surprise our audience. If presented correctly, such a break can be a present surprise. You can find such surprises in the storyline of Hollywood blockbusters such as Fight Club and the Sixth Sense. These stories contain a plot twist where the truth is not readily apparent.

Humans enjoy patterns. But we also enjoy figuring things out. In science, this is called mirth. Cognitive scientist Matthew Hurley defines mirth as “the pleasure in unearthing a particular variety of mistake in active belief structures.”

Creating a surprise ending is one way to break the pattern, but it isn’t the only way. Presenting an old problem in a novel way can work just as well. Novelty is another reason why our brain enjoys both predictable patterns and surprises.

Novelty is the basis of innovation not just in storytelling, but in all art forms. Humans get bored of the old. The late cognitive psychologist Colin Martindale considered this aspect of human nature “the single force that has pushed art always in a consistent direction ever since the first work of art was made.”

Check out how Do It In A Dress broke the classic pattern in this:

Instead of following the classic pattern of a plea that aims to evoke sympathy, this video breaks the pattern with humor. Instead of focusing on the African girls who need our help, the story focuses on you and I, who can easily help. The novelty of the idea draws you in.

How you can apply this nonprofit storytelling tip from psychology: Consider novel ways to present your story. Every aspect of a story can be a surprise, from the narrator, to the setting, to the way delivery vehicle.

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If you always have someone from your organization telling the story, consider having an outside influence. If you usually set your story in the office, go outside. If you’ve always told your story in writing, try a video.

3) Evoke VAK

In psychology, there are different learning styles. Some of us learn by seeing. Some of us learn by listening. Some of us learn by doing. These learning styles are summarized as VAK (visual, audio, kinesthetic).

A powerful story evokes all these senses as to appeal to a wide audience. Give the details that will enable our audience to be immersed in the emotional and sensory experience of the story.

With the right details, our audience can imagine and experience the story for themselves. A university study shows that with the right details, our brain can interpret a story as if we’re living it in real life.

Check out these stories from World Bicycle Relief:

The stories provide just the right details for us to imagine just how the bikers feel when they’re riding. We can immediately understand how committed they are. These stories were created to evoke all the senses.

How you can apply this nonprofit storytelling tip from psychology: When crafting your story, make sure you check off VAK. It’s all about the details. Include enough details so your audience can visualize, hear, and feel the story as it unfolds. Video is a great way to deliver a lot of details in a compact form.

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4) Appeal to the Higher Purposes

Humans have a variety of needs. Psychologist Maslow calls this the hierarchy of needs. Beyond basics such as food and shelter, we seek higher purposes. We look to belong. We look to achieve greater goods.

Psychologists call this form of altruism enlightened self-interest. We give because we derive satisfactions in giving. We can create stories that take advantage of such self-interest.

Check out this example from Change for Kids:

This story tells you how we can help, and gives us an image of the impact we could make. It further reinforces its message by showcasing who else is in this audience, CEOs, Government Officials, Moms, etc. This is to appeal to our need to belong.

How you can apply this nonprofit storytelling tip from psychology: As you craft your story, make sure you keep your audience in mind. Know what they may aspire to, so you can appeal to their higher purpose. A great story is not about the story that’s told, but rather the story that’s heard. It’s all about your audience.

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With these 4 nonprofit storytelling tips from psychology, you can craft your storytelling so as to better connect with your audience by appealing to universal human qualities.

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