Keys to Brilliant Nonprofit Storytelling Part 1: Emotional Arc and Character

Khaled Allen
Khaled Allen

Emotion and Character Arc

Welcome to the first post in a series about the mechanics of great storytelling, from the Storytelling for Business course by Kevin Allison at the

You already know that telling a story is key to reaching the hearts of your donors, but do you know exactly what that means? What to say, when to say it, and how?

Read on to find out exactly how to construct your nonprofit pitch, donor message, or speech.

A Story is About Emotion

What makes a story different from any other form of communication?

The simple answer is that a story is engaging and interesting because a story takes us on an emotional journey from one state to another. The main actor starts out feeling one way and ends up feeling another. As human beings, we are intrinsically fascinated to learn how things changed.

Without an emotional shift, your story will lack engagement. It might be interesting, but the audience will not get personally invested in the same way.

For example, consider the following two paragraphs:

Our project will bring clean drinking water to thousands of villages by connecting each village with a sponsor in the States. These sponsors will get the satisfaction of knowing they are helping provide an important resource to children, so that they can attend school consistently to change their lives for the better.

Ian grew up in a village without clean water nearby. He was used to walking ten miles each way every morning to collect water for his family, which took priority over his schooling. When we met him on our visit last year, we couldn’t help but notice how he gazed longingly at the schoolhouse whenever he walked past with his heavy buckets, all alone. We realized that simply getting clean water to this village could make a big impact in Ian’s education, and the others like him. So we arranged with sponsors in the States to help, and now all we need is your help to provide some funding. Soon, Ian will be learning, laughing, and playing with his classmates.

In the first paragraph, I’m just stating the parameters of the project. It’s a good enough idea, but it lacks emotional punch.

The second paragraph takes us from a sense of desperate longing and loneliness to a place of hopeful possibility, laughter, and friendship. It also includes an individual human, which brings us to the second essential element of a story.

Key Points for Using Emotions in Storytelling

  • Focus on how things feel before and after your project or intervention
  • If your story is in writing, focus on actions that describe emotions (show don’t tell. More on that in Part 3)
  • Keep it simple. Lonely to connected. Exhausted to energized. Worried to optimistic. Don’t try to take your audience on an emotional roller coaster. Save that for movies.

Stories Have Humans

Stories are about people or things like people. We can relate to people, and people have emotional arcs. Projects, organizations, and ideas do not — unless you give them the quality of being people.

This ad from Delta is a brilliant example of how to do just that. The ad campaign is focused on the quality of Delta’s baggage handling, and they wanted to tell the story of a bag’s journey through their system, to show that you can trust them to take care of your precious cargo.

However, bags don’t have a lot of personality. So Delta made the bag a person.

I’m not going to lie, I teared up a bit at the end.

Since you’re pitching a nonprofit or a charity event, there is undoubtedly a human element. All you need to do is make sure there is an individual we can relate to make sure we care.

Keys to Using Character in Storytelling

  • Highlight the experience of individuals, not groups or organizations
  • Use an individual to represent concepts or organizations (remember Apple’s Mac vs PC commercials?)
  • Don’t stay high level for too long. Introduce us to someone we can latch on to and care about.
  • If you decide to focus on a community, introduce some individuals, and make sure we get a sense of that community’s particular personality

Don’t short shrift the important parts — your process, your idea, the logistics, the reason your idea will succeed — but bring that stuff in after viewers have become emotionally invested in making sure you succeed.

Of course, it is important to consider the audience. Your donors may be hard-edged investors who are wary of any kind of emotional appeal. The solution isn’t to ignore the emotional, character-driven story, but instead to tell your story in a way that shows them you know how to manage funds and get things done.

And that is the topic of Part 2.

If you’d like to go even more in-depth on great storytelling, you can sign up for the Udemy course here. Use promo code “StoryStudio20%” for a 20% discount.

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