Keys to Brilliant Nonprofit Storytelling Part 3: Scene vs. Narrative

Khaled Allen
Khaled Allen

Welcome to the third installment of our series on the mechanics of great nonprofit storytelling from the Storytelling for Business course by Kevin Allison at the Part 1 covered the things that make your story different from simply sharing the facts about your nonprofit, and Part 2 provided insight on how to adjust your story to suit your audience.

Here, we will be covering the differences between detail-driven scene storytelling and big-picture narrative.

Scene vs. Narrative

In storytelling, there are two main ways we present information. The first is through scene and description. Scene presents the listeners with details, emotions, and close-ups. It paints as vivid a picture as possible, with the goal being to bring the scene alive for the reader or listener.

Here’s an example of scene:

“She looked up at me with a smile as wide as her face, a pair of our red shoes clutched tight to her chest, like a bunch of roses against her plain blue dress.”

Narrative, on the other hand, provides information. It can still be dramatic, but it lacks specific details.

Here’s an example of narrative:

“We dropped off fifty pairs of our shoes at the village the next afternoon. It was a great party, with people coming in from all over the countryside to get a pair of new kicks and share in the celebrations.”

Still engaging, but not so emotional.

So which is the best way to tell your story?

When to Use Scenic Storytelling

  • When you want to get the audience emotionally involved
  • When it’s important for them to relive a moment with you
  • When sharing a part of the story that was especially meaningful
  • When sharing the motivation for your nonprofit, to help the reader feel the pain you felt when you saw a need or witnessed people suffering

When to Use Narrative Storytelling

  • When you need to move the story along to the next powerful scene
  • When you have a lot to cover and little time
  • When sharing a part of the story that isn’t as critical to getting your main point.

How to Use Scenic Storytelling

Since the point of a good scene is to get the listener to feel the scene as you did, the key to making it compelling is the use of sensory descriptions. Think about what you felt, heard, saw, tasted, or smelled. You can also use your thoughts as dialogue: “And then I thought to myself, I know exactly who could help us meet this goal!”

These kinds of sensory words don’t have to be limited to what was actually experienced in the moment, either. For example, you can use sensory language about taste when describing the way someone looked:

“When the lights went out for the seventh time that night, the mother made a face like she was swallowing something terribly bitter.”

This is more powerful than:

“When the lights went out for the seventh time that night, the mother was frustrated.”

The first line gives the listeners the impression that the mother is extremely frustrated, but it allows them to experience the event for themselves instead of simply relying on your report of her emotions.

It is important in scenic storytelling to ‘show don’t tell’ by presenting imagery without adding too much of your personal interpretations. Bring the scene to life with description and imagery.

How to Use Narrative

Narrative storytelling is mainly utilized to get from Point A to Point B or to provide information. It is our default mode of communication, so I won’t waste too much time explaining it, but there are some things to keep in mind.

Narrative is most useful when you have limited time to get your story across. You can relate events and characters without spending a ton of time on description. This doesn’t mean that you have to give up all of the emotional impact of your story.

Remember that stories derive their power from the emotional journey of the characters involved. As long as your narrative overview continues to focus on the emotional journey, it will resonate with readers.

You can still use the basics of scenic description — sensory imagery — in small pieces. Here’s an example:

“After seeing her in the hospital, frail as a bird, I decided that I wanted to do something about this disease and all the families affected by it. At first I didn’t have any ideas and experimented with many different methods, but eventually I had my eureka moment when I walked by a painting store. All the different canvases in the window reminded me of the colored glass shards that used to hang from her window and scatter the sunlight, and I realized I could get people to do art to raise money for research.”

In this example, which is mostly narrative, I sprinkle in two little scenic elements: the description of the narrator’s friend “frail as a bird” and the paintings in the store window looking like colored glass shards. These serve to bring the listener into the important moments without bogging down a story that is meant as a very quick overview.


  • Use scene to draw the listener in and engage their emotions
  • Use narrative to move things along

Be sure to check back soon for Part 4: Story Structure, so you can put all the pieces together into a powerful story that moves your audience from apathy to a deep connection.

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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