Book & Guide

How To Tell Stories That Connect, Move, & Inspire

Have you ever noticed that a great story can pull you in, regardless of the specifics? A well-told story about a tax audit (the movie Stranger than Fiction) is just as compelling as one about post-WWI expats witnessing bullfights in Spain (The Sun Also Rises). The most powerful stories appeal to universal human needs, drives, emotions, and experiences. We all relate to the desire for freedom, recognition, connection, and love.

If you are trying to rally people around your cause, you need to tell your story along the lines of these universal human tropes, instead of focusing too narrowly on the particulars of your issue.

This can seem daunting, so we created this guide to help you tell stories with themes that appeal to everyone, not just to expand your appeal, but also to engage with your audience’s emotions.

To illustrate, we will be referring to some of the most moving ads used to sell some of the most mundane, boring products out there, answering the question: How does a company that sells household goods make itself relevant to the Olympics so that it can capitalize on this high-profile event?

Proctor and Gamble released several TV commercials that did this brilliantly by telling a simple, exquisitely mundane story: literally the day-to-day drudgery that moms go through raising their kids.

Using Proctor & Gamble’s innovative “Thank You, Mom,” ad campaign, which made household goods appeal to everyone on a level reserved for political conventions and sports matches, this guide will break down the elements of an emotional message. We’ll then show you how you can apply those elements in your own fundraising efforts.

Take a minute to watch the ad from the 2012 Summer Olympics. Have some Kleenex handy. You’re going to need them.

After watching these ads, I forwarded them to my own mom, just to say thank you, so even though I’m not P&G’s target consumer, they reached one through me.

A Universal Message

What makes the P&G videos so effective is that they are universal. Even if you’re not a mother, you had a mother, and you know that there’s a lot of work that goes into raising kids. We all have memories of scraped knees, early-morning wake-ups, comfort foods mom made when we had a bad day, trips to the doctor, and coming out of practice or class to our waiting moms.

So when P&G shows us images of mothers with their kids in these very situations, all we need are short clips—touchstones—to trigger these memories in ourselves, and then we’re reliving them ourselves.

The video universalizes the message even more by featuring clips of mothers from all over the world. Rather than alienating specific segments, it serves to show that we’re all the same, actually increasing the sense of solidarity and connection.

Put It Into Practice

  • Look for universals: What about your story is something anyone can relate to?
  • Look for the key points of that message: Instead of trying to convey the entire story, focus on a few key moments or pieces that can serve as reminder of the whole experience.

For example, if your nonprofit finds shelters for disabled animals, highlight the love that all pet owners feel for their animals and the shared experiences. You can certainly put some focus on the unique challenges of raising a dog with three legs or a blind cat, but remember to point out how the essentials are all the same. Some key scenes: the first time you bring a pet home; getting up at night to care for a scared puppy; finally giving in and letting it sleep in the bed with you; the first time she gets a trick right; the time she comforted you when you had a rough day.

Let The Scenes Speak For Themselves

One thing you’ll notice about the P&G ad is that there are practically no words. We get a few murmured lines, but they are less informative and more illustrative.

What makes the ad really powerful is that actions are allowed to speak. We don’t need to be told what’s going on, how the characters feel, or what the significance is. We see the moms doing dishes, dropping kids off, driving them around, and we know that the message is, “Moms work hard, and they do it all for love.”

P&G saves its pitch for the end, and doesn’t overtly ask for anything. They simply say that they are there to support moms, who are the real heroes of this story.

Put It Into Practice

  • Avoid too much explanation. Remember Wall-E, where the first act of the movie has no words at all? If you have to explain a lot for the audience to understand what’s happening, consider reworking how you tell the story.
  • Keep your message tight. Don’t try to cover every aspect of the story. Have a specific message and focus on getting it across.

Make The Audience The Hero

We used to be bombarded with advertising that sought to make us feel inadequate. The product was there to rescue us from the (invented) troubles of our lives. Below is an extreme example, suggesting that failing to store-test fresh coffee is a serious problem that can have severe consequences and that the product is the buyer’s savior.

Bad ad example

Not very inspiring.

If anything, you might buy out of fear, but you’re not going to support the company because they just made you feel bad about yourself and got you worrying about something you probably didn’t even think about before.

In nonprofits, this is done by showing pictures of misery and suffering with the message, implied or stated, that you should be doing something about it and that your only excuses are laziness or callousness. “In the time it takes you to brush your teeth, 150 acres of rainforest are destroyed.” The point is to make you feel guilty, and by telling you that, they’re basically creating a new worry in your day.

What P&G did that was so genius was take a back seat to the story. Even more innovative, they took the Olympics and made it a story about moms, their target audience, rather than the athletes we usually focus on. They made their audience the heroes, not only of the day-to-day work of raising a kid, but of the entire Olympic games. Their message was, “Moms: you are already awesome. You rock all by yourselves. And we’re here to help you be great.”

If P&G made sports equipment, like Nike does, then the hero would have been the athlete, and the story would be one of independent motivation and self-sufficiency. But athletes don’t buy paper towels and dish soap. Moms do.

Check out our other post on using the Hero’s Journey to make your audience the hero of their own story.

Put It Into Practice

  • Make your story about your donors or your beneficiaries.
  • Cast yourself as their supporter or their sponsor.

For example, highlight how amazing great pet owners are. Or, make the pets themselves the heroes (they’re not the donors, but people still relate strongly to heroic animals and want to help them). Your message could essentially be, “You’ve got a big heart. We can help you make a difference in a pet’s life,” not, “We save amazing animals.”

Create Common Purpose

Watching the “Thank You Mom” ads, P&G sends the message that it has a shared mission with that of its donors: to raise families. The company isn’t really trying to get moms on board with its mission. It’s doing the opposite, showing that it is on board with moms’ mission.

Ideally, your donors have something they already care about and you have a particular take on meeting that need. The “What” is already shared. It’s the unique “How” that you bring to the table that you add to the conversation.

Put It Into Practice

  • Find a way to show the audience you are on their team. One great way to do this is to show donors doing what they consider important while receiving support from your organization. This works well with testimonial-style videos.
  • When you can’t show the donors doing what they care about because it’s too specialized (medical treatment for example), you can still include them by showing the how the results of your work support what they consider important.

Pet owners and those who want to help disabled pets want to make sure all pets have a chance for love. You can show them talking with one of your representatives to meet their next pet. If you provide medical support as well, you can show them with their pet at the vet. Another option would be to show one of your team members caring for a disabled pet, introducing it to the new owner, and then a scene of the owner and the pet enjoying a hike or a play session.

Listen First

It may sound trivial, but it’s essential that you understand what’s important to your audience. You work for a nonprofit, so it should be fairly obvious what’s important in terms of causes, but you need to also understand what kinds of messages resonate with your audience.

  • Are they flinty, pragmatic types who scoff at emotional messages, or do they focus on human connection?
  • Do they need to see what’s in it for them to help, or are they motivated by selflessly helping others?

Do your research by listening in on the social media channels that your audience frequents. If you use Twitter (which you should), set up lists and search filters to check out what content is being talked about and shared by the people you want support from.

P&G knew their audience: most of their customers are mothers providing for their families. What do mothers care about most? The success of their children. So the story P&G told was one about mothers supporting their kids to become successful, feeling proud of those kids, and getting the one thing every mother wants more than anything else in the world: their kids to say thank you.

Put It Into Practice

  • What does your audience want? What motivates them, and how does that tie into the cause you are promoting?
  • How do they like to see themselves? Do your donors want to feel like they are helping others succeed, or do they want the feeling of doing work directly? Do they want to belong or lead?

To return one last time to our hypothetical disabled animal placement nonprofit, pet owners want to provide a loving environment for their animals to be happy. They want to play with their dogs and cats and snuggle up with them at the end of a long day. Tell a story showing that, and promising that you can help pet owners with exceptionally big hearts make that happen for an affectionate pet, and you’ve got a winner.


Some stories just get the information across, and some do it with a bit of emotional impact. The best stories, however, connect to our humanity. They speak to us in a way that is inspiring without being preachy. In fact, the best stories don’t say much at all. Instead, they are told in a way that lets the events speak for themselves. They connect with the unspoken ties that make us human and help us relate to one another, no matter what community we are a part of.

If you can tell your story in that way, anyone who sees it will relate with the heroes, whether they themselves are part of that group or not.

Here’s one more tear-jerker to leave you with. See if you can identify the elements I mentioned above in this P&G ad from Sochi 2014’s winter Olympics (okay, the overstuffed baby on ice skates was a wise choice, too).

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