Storytelling has been a passion of mine for as long as I’ve been a fundraiser. My new book – The Storytelling Non-Profit: A practical guide to telling stories that raise money and awareness – is the culmination of my work and learnings about nonprofit storytelling. My hope is that it will demystify the process of telling stories and help many nonprofit organizations achieve their goals by telling their stories.
I’m excited to share this special excerpt with you today. Enjoy!
Forming a connection with your audience is a matter of taking what you know about them and weaving it into the story. They want to see how this information is relevant to them. The story should compellingly answer the question: “So what?”
The best stories connect with the audience right from the beginning. Within the first few sentences or seconds of telling that story, our audience should feel pulled into our story. Think of the most compelling stories you’ve read recently. What made them so intriguing to you?
No matter which of these devices you use at the beginning of your story, it’s important to remember that it’s not enough on its own. We still have to form connections with our audience. Take this for example. Our story starts with the following:
Our organization receives over 4,000 calls every year from women needing support after a sexual assault. Today, we need your help to eradicate this violence in our community.
This opening certainly contains a sense of urgency. But right at the start, we’re sharing such a big number with the audience without making it relevant to them. Now, let’s say that we know the audience for this story is primarily women between the ages of forty and sixty. They are feminists and understand the impact violence can have on women. Many of them are parents.
Knowing this, here’s another way we could start this story:
“I stood in the shower wondering if I would ever feel like myself again. Then I wondered how I would tell my mom what happened to me.” Those were the thoughts that went through Megan’s mind after she was sexually assaulted during her first year of college.
This beginning feels quite different. Rather than utilizing urgency right from the start, we employ emotion and humanity. We hear from a young woman during one of the most vulnerable moments of her life. The target audience might emotionally connect to this beginning, as this young woman wonders how she can talk to her mom about her sexual assault. This evokes empathy within any donors who are also parents. Additionally, anyone who reads this who is a survivor of sexual assault will be able to relate through their own experience. This is how you can take what you know about your audience and weave it into your story to build a connection with the reader.
Incorporating what you know about your audience won’t always be as overt as the Rain Forest Alliance video that we looked at earlier in this chapter. In fact, most of the time it will be very subtle, but it will be enough to stand out to anyone who identifies with the story.
Here’s what you can do to incorporate what you know about your audience into your story:
- Brainstorm a list of what you know about your audience.
- As you start working on a story (or any type of communication, really), reference this list and pull one or two qualities that you want to focus on.
- You might want to write out a few different versions of your story’s beginning. Play around with bringing the selected qualities into the story. This will help you see the variety of possibilities for your story.
Getting to know your audience can be a long-term project. As humans, we are all complex and multi-faceted. Plus, our audience demographics are perpetually changing—meaning they’ll never be stagnant. We have to be willing to change and adapt as our audience evolves. This means that, over time, we’ll have to change how we communicate.
Because of this, I encourage you to always have an eye and ear toward your audience. Be mindful of the changes you might not see outright. Be conscious of the fact that you probably won’t know everything about your audience, but you can certainly do your best to know them as well as you can.
This chapter is all about doing the legwork to set your organization up for storytelling success. I know that it can seem difficult, but I promise you that the payoffs are worth it. As we continue to learn about storytelling in subsequent chapters, you’ll see just how important knowing your audience truly is.