Changemaker Interactive

Suzanne Smith, founder of Changemaker Interactive and author of Social TrendSpotter, a must-read blog on the latest trends in the social sector, answers your most frequently asked questions.

Recently, I visited an elementary school and read my favorite Dr. Seuss book – Oh, the Places You’ll Go! – to an enraptured audience of young learners. As Dr. Seuss taught us, stories are a powerful way to communicate your message and teach lessons. The good news is that the social sector has a wealth of stories to tell – lives changed, art created and communities impacted. The bad news is that, with so few resources, the social sector considers marketing and communications a luxury. However, with the advent of social media, one story created via video on Vimeo, picture on Instagram or presentation on Prezi can travel across the globe in an instant. You don’t need a large budget or access to the conventional media to tell your organization’s story. For this week’s blog, we thought we’d revisit one of our most popular posts, which shares our best tools so you can captivate audiences like a master storyteller. You can also refer to these tools when working with your board and staff as they craft their elevator pitch.

Before you employ these tools you must ask yourself two critical questions: what do you say and how do you say it? To answer this question, we’ll take cues from our favorite storytelling professionals – English teachers, Madison Avenue advertising executives, and Hollywood screenwriters.

Your English teacher would say start first with an outline and answer basic questions. For this exercise, DO NOT think about what marketing materials you already have; instead, start fresh. Here is a list of key questions:

  • Who are you planning to talk to? What do they care about?
  • What problem is your organization trying to solve? What is the root cause? What is your organization’s solution and how is it different? What if nothing is done?
  • Why should they care? Why should they care now?
  • What can they do?

The key in this exercise is to keep asking yourself the most important question – how does your organization impact human life? If you use qualitative data in your evaluation plan, you may find that insights from clients or patrons assist you with describing this impact. In order to get an objective viewpoint, try this exercise with someone unfamiliar with your organization. See Exercise #1 for a helpful starting point for an outline.

Next, Madison Avenue advertising executives use a pyramid with “the big idea” at the top. Think Subway and their “Fresh” campaign or Volvo and their emphasis on safety. Or, in the nonprofit sector, the American Cancer Society and their Birthday campaign. What is your big idea? Ask yourself:

  • How is your organization different?
  • What do you want to be known for?
  • What difference is your organization making?

The key to this exercise is to brainstorm multiple ideas in a creative setting. Just let yourself go and then edit later. It also helps to try out this exercise in a group setting and then get feedback from outsiders about which words or images stand out to them. See Exercise #2 for a helpful guide.

Finally, we are all mesmerized by the stories of Hollywood . . . but all the stories from Hollywood follow the same formula. Every commercial, every movie, every TV show follows the screenwriting rules of “how to tell a compelling story.” Think about your story and use this formula to your advantage:

  • Who is your hero?
  • Who is your antagonist?
  • What is the defining moment?
  • What is the happy ending?

The key to this exercise is to follow the formula on your own terms. You do not have to use every element of the guide, but adapt the major elements of the story to shape your narrative. Feel free to borrow from others – the best stories are re-crafted from universal themes. See Exercise #3 for a helpful guide.

Once you are clear on your message and have a “hook” through your big idea, it should be easier to tell your organization’s story and find the right tool to help you tell it. Storytelling is a vital technique for the social sector to learn and then master, and we’d love to hear what you learn through this process. 

Click here to watch our interview on Storytelling.

Does your nonprofit need a shot of adrenaline? Take it to the next level with our Nonprofit Storytelling course.