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Don't Ask for Stories, and Other Lessons Learned About Storytelling

by Molly O'Connell

It’s hard to open a newsletter these days without an article about storytelling, and for good reason. storytellingMore and more research is showing that stories are an effective way to capture attention of donors, policymakers and volunteers in a crowded, and constantly changing, messaging landscape.

This raises the question: how do we build capacity for this strategy.

Earlier this month, I joined almost one hundred other nonprofit leaders at MANP’s Executive Leadership Forum to learn and talk about this issue. Keynote speaker Julie Dixon, lead researcher of the fascinating “Stories Worth Telling,” made the case for the importance of a storytelling culture as the key to capacity.

There was no shortage of food for thought in Julie’s presentation or the great small group discussion afterwards, but four themes really rose to the top for me. Do these strike a chord for you?

Who Has the Time?

Most of us are currently residing in the “realm of good intentions,” as Julie called it. In other words, we perceive our organizations to place a high value on storytelling as an effective vehicle for fundraising, policy change and stakeholder engagement, but we lack the capacity, systems or skills to sustain our efforts. Examples of amazing stories often feel overwhelming rather than inspiring, because we don’t know how to replicate those approaches.

If this resonates for you, a few suggestions emerged for how to move forward. (If it doesn’t resonate, who are you, and will you be my mentor?)

  • Start simple, and find ways to make space. Incorporate discussion of stories a standing agenda item at staff meeting or start sharing “mission moments” in board meetings.
  • Start with reflection. This very brief self-assessment will help you identify areas of strength and areas of challenge. At your next staff or board meeting take the assessment individually and then compare/discuss results. Is there an area or two that you could begin to tackle?
  • Just start somewhere. Building capacity takes time! Encourage staff in all roles to build storytelling skills. (We have a SkillBuilder on telling impactful stories coming up next month, and more resources in our Answer Center.)

Don’t Ask for Stories

At MANP, we aim to be a voice for the sector, and we need to understand our members’ work and impact in order to successfully speak about the value of nonprofits in Maine broadly and in relation to specific issues. That means we’re always trying to collect stories. “Share your story!” “Tell us your story!” “Have a Story?” (Subtext: Please!??!)

If you’ve tried this yourself, you may be able to predict what kind of responses we’ve received to these requests. (Minimal.)

Asking for “a story” is intimidating! The word “story” implies something fully formed with a beginning, middle and end. (Plus princesses and swashbuckling and talking animals and treasure.) Most of us don’t think of ourselves as storytellers, or of our experiences as “stories.”

Julie and others had great suggestions here, too.

  • Mix up the ask. Rather than asking for “a story” try “What was a meaningful interaction you had with a client?”, “What was your best day at work?”, “When did you first connect with our organization?” or “What’s your perspective on X?” (Do you have successful prompts? Share them in the comments below!)
  • Be thoughtful about who collects responses. In order to build a successful storytelling culture it’s important to have buy-in at all levels, but that doesn’t mean your senior staff person is necessarily the best person to collect the stories (or story ideas), which can be intimidating to staff and clients. Maybe it’s not a person at all, but a document where employees and volunteers can go to make note of great interactions, suggestions of people to interview, or put ideas.
  • Redefine “story.” A story can be told through a series of photos (or even a single photo), a cartoon, an interview, etc. Follow the advice of this article and move out of your comfort zone to tell stories of failure and stories of projects in mid-stream.

Stories vs. Messages

Another “aha” was the reminder that stories are not the same thing as key messages. Yes, it’s important for an organization to have consistency in its brand and in the way that leaders, staff and volunteers explain the organization’s mission, vision and priorities. Stories, however, can and should be allowed enough flexibility to remain authentic. Your organization doesn’t have a story–it has many stories.

  • If you train your board members on key messages, spend some time on how talking points are not a substitute for crafting, collecting and sharing stories that show, rather than tell.
  • People’s stories belong to them, not to you. Empower people to tell their stories without worrying about being on message.
  • Try out mission Mad Libs. Write a story framework and ask staff, board members, other volunteers to complete the story based on their own experiences. (I first became interested in this mission because ______. I got involved by _____. I learned _______. I met _______. I saw ______. I think our mission matters because______.)

Are We Exploiting Those We Serve?

Many participants raised concerns about appropriating the experiences of the often vulnerable populations we serve. When we share someone’s story, are we serving them up as a “poster child”? How do we even find and tell a single story about complex social issues? What if the people we serve do not want to share their stories at all, or are not able to tell their stories? These are difficult and essential questions for organizations to wrestle with, but are not insurmountable barriers to creating great (and ethical) stories.

Julie had some creative suggestions here as well.

  • If it isn’t possible to write a story from the perspective of the person being served, is there someone else who can share a related experience? While you don’t want to put people in a position of speaking for someone else, the main “character” (a child, a victim) may be surrounded by other “characters” who  are less vulnerable, but also have important perspectives to share, such as a parent, a teacher, a friend, or a staff person.
  • Other organizations instead create composite characters to help illustrate real-life scenarios without directly representing any single person. (When using a composite character, be transparent.)
  • Don’t feel pressured to have every story illustrate a major transformation, which can seem sensationalized. Sometimes shining a light on small, but critical shifts can be equally moving.
  • And, of course, it is essential to request/document permission, when appropriate. This article provides some good guidelines and a link to samples.

What Are You Thinking About?

These themes jumped out to me, but there was really rich conversation around the room, and I’d love to hear what hit home for others.

If you were at the forum, what did you walk away thinking about? If you weren’t, what’s a storytelling-related challenge you’re facing? What’s something your organization is doing that makes collecting and sharing stories easier? How can we all rise to the challenge to use the power of stories in service of our important missions?

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