How to Tell a Story

Whether your organization’s aim is to raise funds for the families of cancer patients or to promote the history of fire hydrants, all nonprofits face one challenge in common. They have to package an idea in a way that triggers an emotional response, a sense of empathy, a new perspective that once seen can never be forgotten. In short, they have to tell a story.

Every social issue is complex. In fact, very few things in life are ever simple. But they have to appear that way; otherwise, no one would ever pay them any attention. It’s a necessary but nevertheless bitter pill to swallow that unless your pet cause can intrigue a total stranger in about 5 seconds, it is unlikely to succeed. So punch it up.

You’ll probably remember from high school English class that every story follows a path from exposition to conflict to resolution. Marketing an idea follows a similar arc. Frame the issue in an emotional context. Describe the problem. Offer an ongoing solution. Ask for help. This simple formula will work for almost any subject matter.

Let’s return to our example and break it down. First, we’ll frame the issue in an emotional context. “The modest fire hydrant is more than a safety device. It’s a symbol of summers long past and an American icon.” Then, we’ll describe the problem. “But despite its storied history and constant vigilance against disorder, the magic of the fire hydrant has been forgotten. In popular culture, the noble hydrant has become nothing more than a bathroom for pets.”

Finally, it’s time to offer an ongoing solution. “There’s no way to go back in time. The future of the fire hydrant is not the past but the future. With your help, we are working to make fire hydrants great again.” Pivot from the problem to the solution, add the call to action, and your narrative is complete and ready for an audience.

But seriously, breaking down complex issues into bite-sized stories with clear conflicts and resolutions is the key to reaching donors. Elaborate on the issues in another place but always hide these layers of complexity under simple statements.

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