How to Make Your Story Stand Out

Published by Charlie Hulme on

Everyone in the sector is trying to tell their story. The power of storytelling was showcased earlier this month when 20 well known fundraisers shared tales that had inspired them at SOFII’s ‘I Wish I’d Thought of That’ (or, in my case, ‘I Wish I’d Gone to That’!)

But if everyone does it how’s yours going to stand out?

lost in a crowdLast year 180,000 registered charities in UK sent 166 million pieces of DM to a dwindling donor pool. Millions of stories are told through conversations on the street and phone, and you can’t turn your head without being asked to text to support something.

To make our stories stand out we need to be outstanding storytellers.

Our sector has access to the most inspirational stories in the world, but how inspirational are we when we tell them? An academic study of over two thousand online and direct mail fundraising documents concluded our stories were ‘…overly formal, cold, detached, and abstract’.

Where are we going wrong?

We understand why storytelling works; we get the role it plays in driving emotion. But very few of us get how it works. Storytelling isn’t as simple as ‘once upon a time’ and emotion doesn’t only mean sentimental.

These links show how you can structure your story in ways that’ll boost both response and values (and I’ll be presenting more on this with Lucy ‘Innovation’ Gower at the Institute of Fundraising’s national convention on the 3rd of July).

None of this counts if you don’t tell your story with integrity, but that’s another story.

But the key to telling a good story is to know what your audience wants to hear.

Fundraising is becoming ever more commoditised. Donors have no voice; they’re a number. The moment they take any action whatsoever they’re anonymised on our database as a ‘supporter’. Whoever they are, whatever they’ve done, and whatever they want are all ignored as we cram them into a rigidly defined pen portrait bearing zero resemblance to them, but fitting the ‘story’ we want to tell. gagged

We know or care nothing about their motivation; why they’ve done what they’ve done, or why they chose to help in that way as opposed to another. We know or care nothing about their lifestyle, and where (if anywhere) our cause and product offer fits in with that. Our ‘story’ is about why we need them to give in a certain way, with no thought whatsoever why they’d want to.

We’re writing copy counter to common sense. If our sector ran a bookshop we’d see someone had brought a copy of  ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, label them a ‘Book Buyer’ and spend the next decade trying to sell them ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (both popular stories, but with very different audiences!)

And our story changes over time.

Two years ago I was unmarried, had no children and ate meat. Today I’m a husband, father and vegan. When the supermarket e/mails me they know this. They tell me ‘stories’ about helping my daughter grow safely and eat well. I’m listening and buying. If our sector ran the supermarket it’d write to me about how the economic downturn has hit them hard and why it’d be good for them if I ate meat.

You’ll never be an outstanding storyteller until you become an outstanding listener.

The mass volume, generic (not to mention dull) approach our sector takes to storytelling isn’t sustainable. Our stories stand out, but for all the wrong reasons. People notice them not because they speak to their moral identity, but because they don’t. And that’s when the complaints come in.

So how do you match the right story to the right person?

Easy; stop talking and start listening. There are proven models for tracking present and future engagement. Use them to find out what their story is. Can you show them that it’s yours too?

“…a story has as many versions as it has readers”

John Steinbeck


Charlie Hulme

Charlie Hulme

Charlie is MD of Donor Voice. He helps charities uncover what, of all the things they do, cause relationship strength and what is harmful. Partners see a massive improvement in performance, value and retention. Voted top speaker at the Institute of Fundraising's National Convention in 2013, he writes frequently for SOFII, 101 Fundraising, the Institute of Fundraising and many others.


Jemma Taylor · July 16, 2013 at 08:31

Great article.
I would add 1 further point. A story has to be interesting enough to ensure that people come back regularly to check for new articles!!

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