How do you tell people what you do and why you do it? Not just friends and neighbors, but potential funders and clients, crucial partners, volunteers, regulators, and taxpayers. In other words, how do you justify your existence and your request for others’ money, labor, or ideas?
As social creatures, we often communicate through stories. Stories can put information into context, true, but they also tap into emotion. We remember emotional associations long after we’ve forgotten informational content. That emotional resonance can hold your audience’s attention, and spark their motivation, long after you’ve stopped talking.
Here’s a great example of non-profit storytelling, told to me by another great non-profit storyteller:
“Hardcore LA gang-bangers walk through a street market on a Sunday morning. Tattoos, shaved heads, over-sized clothes. They stopped in front of a tiny kid, playing Brahms on a tiny violin. After five or six minutes, without saying a word to one another, I watched those gang members pull out their own money and lay it gently in the little kid’s case.
“I was earning a doctorate in Public Health at UCLA at the time, focused on what it takes to make a healthy community. That day, those gang members handed me a powerful lesson. They led me to research linking early-sustained music study with improvements in math, language, brain development and behavior – the basis for Harmony Project.”
In the space of just a few sentences, Martin uses a scene with villains and heroes to tell the story of how her non-profit music education organization came into being, and why.
Martin could have led off with scientific data about music education’s impact on intellectual, emotional, and social development. The audience might have been intellectually impressed. With a story, they are emotionally connected. They have a human scene in which to place any subsequent scientific data Martin may give them.
People remember emotions long after they forget facts. You remember the excitement or sadness or wonder of a favorite movie or book long after you’ve lost the ability to recall the actual words, scenes, or plot of the story. Being memorable through emotions helps you appeal to funders, recruit volunteers, motivate staff, and answer critics. In short, it can increase the impact of your organization.
This isn’t just true for non-profit organizations working to bring world peace and solve world hunger. Even mundane bureaucratic departments need a compelling story about the work they do in the community, to explain and justify their use of public tax dollars.
Currently, the San Francisco sewer department is running an ad campaign on Metro buses. The campaign works to humanize the vital and heroic aspects of something as unsexy as public sewer systems. The campaign headlines are assertive statements the sewer system would make if it could talk:
- “You can’t live a day without me.”
- “Your #2 is my #1.”
- “No one deals with more crap than me.”
It’s kinda funny, kinda weird, but I think it also builds an effective emotional connection with the audience. It’s certainly more effective than a bus ad that says something like, “Your sewer system improves public health.”
Professionals in the public sector, especially those trained in sciences and research, tend to avoid emotion in their professional discourse. They might find it uncomfortable, melodramatic, inaccurate, irrelevant. Done right, telling your professional mission with story and emotion makes a strong, personal, and lasting impression on the audiences you need to sway to be successful.
This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll lay out elements of storytelling you can use in your work for the social good. I’ll talk more about villains, victims, heroes, helpers, and quests, and how you can incorporate them into your work and the work of your organization.