1. Industry
Send to a Friend via Email

Your suggestion is on its way!

An email with a link to:


was emailed to:

Thanks for sharing About.com with others!

Joanne Fritz

What Stories Can and Cannot Do for Our Causes

By October 1, 2013

Follow me on:

Story telling is crucial to fundraising.We are bombarded daily with advice about storytelling. And indeed it is the key to effective nonprofit communications and fundraising.

But just how does it work? And is it a silver bullet?

This blog post on "The Science of Storytelling" explains, from the brain's point of view, why storytelling works. Leo Widrich, writing for the Buffer blog, summarizes the brain research that confirms just how important telling stories is.

Here are just a few of the points in Leo's post:

  • Telling stories is a very old habit of humans. Way before we had anything like statistics, much less Powerpoint and infographics, we were telling stories. In fact, 65 percent of all human communications is made up of stories and gossip. We really don't communicate well at all without our stories.

  • Stories literally light up our brains. A PowerPoint presentation with bullet points only lights up the language processing part of our brains. Nothing much beyond that happens. But stories activate the parts of the brain that we would use if we actually experienced the events of the story. We "relive" the story in our heads.

  • Stories syncronize our brains! Yes, the brains of storyteller and listener actually start working together. Research has found that when a storyteller's brain had activity in the parts of her brain that controlled emotion, the brains of her listeners lit up in the same areas. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did those of the listeners.

  • Stories are the universal language of our brains. Stories work so well because they are narratives, where one thing leads to or causes another. And that is the way we think all day long. We create little stories for everything we do. When I'm choosing my veggies at the grocery store, my brain is running a little video of the salad I'll be eating for dinner.

  • We adopt the stories we hear as our own. We may even think that a story was really our's. That's how you can actually plant ideas in other people's heads. Instead of telling people what they ought to do, tell a story that has an outcome that you want. People are much more likely to end up doing that very thing.

  • Simple stories work. Simple stories are "stickier" than complicated ones. We don't need fancy words and complicated techniques. Tell it straight but with feeling. Use plain language. If you need a model, listen to Garrison Keillor tell his stories about Lake Woebegon.

  • Cliches don't work. Overused words lose their impact and simply don't light up the brain any more. Keep your language fresh and original.

Those are just a few things we know about brains and stories.

But, unfortunately, stories are not silver bullets.

I was intrigued by a slide deck from Julie Campbell. It's titled, "Nonprofit Storytelling In A Digital World." One slide explained what storytelling will not do.

For instance, it won't:

  • Fix bad management
  • Correct lousy programs or services
  • Take the place of other ways of fundraising such as as asking directly and meeting with donors one-on-one

Storytelling, Julie points out, augments all the other things fundraisers do. It's not a substitute, but I'm thinking it is the centerpiece.

Do read Leo's post in full, and click through Julie's slides for all of their ideas and tips.

Read more:

  • Storytelling Important in Crowdfunding
  • How to Dramatize Your Cause
  • The Darker Side of Our Brains
  • The Science of Giving

    Photo: Jasper White/Getty Images

    Please join me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

  • Comments

    October 2, 2013 at 8:18 pm
    (1) Mark says:

    That’s a good look at the bigger picture Joanne. Storytelling certainly has its merits and it is important to “sell the sizzle”. A resilient organization is representative of the steak grilling under the hood. Without it, a story loses its substance and there is no sizzle. Thanks for the “well done” post.

    October 2, 2013 at 9:13 pm
    (2) Claire Axelrad (@CharityClairity) says:

    Great article. We should never underestimate the power of storytelling. Too many nonprofits try to persuade people with facts. Guess what? This doesn’t work well. Feelings first, facts later. There are no exceptions to the rule that we must awaken the heart to arouse the mind. We have to move someone emotionally before they’ll take in information – or act. We can’t spout information until we touch the heart. Speak to the soul so the facts have a fighting chance.

    October 3, 2013 at 11:35 am
    (3) Mark C. Titi @MultiplyingGood says:

    I agree that developing an emotional connection should come first Claire. The problem that can occur is with the next step. When an organization doesn’t have its own house in order (as in the examples from Julie Campbell), it will struggle in presenting the facts. Sometimes building a resilient nonprofit takes a back seat to frantically finding as much funding as quickly as possible. That can weaken the nonprofit value proposition and make it harder for the donor to connect the dots.

    October 3, 2013 at 11:51 am
    (4) Julia Campbell says:

    Thanks for including my slides, Joanne! I appreciate it, and I love this blog post. I firmly believe that storytelling is the center of all nonprofit communications, but like everything else, there are limitations on it’s magic!

    Leave a Comment

    Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

    ©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.