Think of any time you’ve been relaxing with a group of friends or family, talking and laughing together. Inevitably someone tells a story, maybe humorous or suspenseful or sad. As they talked, you wore their shoes, understood them better and became closer as a group. We’ve all experienced the power of narrative even if we didn’t notice it at the time. But if you understand how stories capture attention and draw others in, you can use them to attract and motivate major contributors.
Why Story Makes a Difference
As soon as early humans had language, they started telling stories. Anthropologists speculate they helped us learn from others. Tales of danger would teach people to take precautions while reports of a newly discovered food source would motivate them to seek it out. From those earliest days, story has been central to our culture.
Stories build community.
When we hear or read someone’s personal history, we put ourselves in it and imagine the feelings and actions of the narrator. It becomes a kind of shared experience that brings us together.
In fact, recent neurological research indicates that stories trigger better self-awareness and empathy for others. So when we trade anecdotes, we invite people to better understand us and themselves, and in doing so, we build communities.
Our brains love stories.
Neurological studies have found that narratives activate more parts of the brain than other types of communications. They light up neural areas associated with language, emotion, senses and spatial relations.
With all this brain activity, it’s no wonder we pay rapt attention to a good yarn. In fact, according to research at Stanford University, we remember the details of a narrative up to 22 times better than plain data.
The story of one child who’s saved from starvation makes a greater impact than a study about food insecurity affecting millions. If you want a potential donor to remember something, spin it into a tale.
Stories motivate us to act.
When hearing a story, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that prompts us to seek out perceived rewards, such as good feelings from helping people. In other words, narratives move us to action. For example, every year 250,000 people post their personal stories and requests for help on GoFundMe, raising $650 million collectively.
How to Harness the Power of Story for Major Gifts
Stories can help at every point on the donor journey. They’re most powerful when well-constructed, aligned with donor values, and make one clear point, such as how a major gift can change someone’s life forever.
Structure the story well.
Every story needs to have a strong narrative structure to capture attention. You have to introduce the “characters,” such as someone who benefited from your work, and describe their traits so listeners will connect with them. Provide background and personal details to fill out the picture.
The suspense of a story comes from a relatable character, such as a fun-loving little girl or boy, facing an insurmountable obstacle, such as surviving in a war-torn village or fighting cancer. People need to know how it turns out; they want the child to live happily ever after.
A good story resolves the tension with a triumphant ending, in which the main character beats the odds with support from your organization. Explain in detail how you helped solve the problem, focusing on feelings and impact, not numbers. If the story took place in the past, give an updated account of how the characters are doing today to emphasize the lasting effects of your work.
Select the right story for the right audience.
Stories have the most impact when they align with the prospect’s personal goals and values. For example, do they love the hero feeling of helping others? If so, describe how previous major donors got involved and made a difference. Or if they want to memorialize a loved one, tell them how people have been honored through your work.
When planning a prospect meeting, check your donor portfolio management system for clues about what experience or background first interested them in your cause. Then you can select the best stories to share.
Select the right story for the right goal.
Before talking with a prospect, think about where that person is on the donor journey and the next step you’d like them to take. What anecdotes would most captivate and motivate them?
If you’re still building a relationship, use stories that illustrate your organization’s values, how you operate and who benefits from your work. These tales bring prospects closer to your community.
If someone is close to making a large gift, use stories that address their prime motivation and encourage action. You can ask directly for a donation with a narrative that has no resolution yet, encouraging donors to take action and author the happy ending.
Use a moves management solution to note which stories you shared at each point and whether they encouraged patrons to give. Over time, you’ll get a picture of how best to leverage stories for your goals.
How to Make Storytelling Part of Your Organization
To put stories to work in your group, make them a part of the process and culture, including everyone from the president to front-line fundraisers.
Build a living library.
Collect and record testimonials and tales of triumph on a regular basis. Interview people you’ve helped as well as other major donors so you can share their experiences in their words.
Make stories required knowledge.
With a growing collection of anecdotes, ensure every gift officer knows the minute details of each one by heart, including the time and place, background on people involved and their current status. If the story captures a prospect’s attention, they’ll ask questions, wanting to know more, and gift officers need to have the details.
Help each other learn the narratives and hone your skills. Tell stories in group meetings, practice with each other and plan together how you’ll use them strategically with your portfolio.
Put stories everywhere.
Don’t confine your tales to meetings with potential major gifts donors. Use them to attract smaller donations and future major contributors by adding them to the website, newsletters, event agendas and campaign letters.
Even if you have a few good chestnuts you pull out regularly, you’re not realizing the benefits of story until it’s part of everything your organization does. Stories connect people and people together can do great things – which is what your work is all about.