[VIDEO] Storytelling To Help Donors Understand the Value of their Dollar

Rachel Clemens and Jarrett Way will examine how best to find, tell, and share your nonprofit organization’s stories so that you can showcase your impact in both humble and grand ways, with a special focus on online communication.

Full Transcript:

Steven: All right. Rachel, Jarrett, okay if I go ahead and get this party started?

Jarrett: Let’s do it.

Steven: Awesome. Cool. Well, welcome, everybody. Good afternoon, if you’re on the East Coast. Good morning, I guess just barely, if you’re on the West Coast. And if you’re watching the recording, I hope you’re having a good day no matter where and when you are. We are here to talk about storytelling. We’re going to talk about how to help donors understand the value of their dollar that they are giving to your nonprofits. Storytelling. This is going to be a good one. I’m so excited.

I’m Steven. I’m over here at Bloomerang, and I’ll be moderating today’s discussion as always. And just some quick housekeeping items. Just want to let you all know that we are recording this session. So, if you have to leave early, maybe you get interrupted or you’ve got another meeting or maybe a toddler interrupts you or something like that, don’t worry. We will get that recording to you later on today. We’ll send you the slides, all the resources. You won’t miss a thing, I promise. Just be on the lookout for an email from me later on this afternoon.

But most importantly, we’d love to hear from you over the next hour or so we’re going to try to say some time for Q&A at the end. So don’t be shy. Don’t sit on those hands. There’s a chat box and a Q&A box. You can use either of those, no problem. We’ll keep an eye on both. But we’ll try to get to just as many questions as we can before the 3:00 Eastern hour. If we don’t get to your question, we still love you. We’re not playing favorites. Maybe we can connect with you afterwards.

Send us a tweet. We’ll keep an eye on the Twitter feed as well. But bottom line is we’d love to hear from you. And if this is your first Bloomerang webinar, welcome. We do these webinars every Thursday. We love doing these webinars. This is our ninth year. I think we’re over 500 sessions. Wow. I’ve learned a lot. It’s been very lucky for me to be able to listen in on those. And it’s nice to see some returning names. I know a lot of you have been watching these webinars.

But if you’re new, if you’ve never heard of Bloomerang, in addition to these webinars, we are a provider of donor management software. That’s kind of our core thing. So, if you are interested in that or maybe you’re going to be shopping for software or just curious, check out our website. There is a ton of stuff that you can watch, download and, you know, get to know us a little bit more. But don’t do that right now. Wait until a little bit later on this afternoon because . . .

I hope you all took your vitamins this morning because your brain is going to get a workout here, I promise you, over the next hour or so. Very pleased to be welcoming back two good friends of the program. We’ve got Rachel and Jarrett joining us from Mighty Citizen, down in beautiful Austin, Texas. Rachel, Jarrett, how you doing? You doing okay?

Rachel: Doing good. Doing great.

Jarrett: Doing great. Thanks, Steven.

Steven: I love it. It’s great to have you two. We’ve been chit-chatting. Some of you got to listen to that, so sorry if we were too dorky. But, wow. Rachel . . .

Rachel: Speak for yourself, Steven.

Steven: Yeah. I love it. Rachel and Jarrett, they’ve both been on the webinar series independently, but they’re teaming up. And I was telling them before that I always get really good feedback from their sessions and I could see people’s kind of heads exploding in the chat during their presentations. And that’s when it was just one of them. But now they’re going to do it together, so you all are really in for a treat.

Two of the smartest people I know in the business, particularly when it comes to digital storytelling. Check out Mighty Citizen. They do really good work. We’ve got some mutual customers. I can vouch for the great stuff they do. It’s a major, major brand names that they’re helping out as well as our favorite small and medium-sized nonprofits that we love too. Rachel, over there, she’s the Chief Marketing Officer.

Jarrett, a writer by trade. Just amazing mind. I was bragging on you, Jarrett, last week when I was intro or promoing this one, that you really gave my brain a workout when we were talking about neuroscience last time. But, wow, I’m excited. And I’ve taken up way too much time away from you two. So I’m going to let you bring up the slides, I think, Rachel.

Rachel: Yeah.

Steven: So I’ll stop sharing.

Rachel: Do that right now.

Steven: And we’ll let you . . . It’s always a fun transition.

Rachel: Okay.

Steven: Okay.

Rachel: Does that look good?

Steven: I think it is working. Yeah. Take it away, my friend.

Rachel: Okay. Well, thank you, Steven. It’s always a treat to do a webinar with you and we love Bloomerang. So thank you so much. We’re going to talk about storytelling today, specifically, storytelling for impact. So helping our donors understand the value of their dollar. We’re going to start with a hypothetical auction. Those of you that have done silent auctions might recognize this a little bit. I’m going to show you three items and I want you to use the chat box, which hopefully you’re familiar with now, and tell me how much you would pay for each of the items.

So the first item, let me get over to the right place here, is this jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise. It’s tiny. It’s kind of yellowing. Put in the chat how much you would pay for it. It’s those little mayonnaise jars that you get at the fancy hotel when you order. Okay. So people are saying $1, 50 cents. Somebody said, “Gross. Nothing.” Yeah, I want to say the photo is making it look yellow, but who really knows? Okay. So we’ve established, very little for this mayonnaise.

Second item. It’s a Peace & Love teddy bear. Perfect for all the Grateful Dead fans in your life. I’m seeing $1, $2, pass. $5. Somebody said $5. Okay. Okay. Third item, the world’s saddest egg whisk. He does not want to whisk his friends, his cousins. Oh, $10. Love it. Okay. Okay. So the egg whisk wins for the highest amount you would pay. Okay. So why would I be showing you these items? In 2009, a journalist bought 200 items, which he calls insignificant objects, on eBay. And he bought 200 items for $250. So very cheap for each one.

He then asked 200 writers to write a story for each of the items. So, basically, one writer per story. He then put all of those 200 items back up for sale on eBay and they sold for $8,000. $8,000, y’all. Whoa. Now, before you run off and start a new job at eBay or, like, start a new career, Jarrett and I are going to spend the next 60 minutes walking you through how he took these objects from insignificant to significant. Because clearly, you know, they went from not costing very much to cost them quite a bit more.

Now, if you’re curious how much each of those items sold for, believe it or not, the Hellman’s mayonnaise was the winner. It cost $51 at the end. $25 for the Peace & Love teddy bear, and $30 for the egg whisk. If you’re curious about this story and this experiment or want to read some of these stories, they’re available at insignificant . . . Oh, sorry. I have a note here that says I hope that’s accurate. If it’s not there, then maybe it’s at insignificantobjects. I think it’s

Okay. So there’s a lot of conversation around storytelling. We’re going to talk about storytelling today. We’re not going to talk about tips and tricks so much as, like, really understanding how to get stories to stick in the minds of your audiences so that they remember them and think of you. Anthony de Mello says, “The shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.” And this is really important. It reminds us that we are human beings telling human stories to other humans.

It’s really easy, especially it feels like right now, to discount people or get stuck in, like, numbers and scale and click-through rates and bounce rates. But in the end, we’re writing human stories about humans for other humans. And we are emotional creatures, which Jarrett’s going to talk more about. But that’s how we, you know, we’ve been telling stories for thousands of years. So, by the end of this session today, you will be able to articulate why stories are so powerful. I feel like we’ve done that.

Yes, the story. So the story . . . I see some questions in the chat. The stories were about the objects, and many of them personified the objects, for example. So gave them personalities or characters. We’re also going to find good stories within your organization, talk about how to source those, where to go for those, identifying what makes a good story. So we’re going to talk about plot twists and things like that. And then we’ll also take a look at some examples of really good storytelling, especially in the digital realm, since so many of us are having to do that right now.

So I’m Rachel Clemens. I’m the CMO of Mighty Citizen. If you guys are not familiar with Mighty Citizen, we offer branding, digital, and marketing services for mission-driven organizations, primarily nonprofits, associations, higher ed, and government. And so we help our clients increase their revenue, boost their awareness, and improve their communities. And we do that through all kinds of different outlets. I’m joined today by Jarrett, who is my partner in crime at Mighty Citizen. Jarrett, do you want to introduce yourself?

Jarrett: Our mighty oh marketing team, Rachel.

Rachel: That’s right.

Jarrett: Hey, everyone. My name is Jarrett Way. Thanks for joining us today. Again, I’m the Marketing Manager here at Mighty Citizen down in beautiful Austin, Texas. A strength of mine is building connections through stories and storytelling. I love storytelling. I really enjoying writing and telling stories. I love telling the story of Mighty Citizen and I love helping mission-driven organizations tell their stories. A weakness of mine is breakfast tacos. Never met a breakfast taco I didn’t like, so. And Rachel can definitely attest to that. Rachel, I was laughing really hard because whenever you put up that mayonnaise, someone said, “You’d have to pay me.”

Rachel: I feel the same way about mayonnaise. I’m not a mayonnaise fan.

Jarrett: But today, I want to start off just by talking about three unsolicited opinions on stories told by nonprofit organizations. So I have three opinions that I want to share with you today. The first up is, opinion number one is that nonprofits don’t tell enough stories. So I, before this presentation, took an informal poll of all of my coworkers, the great team at Mighty Citizen, and I asked them to name the first nonprofit that they thought of. And here pictured are the nine that they listed, the first nine.

And you can see that it includes a mix of national and local organizations. So you can see, you know, American Cancer Society, Ronald McDonald House Charities, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, some really noticeable nonprofit names. So, of these nine nonprofit organizations, only four of them had stories front and center on their website. Four of them had no stories, front and center, on their website and one of them had one story buried at least one page deep into their website.

So, for all intents and purposes, we’ll say that four and a half of these nine nonprofit organizations had stories somewhere accessible on their websites. And these are all wonderful, important nonprofits doing really good work, but only half of them talk almost solely in these claims and these stats and these big ideas and they aren’t telling stories and they aren’t putting the stories front and center on their website. So, just generally, I wish, my wish for nonprofits everywhere is that they spent the vast majority of their public-facing fundraising efforts finding and telling stories.

My second opinion, nonprofits too often substitute data and claim-making for storytelling. So nonprofits are increasingly good at collecting and sharing data, right? So whether that’s in the form of an infographic or an annual report, statistics sprinkled across your fundraising emails, anything like that, the thing is all that data, it isn’t the whole story, right? Data does not tell the whole story. It doesn’t have any sort of relatable hero for your audiences, right?

And what’s worse than that is publishing infographics and data that don’t have any sort of context, right? They don’t help the prospective or the current donor understand why the numbers that you’re showing them even matter in the first place.

So I’m going to give you a good example of [so when 00:12:20] I really broke it down. And this is a great example from the Austin American-Statesman right here in Austin. And it’s from May 2015. It’s our newspaper. And if anyone was in Austin in May 2015 or knows someone who was, you probably heard that it rained a ton in May 2015 in Austin. Specifically, it rained 35 trillion gallons of water in Austin in May of 2015. And that is a lot of rain, but the average person just cannot conceptualize, right, the sheer amount that is 35 trillion gallons of water. So the Austin American-Statesman did a really great job of using these infographics to kind of break it down so that their readers could really conceptualize it.

So you see on the left, 35 trillion gallons of water is enough to cover the entire state of Texas in eight inches of water. On the right, it’s enough to supply the entire world’s population with 10,000 days of water if everyone drank eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day. And they could have even gone a step further here because 10,000 days, that’s not that great. That’s not that easy for everyone to conceptualize. That’s 27 years, by the way. So I’m going to talk a little bit about claim-making, like I said.

So, as marketers and communicators, we often make claims, right? We say, you know, “We do X. We’re known for doing X, Y, and Z.” We make these claims about our organizations. For example, you might say, “Last year, we helped this many students,” or, “We created this many programs,” or, “This many people signed up.” And while claim-making is part of the equation, I often see organizations try to use it to stand in as some sort of persuasive communication, right? And that’s just not the case.

Because when you’re making claims, you’re doing the opposite, really. It’s not particularly persuasive at all. When you make a claim, in fact, you’re asking your audience to argue with you, right? You’re not necessarily asking them to disagree with you, but you’re asking their brains to fire up their rational functions, just by making a claim. We know that people don’t tend to react to something as much when they are firing off with logic. What we want them to do is to fire off with emotion, right? So, whenever you make a claim, you’re almost literally inviting them in to challenge what you’re saying. And that’s not where you want your audiences to be.

Now, a little bit on storytelling. In storytelling, you want to take your audiences, your readers, your users, whatever, on a journey. You want them to see your perspective, why you care so much about your organization and your mission. When you tell your story, you’re creating this kind of simulation in your audience’s brain, right?

The human mind is wonderful. It’s crazy. Steven was talking about that whole presentation I gave on the human mind. But the one thing to remember about it is that it is a simulation machine. So, when you tell a story, whoever hears or read said story cannot help but recreate it in their mind. So every time you tell a story about your organization, you’re painting this vivid picture about who you are and what you do for anyone who reads or hears it.

My last opinion, opinion number three. When nonprofits do tell stories, stories often seem to repeat themselves. Now, the point I want to make overall and overwhelmingly about this is that this is a very, very normal challenge for marketers and communicators. For example, if you are a nonprofit that provides equitable education to children maybe, then you might often find yourself telling the same story over and over. It’s the same kind of flow, right? “Michael was a third-grader who attended a public school that didn’t have the same equitable access as other schools. And we stepped in. We helped. He thrived. And now he’s doing well.”

Or maybe, “Sandra was a citizen advocate and she fought for policy change and she drove changes for her neighborhood school. And today, children are getting the education they deserve.” You’re telling the same types of stories over and over and over. And what I say to that is that if you feel like you’re saying the same things over and over and over, one thing that Rachel and I always say is that your audiences, the people who you interact with, are not thinking about you nearly as much as you are thinking about you.

Think about it this way, here’s the deal. You spend 40 hours a week, at least, at least, some of you much more than that, running these teams to produce this content, to talk about your story, absolutely entrenched in what your organization is doing. You think about your organization all of the time. Your audiences, the individuals that you’re trying to reach, they’re not thinking about you even a fraction of that much. So, if you feel like you’re saying something too much, you could probably stand to say even more. I’m here to tell you that. And I’ll turn it back over to Rachel. So there you are . . .

Rachel: I lost the little bar there, that’s me and you. I was like, “Where is it?” Okay. So Jarrett teed that up really nicely for me, because we’re going to be talking about how you can identify good stories in your organization. And the first thing to note, just to put out there, which is exactly what Jarrett just did, is finding those stories and understanding that you have a curse of knowledge. So Jarrett mentioned this. And basically, that says that once you know something, it’s near impossible to imagine what it’s like not to know it.

So, again, you’re living and breathing your organization. You are in the work. And they just don’t think about you like you do. You know all the jargon, but of course, there’s this huge gap between what you know and what your organization knows, or sorry, what’s your audiences know about you. Jarrett and I, often, we edit each other’s work, which is always a good practice, but sometimes our comments will be like, “This feels like curse of knowledge.” Meaning, back up and explain this a little bit more because I noticed that we’re talking about it as if they automatically know what we’re talking about.

So just keep that in mind that, you know, when you’re sharing information, it is colored with your own experience. I’ll give you an example of this. Oh, come on. Okay. So I donated to an organization probably over the summer and I got this email from them. And at the top, or as part of the email, it says, “Rachel, I know you, a dedicated member of our Compass Collective, are right there with us, supporting refugees during this pandemic.” And I was reading the email and I was like, “Compass Collective? What is this?”

It sounds like I’m a part of it but I don’t even know what it is. It turns out that my donation put me into an affinity group, which they had mailed me some information about but I had not received the mail piece yet, but they just assumed that I knew what the Compass Collective was. And as far as I know, I didn’t get any communications about it. So just keep in mind that sometimes you know things that your audience doesn’t quite know yet.

Now, when you’re thinking about what kind of stories to tell, there are certain plots that never fail. So I’m going to give you three of them. We’re going to talk about them. And just think about your organization as I run through these.

The first is David and Goliath. This is the classic plot. It’s one that is used a lot in nonprofit storytelling. It’s really common. This is the underdogs, the rags to riches, the sheer triumph over, you know, excruciating power. And this tells us the story of someone who’s overcome incredible odds to win the day. Most nonprofits have some of these stories. Certainly, you might look at your client stories, volunteer stories, and see how they may be the David and what your Goliath or who your Goliath is. It’s not always a person. So keep that in mind. And these are probably, like, immediately, you’re probably like, “Okay, we’ve got some of those stories.”

The next one is the odd couples. And I love these because they’re the two things you would never put together. It’s kind of like how you can watch a kitten riding a turtle’s back on YouTube for, like, five minutes because it’s just so cute and it’s like, “What is happening?” There’s one video of a pig rescuing a goat that I was so in love with. The goat fell in the water and the pig went and rescued it. And then I found out it was fake. I was so sad. I still watch it when it comes up in my memories on Facebook because it’s so cute. But anyway, I divert.

Odd couples plot shows how a massive gap is being bridged. And so that gap is usually how two people are coming together. And they may not seemingly fit together. So they might have social, economic, cultural, ethnic, generational, or geographical differences and yet they have . . . there are forces that have come together to achieve more than they could on their own. So this is often a story of two maybe seemingly surprising efforts or causes or organizations or people that come together to make great change. So maybe you got volunteers again. Maybe you’ve got . . . Maybe it’s a public-private kind of situation. So just think about, with your org, do you have some odd couples?

The next plot is the “MacGyver” plot. I’m pretty sure everybody knows that “MacGyver” was a TV show in the ’90s. And he was a kind of guy, he was kind of like a James Bond character and he would solve problems for the government. And he could make do with, like, very limited resources. Like, he could basically build a bomb with toothpaste and a paperclip.

There was a “MacGruber” skit, for the younger ones [inaudible 00:21:29] on “SNL.” I think Jarrett always says, “Oh, yeah, MacGruber.” So this plot is really about someone making a mental breakthrough or having an innovation, or solving a longstanding puzzle. They’re often inventing new rules or bucking the system or fighting the status quo. Lots of times, people find these stories really compelling. Especially if you’re an organization that’s doing things differently than other organizations in your space or maybe you’re fighting this giant, you know, issue, then you probably have some good MacGyver stories.

Now, these are the three plots that I want you to think about within your organization. And you can use them over and over again and just change up the details. So most people won’t realize you’re telling a MacGyver plot over and over again. They’re just going to remember the details from the story. So, as long as you switch that up, it should be pretty good.

Okay. How do you collect these stories within your organization? So I’m going to assume that each week, it may be each month, you have a staff meeting. I want you to see if you can carve out five minutes in that staff meeting each week or month to ask your staff members, “Whom did we turn away this week? Was there someone that we were not able to help for whatever reason? Was it a lack of funds and fundraising would help? You know, what’s getting in our way? And tell me their stories. Was it a person, a school? Who are you not serving and why?”

Ask them, “Who’s your favorite client?” So there’s people that you just love in your organization. They bring a lot of energy. They have interesting stories. What’s their backstory? So, you know, do they have something interesting to share with your audiences? Why do they stick out in your mind? It could be a volunteer. It could be a client. It could be a number of people.

And then, lastly, who can’t you get out of your mind? Maybe it’s a squeaky wheel, maybe it’s a, you know, a particular person, maybe it’s someone that you couldn’t help. Who do you find yourself thinking of over and over again?

So ask this of your staff. And then you’re going to need to, like, you know, get together with them to get more of the story. Because, again, you don’t want to take up too much time in the meeting. I will often recommend too that your fundraising, the head of fundraising and the head of communications, if they’re not the same person, that that person takes or those people take your programs, head of programs, out to lunch when you can do that again, or, you know, in a virtual meeting.

Meet with them, like, once a month, and just get a little bit more detail on some of the client stories and what’s happening in their world. Because we can be a little bit removed from the day-to-day. And so that’s a good idea to, you know, kind of get them together.

I have to mention ethics in storytelling. You know, we could do probably a whole session on this. But it is important to make sure that your hero, the person that your story is about, has a say in the story and what is happening around their photos. So you should consider them a contributor and an editor to the story. That includes captions. Making sure that you have captions in place so that people have a better context for what’s happening in the imagery that you’re showing and aren’t just kind of coming and fielding their own impressions. And so I have some additional resources for you guys around ethics in storytelling. And these are straight from other nonprofits who have established kind of resources for how they treat ethics in storytelling.

The first is Save the Children’s “The People in the Pictures.” This is a download. We’re going to share these slides. So you’ll be able to click to that and get their PDF. And then, also Dochas, out of Ireland, their Code of Conduct on Images and Messages. I’m going to hand it back over to Jarrett to tell us what makes for a good story.

Jarrett: Thank you, Rachel. So what does make for a good story? It’s four things. Sorry, let me get situated. Four things. So we have, first, a hero. Secondly, a guide. Third, we have readability. And we have emotions. So let me just go through these. Before we go into hero, I wanted to make this point that not every story needs a villain, but your stories absolutely need a villain. And villains can take many different forms. It can literally be a person or it can be something structural or a systemic problem. It can be history. It can be the way things are, like, the status quo. It can be the weather, your villain.

But for most of us, our villains are usually apathetic. It’s this lack of concern, right? It’s a lack of concern around the very mission that you are so passionate about. And we tell stories because we want people to be understanding of something or to engage or to sign up or donate or join or whatever, or volunteer. If we, as organizations, can make this connection between our stories and something greater than that, then they become something that’s much more effective as a persuasive tactic.

So, like I said, every story needs a hero. And a hero is the person who’s driving that positive change. Right? So I want to hear from all of you in the chat box, who is the hero of the stories that your organization tells? Who is a hero of the stories that your organization tells? Give you just a few seconds. Great answers, everyone. I love to see it. No one is saying what I don’t want them to say. All right. So you are never the hero. Your organization is never the hero.

Now, it’s our nature to cast organizations as a hero. But the reality is, everyone, that’s difficult for your readers to relate to an organization. But they can relate to a person. Right? So, if the person that you serve is the hero, then how does your organization show up in this story that you’re telling, right? Well, in every great hero story, that hero has a guide. So “Star Wars” fans that might be on the presentation, who is a hero here? It’s Luke Skywalker, right? But who would he be lost without? Who is Luke Skywalker’s guide? That’s Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Another example. For you “Harry Potter” fans out there, who is the hero in “Harry Potter?” It’s right there. So that’s Harry Potter. And who is the guide in “Harry Potter?” And that is Albus Dumbledore. Absolutely.

So the third thing I said, on the list of four, was readability, right? And the reality is that many of your stories will be written down. And that means that they have to be readable. Now, something that I learned pretty early in my career that is still a shocking fact to me is the simple fact that the average American adult reads at a certain grade level, and that grade level is an eighth-grade grade level. Which means that over 50% of adults can’t comprehend or read a book written at or above an eighth-grade grade level. So to give you some examples of books at an eighth-grade grade level are “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and “The Firm” by John Grisham, just to give you two examples. And “The Firm” is a fantastic movie starring Tom Cruise, based in Memphis, Tennessee. You should watch it if you haven’t.

Rachel: I want to add, Jarrett, that the chat, people were getting this one, for sure. Normally, we see like 10th grade, 12th grade. People nailed it with, like, fifth grade, fifth to eighth grade, and things like that. So that’s great.

Jarrett: Yeah. I think it is something that is starting to become a little more common knowledge. But as marketers and communicators for mission-driven organizations that tell stories, it’s something that you have to be aware of. Because if you’re writing it, you’re doing yourself a disservice if half the people that you want to read it aren’t getting, you know, the full experience, but you could just write it at a lower grade level. Which brings me to my next point about readability scores and how to reduce the readability level of your story.

So there are a few ways to reduce readability. And the very first one is the most effective, in my opinion as a copy editor, and that is to shorten your sentences. The easiest way to quickly lower the readability of anything you write is to shorten your sentences. And you might find in your writing style that you often use longer sentences. And that’s something that you can be aware of as you move on.

Secondly, is to shorten the length of your words. So, if you use a lot of words with more than three syllables, three or more syllables, that works against you for most readability scores.

Third, is to add more paragraphs, right? So this is just simply the way that the copy looks on the page, right? If someone is reading it, if it’s broken up with more paragraph breaks, that automatically makes it a little bit more readable.

Next is to add more textural interest. So, if you are building, you know, these stories in your CMS or wherever you publish them, if you have the opportunity to add some treatments like pull quotes or relevant images or lists, you should absolutely do it, because that helps, again, just like with the paragraph breaks, it helps make it more readable on the page, the way it looks.

Either way, one really great tool that we use at Mighty Citizen for readability is called We are not paid whatsoever to say this. I just love it because I use it daily, every time I write something really, just to make sure that it meets the grade level that we want it at, or it’s eighth-grade below that. So is a great tool. There is a free version where you can put in just a little excerpt of your full body copy just to see how you’re doing.

So moving on to storytelling, I want to make this point. Humans do not act without emotions. And there are four major human emotions, and that is glad, sad, mad, and then for the sake of rhyming, afrad, or afraid. I always laugh at that.

Rachel: Not a typo.

Jarrett: And so these are the four major human emotions. And of course, there are other emotions that humans feel, but they’re all typically shades or combinations of two or more of these four. So which of these is the most compelling in your storytelling in eliciting, you know, a reaction from your target audiences? That’s fear. Fear is the biggest motivator, with mad following behind. If people are afraid, they tend to act. And that is not me at all saying to you to . . . I’m not trying to encourage anyone to be manipulative here, right?

You don’t need to create any fear where there isn’t any. We have plenty of that in the world right now. But you do want to acknowledge fear, if it exists. And if you’re able to help dispel some of it as an organization, you absolutely should do that.

Let me give you an example. So this ad you see is from the Truth campaign. You probably recognized it in the early ’90s. It’s been around for at least two decades now. And they focus on a really emotional message around teen smoking, anti-teen smoking rather. And this particular campaign leans a little bit on that fear and anger I was talking about. It leans on that emotion to get people to act or to not act and to not start smoking. And this particular campaign, with the Truth Initiative, you might remember this ad. They rolled up this big white van to Phillip Morris headquarters, the front steps, you know, big tobacco, and they start unloading these body bags onto those steps. And it was essentially a message saying this is how many people your products kill, I think it was per day, just trying to make that statement. Clearly, a very calculated, emotional message that they were trying to get out. And again, that’s from the Truth Initiative.

So now we have this other campaign that started around the same time as you started the TV’s Truth Initiative campaigns. And this one was called “Think. Don’t smoke.” Now, this campaign is an ad, again, against teen smoking. And in this campaign, there is a teen smoking a cigarette. Another teen comes up and says, “Hey, man, that’s not cool. Smoking makes your breath stink and it makes your teeth yellow.”

So this campaign, as opposed to the more emotional one, was much more logical, right? It’s simply stating, “If you smoke, X, Y, and Z will happen to you.” By the way, this campaign was run by Phillip Morris. They were forced to run an anti-teen smoking ad when they lost this big high-profile lawsuit back in the ’90s. So why the heck would big tobacco Philip Morris run a campaign against teen smoking and quite literally say, “Think. Don’t smoke,” in this campaign? Well, let me show you the conversion rates of both of these campaigns.

In these examples, again, we have this emotional campaign on the left from the Truth Initiative and this very logical one on the right, “Think. Don’t smoke.” Teens only exposed to the Truth campaign were 66% less likely to smoke and the teens only exposed to the logical campaign on the right were 36% more likely to smoke. Now, is there a causation? It’s hard to say. But did Phillip Morris intend to get more teens to smoke with their campaign? I’ll leave that to you to decide.

But what we do know is that an emotional campaign succeeded in its efforts where a logical one didn’t. And that is the power of these two different ways of thinking, emotional versus logical, that your audiences [will be in 00:35:21]. And Rachel, I will turn it back over to you.

Rachel: Yeah. All right. So let’s take a look at who is doing it well. The first example is from Charity: water. It’s kind of a cheat to share Charity: water because they’re so good at everything they do, but one of the things that they do really well that maybe doesn’t get noticed as much is that they share stories on their website. In fact, they have a whole section on stories, that’s full of stories. And so they do a great job of sharing how, you know, creating a well in a village does more than just give people clean water.

So this is the story of Natalia. And she lives in a village. And one of her jobs, as part of the family, is to go collect water. And so, previously, she was having to, you know, walk miles every day, go get the water, and walk miles back. And because of that, she was missing school a lot. So Charity: water came in and put the well into her village. And now, because it is so easy to get that water, she is able to attend school. She actually ends up becoming the head of her village, which as a 15-year-old girl, is absolutely amazing. But they tell her story here.

And one of the things I love about this story is that it has a call to action that goes along with it. And you can see that in the bottom left. For each of the stories that they tell on Charity: water, there is a “DONATE NOW” and a “SEE ALL STORIES” and some share buttons so you can share them on Twitter. A lot of times, we’ll share stories, and they’re great, but there’s not always an immediate action that comes along with it. And so we want to give people the option to donate when we share our stories as well.

This is a campaign for WATERisLIFE. It’s actually a Twitter campaign, Twitter fundraising campaign, which are not, it’s not a phrase you hear very often. I don’t recommend going out and trying to raise money on Twitter. However, they did something really unique and that’s why it worked. So they took a common hashtag, #FirstWorldProblems, if you’re familiar with that hashtag, and they took actual tweets that used that hashtag and juxtaposed that with images from the field. So out in the work that they’re doing. So I’ll give you an example of this.

This one reads, “Sat in the front row of the movie theater and now my neck is sore. #FirstWorldProblems. Clearly, not really a problem in the scope of the world. And so they use that to juxtapose against this woman who was wearing, or not wearing, carrying lots of chickens on her head. And the call to action reads “Donate to help solve real problems. WATERisLIFE.” Another example from the same campaign, “My son got the wrong toy in his happy mail. #FirstWorldProblems.” And then again, the call to action, to donate to real problems.

And they also did a video. I’m not going to play it for you, but you can check it out on YouTube. And they had people out in the field, again, reading real-world tweets using this hashtag. So this one says, “I hate it when my house is big, I need two wireless routers.” And clearly, he’s standing in front of a home that is not too big. And so, with this campaign, they were able to raise over $1 million during a three-month campaign and had 7 million-plus views on YouTube.

Again, I would not necessarily go out and run a Twitter campaign, but what works here, from a storytelling perspective, is they’re taking something that is very common and understood in one context and twisting it to tell their stories through visuals only in another context. So very interesting.

This is an example from the Equal Justice Initiative. They do a great job with storytelling. This is the story of Joe Sullivan. He committed a non-homicide offense when he was 13 and sentenced to life in prison. And with EJI’s help, he was released from prison after 25 years.

So this is on their website. And you’re seeing a repeat, so you can see the full length of the article here. But what you’ll notice about their story and what they’re doing from a great storytelling perspective, the copywriting is really good, but also notice how much content is there about Joe. And then EJI’s work, their part of the story, is a much smaller piece at the very end. So they’re giving the weight to Joe’s story, making him the hero, and then following up with how they have helped Joe.

One thing they’re also doing a really good job of, and this is to the point that Jarrett made earlier about not getting sick of your own stuff, is they repurpose that story in lots of different ways. So we saw the website previously. This is a page from a report called All Children Are Children that’s put out by EJI. And so they take Joe’s story and they chunk it up into different usage. This is the full story for this use. And so keep in mind, too, that, you know, storytelling takes time. We have to go uncover the story, we have to interview people and gather information about the story, and then we have to write it. So make sure that all that time you’re putting into it is used to its most full and beautiful use and use it in lots of different ways.

In case you’re thinking, “Oh, but those are all big organizations, Rachel,” here’s one from an organization called Falls Church McLean Children’s Center. And they are a daycare center. And this comes from my friend, Rachel Muir, who is an amazing fundraising consultant. And she is helping them with their email appeal here.

And so I just want to read this language, because I think this is a good example of storytelling and in terms of taking you to a scene. And they were trying to raise money during COVID. So during, you know, last year. I guess it could still be this year, but it happened to be last year. “So this is not a normal year,” Rachel, first name. “We have fewer children in our classrooms. Colored tape on the floor and tables indicates places where each child can play safely, distanced. Children and teachers wear masks.

And after each time a child plays with a toy, draws with an individual set of crayons, or assembles a puzzle, teachers whisk it away to be sanitized before the next child can use it.” So you can kind of picture that in your head, right? The kind of running in and getting things, because, you know, kids are impatient.

“These are the rigorous demands of providing a safe environment for children during the pandemic. And it takes more resources than usual for cleaning supplies, gloves, and towels. But there is good news, you can help.” So, again, and we’re telling that story, we’re using colorful language, and then we’re also telling them that they can help and there’s call to action in there as well.

This is some work for Humanity & Inclusion. And full disclosure, this is Mighty Citizen work. So this is not a sales pitch. I’m just going to tell you about it because I think it’s an interesting way to think about how to know which stories are resonating most with your audiences. So, if you’re not familiar with Humanity & Inclusion, they serve those impacted by war and disabilities. In fact, they clear landmines, and they won a Nobel Prize for it many years ago.

They wanted to raise awareness of their mission in America. So they are based in France. They’re very well known in France. In fact, they have a 65% awareness in France. In America, it’s 6%. So a much different landscape. And they really wanted to get their message out so they can eventually start fundraising. So their initial goal was to raise awareness of their mission so that they could get people interested and to ultimately lead to fundraising. Because we all know we can’t just like buy a list or, you know, contact people immediately and ask them to give. We have to show them and nurture them and continue to give them reason to give.

So they didn’t have a big budget. So what we did was decide to set out and figure out which stories that they had would resonate with Americans who live in a country where many of them don’t, you know, we don’t see war day-to-day. We don’t have . . . We have a very different life than most of the people that HI is serving. So we decided that we would take a couple of different approaches to the storytelling and test those on social media. And we could use a small budget to test a couple of different messages and see which one would resonate best.

So, sometimes, keep in mind too that you can use a little testing. You can use digital means to figure out which of our storytelling is actually reaching our audiences in ways that matter. And so we were trying to determine, you know, which of these would get people to click, sign a petition, or sign up for a newsletter, and then ultimately to fundraise. And there was some fundraising that happened as well.

So this first campaign, I’ll just show you two that we tried out for them. The first one here is a prisoner of war concept. It takes a common phrase, kind of like FirstWorldProblems, and twists it a little, and gives it new terms. So this is the story of Xiemna. Xiemna was putting her son to bed when, in an instant, she was left injured and childless. Xiemna is a prisoner of war. And the text there that she is saying is, “I put my son to bed.” So, again, we’re trying to get Americans to pay attention to what’s happening.

And this is something that many Americans do every night. I put my son to bed every night. So really trying to get me to stop in my scroll and my social and pay attention. And so this is one example. I can tell you that this example, the next example I’m going to show you had more clicks, had more petitions signed, had more email signups. This one actually raised more money. So, sometimes, the campaigns that are going to raise awareness are a little bit different from the campaigns that are going to raise more money. So just an example there.

The other campaign or message that we were testing for Humanity & Inclusion was around this idea of, it’s called “The Wardrobe.” It’s very difficult to read. I’m a little like “eee” reading out loud because it’s hard to stomach. But again, we’re trying to reach Americans that are scrolling through their social very quickly. And so this campaign is around the idea of dismemberment. And this first one reads, “Get 50% off. The worst moment of his life (stepping on a landmine) should mean a great deal to you.” The calls to action say, “Horrified? So Are We. Donations Prevent Detonations.”

And you see, in this example, there’s a “Donate Now” button. This had the effect of stopping people in their scrolls. We did test it internally with some friendly audiences or people that were familiar with HI and give their honest opinion and, you know, decided to run it. So, again, the goal was to raise awareness. And this campaign definitely does that. This one reads, “She didn’t know she would step on a landmine when she picked out her outfit. Now, there’s no taking the “war” out of her wardrobe.”

So there was some commentary on the post. One person said, “I like this post. I’ve been online window shopping so much lately.” This was last fall. “Going to this site and seeing the way they presented important information in the same format as those fast fashion sites really messed with my brain and woke me up a little. Thanks.” So, again, we’re trying to twist something that people are used to seeing. Oh, and I did mention, this one, this campaign, was more effective from an awareness standpoint. People signing petitions to fight landmines, signing up for information. So, again, later, there’ll be fostering those audiences for fundraising.

Here’s another example from a smaller organization. This is Literacy First. They do K through second-grade literacy to get kids ready for a third-grade reading level. Traditionally, they are funded by the University of Texas. So a little bit different funding model but, you know, anybody who’s funded by the state or some version of the state knows that, you know, eventually, you’re going to have to kind of look at raising your own money. That they’re not always, you know, the money is not always there in the same way.

And so they were really looking to increase fundraising from individuals specifically. What I love about this is this is their own imagery. Obviously, it’s not stock photography and it tells the story. You see the care and the relationships between the tutors and the students in these images. They also do a great job of storytelling. So their story here is making Kelsey, one of their volunteers, one of their tutors, the hero. And they’re talking about this child.

And I saw some mention in the chat about, like, how do you tell stories for people that want to be anonymous? So this talks about this child and never shares her name. But what I love about this story, and this is from their website is, again, it’s very visceral. You feel it, you know it. It says, “She’s kicking her pink shoes against her chair leg while she’s reading. And the flashing lights on her shoes are blinking nonstop while she sounds out each word on the page.” I can picture that. Anybody who’s been around a child with those blinking light shoes knows exactly what’s happening here. And just the fact that she’s a child. She’s moving and she’s learning. So this feels very visceral to me and they do a great job with that.

They also use video for storytelling. We could have gone into a whole session on that as well. They do these great day-in-the-life videos that are done by their tutors. And so these are young people in the AmeriCorps program. They’ve got a lot of skills. So this, you know, the opening scene of this is down the hallway of a classroom, or sorry, a school, and you can smell it. Like, it looks like every school we’ve ever seen. They do a good job of, sort of, tracking their day so you know where your money is going.

And then they do a great job of “Thank you” letters as well. I just want to mention this. You know, most of you are fundraisers. And so saying thank you is really important. They did a day of giving. And Rachel, who was their Director of Development, immediately sent thank yous to everyone who donated really personally right away. And then they also called a few weeks later to leave a voicemail, or well, to speak to people, but most people don’t answer their phones. So they left a voicemail, you know, just thanking me as a donor. And then they also sent a follow-up email that says, “We just called to say we love you.” Again, you don’t see this much thank you normally. And it really has an impact.

And then, lastly, I have to share with you guys the story of Perdita. So it’s not just people that have stories. We kind of alluded to that earlier with the idea of the egg whisk having a background. So this is the story of Perdita, the world’s worst cat, and I’ll read you the social posts that went along with Perdita.

So it says, “Meet Perdita, not for the faint of heart. Likes: staring into your soul until you feel as if you may never be cheerful again, the song, ‘Cat Scratch Fever,’ the movie, ‘Pet Cemetery,’ jump scares (her specialty), lurking in dark corners, being queen of her domicile, fooling shelter staff into thinking she’s sick (vet agrees . . . she’s just a jerk). Dislikes include the color pink, kittens,” so chipper. “Dogs, children, the Dixie Chicks, now, The Chicks, Disney movies, Christmas, and last but not least, hugs. She’s single and ready to be socially awkward with a socially awkward human who understands personal space. Free adoption.” So she just looks evil. Perdita was swiftly adopted, geez, couldn’t get that word out, swiftly adopted and, you know, clearly, they gave her a lot of personality.

A few takeaways from today, stories are more persuasive than claim-making, Jarrett told us about that, because they force the audience experience things from our point of view. Again, we are simulation machines. Just tell us a good story and we can imagine it.

Constantly be on the lookout for stories, including popular plots like David and Goliath, the Odd Couples, and MacGyvers. A good story includes a hero, a guide, usually you, readability, and emotion. And great storytelling can happen through imagery, photography only, hashtags, or just one sentence. So keep in mind that storytelling does not have to be especially onerous. If you’re curious about more storytelling resources, these are a couple of books we really like. One is “Building a Story Brand” and the other is “Made to Stick.” And we use some examples from the “Made to Stick” today.

I’m going to hand it over to Steven for questions. You can get the slides. I think Steven’s going to be sharing them as well. And they’re available at When you go there, we have a couple other things that might be a good follow-up to this content. One is “How to Write Effective Web Copy.” That’s an on-demand webinar from a previous session. And it’s all about writing for the web especially, which is very different from print.

And then we also have an editorial content calendar, very timely as we’re in January. And so, if you made a resolution to finally get that calendar in place, we have a template you can use for that. Okay. I think I’ll hand it over to Steven for questions.

Steven: I told you it was going to be a good one. That was awesome. One thing I forgot to say is the one thing I really love about Rachel and Jarrett is chock full of examples. I should have warned people that there was going to be some real-life examples. That landmine one. Wow. That stopped me in my tracks.

Rachel: I know. It’s tough.

Steven: That was something. Thank you for doing this. This is great to have you two. I’m seeing a lot of chats coming in. Yes, we did record. We will send the recording and the slides out later today, I promise. Just look for an email from me. We will get you that. But let’s do some questions. The number one question, it probably won’t surprise either of you, was, you know, touching on that HIPAA-sensitive, people being served, you know, children, domestic violence. And you touched on this a little, Rachel. The example you were showing did have a picture. What about in cases where we don’t even want to show a picture, not just an anonymous one? Have you seen creative ways of telling those stories without even faces on the piece?

Rachel: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah, so I think photography can go a long way. I think about, like, say you’re telling a story of a child. I think about, like, hands on a toy or a stuffed animal, like, just those things that make childhood, that people immediately recognize, especially, you know, if you’ve got a child in your life. Like, the things you see every day that take on a new meaning perhaps or just give it relevance, I think, is something.

Another thing is I was going to show an example, I didn’t, illustration can play a big part here. So you can tell a story through drawings or illustrations. And so they’re not as impactful as photography, you know? But when photography is not an option, I think they can help to tell a story. And maybe it’s the children’s illustrations or something. So I think there’s some ways. You got to get a little creative with it. That is the barrier. But I think there’s ways to maybe try to weave in storytelling through the visuals when the words aren’t necessarily there.

Steven: I love it. Here’s a cool one from Angie about video. You know, we saw a lot of print and photo examples, but have you seen any interesting video that has done this? Is there . . . ? Does it have to be a super highly produced thing or can a nice cell phone video, maybe you’re hearing right from somebody on their webcam or a cell phone, get the job done as well? It seems like maybe. In this day and age, you can.

Rachel: Yeah. Jarrett?

Jarrett: Yeah. Rachel and I, over the last year, at least, have gone back and forth about video and its capabilities. I will say this, and Rachel may disagree with me, I think that video is an effective form of storytelling. It often depends on your larger content strategy, which is a whole other thing. But what I will say is that in terms of production quality, the really high end, very well produced videos to tell your story are great, but there is something to be said about a homegrown iPhone effort to get your story out about your organization.

And I think a lot of people will relate to authenticity, especially right now. And if you’re an organization that is saying, “This is all we can do right now to tell our story, this is what we’re passionate about, and this is what we’re trying to get the word out about,” record on your iPhone, do the best you can with it production-wise, and upload it. Because getting your story out there in whatever means you can is better than nothing with the resources that you have right now.

Rachel: As far as who’s doing it, I would totally agree with all of that, and as well as who’s doing it well. I’ve seen, it’s been a little while, but St. Baldrick’s did an amazing video about a little girl named Abby who had childhood cancer. And I thought that one was really well done. Charity: water, I hate to say them, but, you know, not to begrudge them because they’re amazing, but they do a good job. And then I think the other thing is we see video all the time that’s really well done and it’s not necessarily from the nonprofit space. Like, there’s a lot you can take from just about anybody on the video side. Meaning, like, good storytelling is good storytelling, you know, whether it’s a nonprofit or not.

Jarrett: Anne Marie also just commented. I just wanted to say real quick, Steven, that Gather Voices is a really great tool . . .

Steven: Oh, yeah. They’re awesome.

Jarrett: [inaudible 00:55:51]. We have used it. Yeah.

Rachel: Yeah.

Steven: Yeah. They’re, the head of that organization has been on our webinar series, I’ll have to pull up that webinar, but they’re really good. And jeez, with how good cell phones are these days, it’s getting to be hard to make something low quality. I mean, this may not be an issue in a couple of years, you know? That’s great. What about . . . ? You know, we’ve looked at a lot of organizations that have a very kind of tangible service recipient. What about organizations that maybe do, like, advocacy, research? Even environmental, I think, is a little bit here on that bubble where there’s not, you know, a single person or a hero that can be highlighted. Any advice for those folks?

Rachel: Yeah. I think you got to get a little . . . I saw someone asked about arts organizations. That’s another one, right? Maybe where it’s a little different. I think there’s still a way to make it about a person or people. Maybe it’s someone that represents a group particularly. I mean, I think about the arts organization specifically. We took my son to see his first Broadway. It was like “The Little Mermaid” or something. He was probably four or five. I have this amazing photo of him. It had the light coming from the stage and he’s like, he’s just totally in awe. It’s amazing.

So maybe finding ways to personalize it down to someone. Or, like, if you’re fighting for, I just saw Tennessee River is getting cleaned up, right? They’re doing an initiative around that. Like, what does that mean for the people who live along the river or for the people that get the water source from the river or the people that use it for recreation? I think there are ways to come down a little bit more narrow. Or maybe to look at it as a generational thing. You know, what does that mean for Gen Z? Or what does that mean for people who are raising families in that area? Or . . . I don’t know. I feel like there’s a way to make it a little bit more narrow, even if you’ve got to get a little creative.

Steven: Yeah. Drill layer deep. That makes sense. Jeez, we’re almost out of time. It’s already almost one minute till, and I want to be respectful of everybody’s time. I know we didn’t get to all the questions. But in addition to these awesome resources here, how can folks get a hold of you two, if you are maybe willing to take questions offline?

Rachel: Yes. Thank you for asking me that. I actually have our email addresses here.

Steven: [inaudible 00:58:14]

Rachel: I almost forgot. So, yeah, you can email us. We have a lot of writing on storytelling at our website. I’ll add in the chat real quick a link to one of those. But if you go to our insights section, which is our articles and stuff, and just type in “storytelling” in the search bar, you’re going to get a whole bunch of content related to storytelling that might help answer some questions as well.

Steven: Nice. Thank you for that. I’ve always loved Jarrett’s email address. I feel like it’s the most memorizable. Anyway, jway@ man. Let’s do it. That’s great.

Rachel: Yes.

Steven: Yeah. And also, good Twitter follow, these two as well. You might want to do that. Did I not see the Bernie Sanders in these slides?

Rachel: No, I don’t think we . . .

Jarrett: I know. I tried. I tried to get it in there.

Steven: Next time. We’ll make it happen. It was only . . . We only had a day’s notice, but the memes will be there next time, hopefully. That’s okay. This was still great. Wow. Thank you both for doing this and taking the time. I know you’re super busy with your client work, but thanks for doing this.

Rachel: Of course. Thank you. Appreciate it, Steven.

Jarrett: Yeah. Thank you, Steven.

Steven: And thanks, all of you, for hanging out. I mean, you also carved time out of your schedule. Wow. I think we had over 800 people, so thank you. We’re going to send the slides, the recording. Reach out to these two, follow Mighty Citizen. And if you need some brand help, check them out too. I’ll put in a little plug. I don’t mind. It’s my webinar series.

Rachel: Yeah. That’s right.

Steven: We got some . . . Speaking of webinar series, I want to just talk real quick about our next session. We are back to doing every Thursday. We’re getting a little bit more consistent perhaps more than last year. Not that it was a bad thing. But our buddy, Brian Saber, is going to be joining us next Thursday, 3:00 p.m. Almost the same time. So exactly one week from right now. Brian is the master of asking in person. He’s got a really cool framework to help people with different, sort of, styles and personalities ask in ways that make it comfortable for them. But he’s going to zero in on board members specifically.

So maybe if you’re a board member who struggles with asking for money, if maybe you have a board that you want them to do a little more fundraising but maybe they’re a little nervous about making that ask, this would be a good one. Brian’s awesome, it will be really practical, and it gets into some cool personality different type things as well. So join us. If you can’t make it, sign up anyway, because we’ll email you the recording. We don’t care. It’s fine. Just like you’ll get on this one. So we’ll call it a day there.

Like I said, look for an email from me today with all the goodies. And if you’re watching the recording now and we somehow missed you with the slides, just email me. It’s okay if it’s months later. I don’t mind. I love it. But hopefully, we’ll see you again next week. So have a good rest of your Thursday. Have a good weekend. Stay safe. Stay healthy. We need all of you out there. Please stay safe. And we’ll talk to you again soon. Bye now.

Rachel: Bye.

Steven: See you.

Jarrett: Thanks, everyone.

Kristen Hay
Kristen Hay
Kristen Hay

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