Great storytelling is about connecting emotionally with audiences and donors in a clear and succinct way, says Michelle Wright.
The power of storytelling has long been fashionable. Great storytellers not only enthuse and motivate, they also open our minds to change. Brilliant brands and businesses all have great storytellers behind their success. Although storytelling has become best practice in business, too few organisations are putting their most compelling stories forward.
If we’re clear and consistent about what we stand for, we attract the sort of people, audiences or customers that are important to us
We can learn much from the entrepreneurial community about the art of a good story. Great storytellers simplify. Richard Branson once said, “If your pitch can't fit on the back of an envelope, it's rubbish.” He is also the master at telling the warts and all story, compelling people to understand both his successes and failures, but most importantly to get his listeners invested in helping him solve his challenges.
Business leaders like Bill and Melinda Gates are also expert at explaining complex subjects in plain language. This approach is often the opposite of what we do in the arts. It sometimes seems we want to validate our work by telling people everything that we do, leading to long stories of relentless accomplishments. But great storytellers pick and choose what’s important.
Steve Jobs understood that his products needed devotees who would tell his story as if it was their own, helping to propel Apple to global success. In order to do that, his stories were easy to recall and were relevant to the listener.
Clarity and consistency
For some of the creative entrepreneurs that I work with, a great test for honing the story is answering the key question: “What do I want to be known for?”. If we’re clear and consistent about what we stand for, we attract the sort of people, audiences or customers that are important to us. Less is more, and one or two things is plenty. Great storytellers tell a clear and succinct story about why their organisation exists, what it hopes to accomplish, and why people should care.
In the arts and cultural sector, we can often find ourselves the victims of our past. Many organisations have inherited ways of talking about themselves that aren’t really in their best interest. They might spend too much time presenting the vision of their founder or describing their core activities. These might all be important points as part of the story, but they are not the story itself – and they don’t help an organisation connect emotionally with audiences or donors. To really engage, organisations need to consider telling stories about how the organisation is currently helping specific individuals and communities that the audience can recognise and relate to.
I’ve worked with many CEOs who are anxious about concentrating on individual successes when the organisation is helping thousands. But this often leads to generalised copy that tries, and fails, to appeal to as many people as possible. It’s the details that make a story real and for storytelling to be effective, organisations need to invest time internally in developing some of the individual emotional stories.
The donor as hero
Many fundraisers try to make the supporter part of the story, giving them the chance to be a hero and to fight to solve a problem or crisis. The theory is that if we create scenarios where the donor feels celebrated and important, it makes the person more likely to give again. Certainly, research would suggest that these ‘deficit-based’ stories outperform good news stories in bringing in the money.
Often these stories are based on the urgent consequences of something problematic that will happen if we don’t donate, for example, to a campaign to save a theatre. The rationale is that deficit-based stories are more likely to encourage people to act.
But right now, this approach can feel somewhat patriarchal and uncomfortable. We so often see the donor placed as hero that many of them have reached saturation point. And one size doesn’t fit all. Donors give for a variety of reasons, and it’s unlikely they ever wanted the charity to tell them they’re a hero. It just doesn’t ring true. If the local theatre is saved by donors, then its next campaign will need to take a different tack, being confident and on the front foot, building its story from a position of asset, rather than deficit. Certainly, this is what we see trusts and foundations responding to: the organisation that is already doing good work so what more could be done if it was funded to do more.
But what really seems to be the great omission in storytelling in arts and culture is that we completely remove our creative skills from creating the copy. Most great storytellers are compelling because of the passion, skill and entertainment with which they tell the story. We have some of the finest creative and innovative minds in the country working in the arts, but often we present our stories as dry case studies. The stories we write are rarely those we would tell in the pub. Storytelling is the job of the entire organisation – staff and volunteers – so identifying and collecting great stories should fall under everyone’s job description.
We also need to beware of buying into fashionable ways of relating our story, such as infographics. These models are now so overused we can face a sort of ‘infographic blindness’. However, interactive infographics that tell a story, and engage the reader in telling it, give a completely different experience. So we need to consider far more than just the written word in our development of stories. If we use digital or video instead, often these formats compel us to tell stories in a way that the written word doesn’t.
And we need to practise. Being able to tell memorable stories is a skill like any other. And it’s an ongoing process, so we constantly need new stories to apply to our business plans and strategies.
Head, heart and hand
So, while in vogue, the art of storytelling is complex. Different messages play to different people, and donors want to engage in different ways.
My colleague Chris Dessent at the agency Creative Concern summarises the art of storytelling into three areas – head, heart and hand. His test is as follows: Does this story make the reader interested to know more? Does it make them care about the cause? And the most important one, will it stimulate them to take action? If a story can achieve all three, we have a fighting chance to make a compelling case to audiences and donors alike.
Michelle Wright is CEO of Cause4 and Programme Director of the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy Programme.
This article is part of a series of articles on the theme Fundraising for the Future, sponsored and contributed by Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy. The ideas for this article emerged from a panel at the Easter School for Arts Fundraising and Leadership. Thanks to Emilee Simmons, Amy Letman, Faye Dawson and delegates for all their ideas.