From the time we painted on cave walls, and sat around fires sharing sagas, storytelling has been key to human interaction.
Stories are how we make sense of the world and our place in it. And when it comes to fundraising, stories connect us to the cause we care about, and inspire us to action.
1. Show, don’t tell
Whether you’re writing a direct mail letter or War And Peace, if there’s one rule for writing it’s this: show, don’t tell.
What this means in practice is that, rather than drily impart information to your donor, you allow them to experience the story through actions, words, thoughts and senses. By showing the donor, rather than telling, you involve them in your story, so they feel emotionally engaged.
Show don’t tell is a technique often attributed to the Russian playwright Chekhov, who reputedly said: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
2. In their own words
No matter how brilliant a writer you are, there’s nothing like the authentic voice of a case study to help you connect your donor with your cause. When possible, interview your case study in order to capture the idiosyncrasies of their story and their language. If not appropriate, for example with an animal charity, then find the nuggets of emotional gold that are unique to the case study. This prevents your work feeling like a generic ask for money. Those nuggets are always there when you look for them!
3. I’m off on a quest!
A good, emotional story takes your donor on your journey. A typical story involves a hero, a quest, danger and the overcoming of adversity. Bear these tropes in mind when you’re writing. What challenge has your case study faced? Where did that challenge take them? How did they overcome adversity, and who helped them? And — most importantly — what role did the donor
play in helping your hero triumph?
4. You’ve got me feeling emotions
Sorrow, outrage, happiness, relief, anger, upset — there are so many emotions to play with when we tell stories.
However, there are some things to bear in mind.
Firstly, “emotional” doesn’t mean “sad”. The best way to inspire a donor might be to make them feel outraged. It might be to make them feel happy, nostalgic, or to make them laugh.
Secondly, go back to Show Don’t Tell. Don’t tell your donor that your case study felt sad or angry. Show them what sorrow or anger looked like for that individual.
And if you don’t have a case study, for example with an environmental charity, don’t tell your donor how to feel. Show them why they should be angry, outraged, sad. For example, if you were writing about oil drilling in the Arctic, tell the story of the harm that will do to a beautiful landscape and the animals that live there, rather than writing “you must feel angry about oil drilling in the Arctic.”
5. Break the rules*
The best storytelling comes from the heart. So don’t worry about the rules. You don’t need to use bullet points to break up copy, and you don’t need to stick to 2 pages. These techniques are useful, but they are not essential. Connect with your cause, connect with your case study, and tell the story in the way that is most inspiring. Your donors are people, just like you. Write from the heart, and you’ll tell an authentic story.
*except Show Don’t Tell. That’s the rule to stick to. Trust me.
Sian Norris is at Fundraising Now on 28 November, giving a session on storytelling. To find out more and book your ticket click here now.
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