For Sale: baby shoes, never worn

Fundraisers, think about your most successful fundraising campaign, mailing, event, individual gift, trust application or corporate pitch. I bet that they all have something in common. In some way they have fulfilled a need for your audience, captured their imagination and evoked some form of emotion that has inspired them to take action.

In the charity sector there is a lot of talk about the ‘donor journey’ but for me the start of any donor journey is you finding your story and telling it in a way that touches people’s hearts as well as their minds. Telling a story written by your marketing team isn’t good enough. You have to find your own stories that evoke passion and power in you.

People give to help people. The relationships you build with your donors are your relationships – you build rapport, you build trust, you inspire donors to get involved, you make a difference.

I think perfecting the art, and it is an art, of seeking out real stories and telling them in a way that inspires both you and your donors is the essence of being a fundraiser.

A book that has inspired me is Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath (Random House, 2007). They outline six principles that will help your stories to inspire your audiences’ hearts and minds.

1. Simple - Keep your story simple. Focus on your core message. Using analogies helps simplify complicated information.

Help the Aged’s ‘make a blind man see’ press advertisement is a great example of a simple story.

2. Unexpected - Say something unexpected to get attention. Ask questions to hold people’s attention and curiosity.

For sale: baby shoes, never worn. A six-word story by Ernest Hemingway. Think about it for a moment. Those six words are somewhat unexpected yet hugely powerful. You can read more six word stories here or submit your own.

Amnesty produced an award-winning unexpected message to throw away this flyer in their insert campaign.

3. Concrete - Be specific. Paint a mental picture with words by using sensory language. The famous president of the USA John Kennedy painted a picture with words in a powerful speech when he said, ‘I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.’

An RSBP campaign to save the albatross brilliantly uses this technique. You are asked to picture the scene: imagine you are in a restaurant tucking into your first bite of succulent Pacific salmon. Something is not right. Read more about what happens next here.

4. Credible - Provide compelling details, whether it’s research and statistics, the name of an industry expert, or something down to earth about the difference you are making.Research shows that many people respond better when they can link their contribution to providing help to a specific situation or person.

‘If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one I will’, Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

The Child’s i Foundation raised £10,000 in 38 hours to save baby Joey’s life. The story is all about baby Joey and his parents. Take a few minutes to watch the video in the link. I challenge you not to be moved. Which leads to sticky principle number five.

5. Emotional - People care about people. People care about situations that they can identify with. There is a range of ways in which you can do this and I like  Action Aid’s What a Feeling campaign that asked ‘How does it make you feel to be part of the Action Aid community?’

6. Stories - The very process of telling a story helps people see how an existing problem might change and how they could help that change happen.

St Mungo’s, a charity for the homeless in London, uses real life stories and includes inspirational accounts of how, with help, people can change their lives.

How to seek stories

Does your storytelling spell SUCCESS? The more of the six principles that you can weave into your communications, the more likely it is that your messages will stick. Your challenge is to continually and deliberately seek stories that inspire you and that you can tell to inspire others. Here are some tactics to help you do just that.

  • Carry a notebook with you. Use it, make collecting stories and observations on life a habit. We know that the more connections we make the more likely it is we are going to put those connections together to come up with something new. That something new could be your wonderfully compelling story… or the next big fundraising idea.
  • Read more stories. Millions of authors have spent time writing stories. Read them. Think about what the author does to keep you eagerly turning the pages. Try using that author’s tactics on your own stories.
  • Watch films and consider their storytelling styles. What keeps your interest? What turns you off?
  • As with everything, if you are going to become good you need to practice. Practice telling stories; practice on your friends and family, use your voice and body language to bring the stories to life.
  • Volunteer at a local school or a reading stories project – or perhaps you have a Ministry of Stories near you? What a cool place!
  • Practice writing. Start a blog.
  • Get some storytelling training. It will be one of the best investments you and your organisation will ever make.
  • Enjoy your story-seeking adventure.

Have a go. Tell us how you get on.

This blog was first published on sofii  and I am running a session on storytelling at the Institute of Fundraising Scotland conference in October. Perhaps see you there.

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