Writing, Personal development, Marketing & communications, Fundraising

Mastering the art of storytelling

Communicating a story is a skill in itself. Here's some advice from expert Sarah Myers on how to tell impactful stories.

When you’re making decisions, do you tend to go with your head or your heart? Emotion or logic? 

You might think the answer depends on the situation or even your personality. In fact, studies have shown we make 90% of our decisions with our emotions. Even financial and practical ones. We might use logic to justify that decision, but the choices we make are, more often than not, determined by how we feel. 

So, an effective way to get someone to do something is to make them feel something. It’s why storytelling in charity communications works so well. A story can transform an intangible, broad or complex issue into something relatable, that connects with people on a human level. 

According to neuroscientists, when we see something emotive, our brain interprets it more vividly and stores it with greater clarity. Emotions linger in our memory longer than facts. It’s why we remember stories and share them with other people. 

There are lots of reasons for charities to tell stories. But there’s a lot to consider too. One of the most important aspects of charity storytelling is making sure anyone who shares their story with you has a positive experience. As photographer and CEO of Legacy of War Foundation Giles Duley says: “Someone’s story is their most precious thing. If you’ve been invited to share it, you should always respect and look after it.” 

Here are 10 tips to help:  

Get ‘informed consent’

A storyteller needs to fully understand how you would like to share their story and the implications of doing so. For example, they might agree to be featured in your charity’s annual review. But if you’re going to promote that annual review on Facebook, you won’t be able to control who sees and shares it. You need to discuss the potential issues that come with being featured on social media and get permission for this too. 

Trust your instincts

If you feel someone is too vulnerable to be involved in storytelling, you’re probably right. 

When someone shares their story with you, aim to make them as relaxed and comfortable as possible

If they’re recalling an emotional event or difficult time in their life, it’s important they feel in control of the conversation. Always reassure them that it’s not a problem if they don’t want to answer a particular question or if they want to stop at any point.  

Try not to focus on ‘getting what you need’

Let the conversation flow naturally and don’t worry if it goes off on a tangent.  

Avoid the temptation to fill every silence

Give your storyteller plenty of time and space to share their thoughts. Use active listening techniques to show you’re truly listening rather than just thinking about what you want to say next.  

Try to help your storyteller feel positive about themselves

For example, you could say: ‘It sounds like you overcame a lot of tough challenges to get where you are. Can you tell me about something you feel proud of on this journey?’  

Try to end the conversation on a positive note and make sure your storyteller isn’t left feeling upset

If you do feel the conversation has brought up difficult feelings, have some suggestions and contact details for support. Send a follow-up email to thank the storyteller. Let them know how grateful you are for their time.  

Check-in regularly with storytellers

Do this as often as possible, ideally every six months to a year, to see if their situation has changed and if they’re still happy to share their story.  

Always ask their permission each time you want to share their story

Send copies of communications or links to where their story has appeared.  

Update them on how their stories have helped your charity

If they’ve featured in a fundraising mailing, let them know how much it has raised.  

You’ll find more tips on finding and writing stories, as well as effective interview questions, in Storytelling for Impact.