User's Tags

Tips & guides 5,339 views Apr 01, 2016
Storytelling tips for charities

Becky Slack is founder and managing director of Slack Communications, and author of Effective Media Relations for Charities: what journalists want and how to deliver it.

Recently I met with a volunteer clown who had been working with child refugees in Europe. He told me how, armed with a purple curly wig and a red nose, he had spent time on the Greek island of Lesvos, helping spread a little love and cheer among the families who had made the treacherous journey by boat from Syria. He described how the children, with their mucky faces and scared eyes, were at first very suspicious of his games and magic tricks, but before too long they would be grinning from ear to ear, all desperate to play along.

The story of those children and the image it created in my mind really stuck with me. Much more so than the statistics I’ve read, or the calls for the refugees to be “resettled” (whatever that means) that have come from many aid organisations and politicians.

Storytelling is a key component of effective communications. Neuroscience has taught us that humans learn and communicate best through stories. Fundraising research has highlighted how strong personal stories help supporters connect to the cause. Human interest stories form the foundation of most journalism.

So how can charities create engaging stories about their work and the impact they achieve?

1. Tell real stories about real people

People are interested in other people. They give money to help other people. They buy magazines and newspapers to read about other people. Therefore, charity stories should focus on people. From the people the organisation has helped to those who work and volunteer for, and donate to, the organisation, charities have a wealth of stories about real lives that they can share. Where possible, the person in the story should be allowed to speak for themselves; this can be a powerful way to demonstrate how an organisation makes a difference.

For an excellent example of this in practice, check out Invisible People, an organisation that uses film to share the experiences of people who are homeless.


2. Use techniques used by traditional storytellers

Traditional storytelling techniques involve characters – usually a protagonist and antagonist, and structures centred around themes such as conflict and resolution, or triumph over tragedy. These techniques translate perfectly to charity communications: could your charity or the person you helped be the hero? Can you identify a problem and explain how your organisation brought a resolution?

The Invisible Children documentary about child soldiers in Africa provides a great example of this. The story has a bad guy (Warlord Joseph Kony), lots of good guys (the children, the charity workers, the donors), and it highlights how something terrible can be transformed into something positive (conflict and resolution). The story had a global impact with 100 million views over just six days and 3.7 million people pledging support.


3. Don’t be afraid to use emotion

Charity communications should be centred around a number of key messages, the objective of which is to influence how people think, feel and behave, particularly in relation to the way in which they support your organisation.

Psychologists and therapists use visual, audio and kinesthetic modalities to help the mind imagine different experiences. When an individual thinks about an emotional and/or sensory experience, parts of the brain light up as if they’re actually happening for real.

Encouraging people to think about how they would feel in a particular situation helps immerse them in that story, and will help connect them to that experience. This means providing more than just a basic outline. To really visualize what is happening/has happened, the story needs to contain descriptions of the key elements, such as the location, the weather, the look on someone’s face, what they were wearing etc etc.

A case in point is this story by the Guardian, which featured as part of its 2015 charity Christmas appeal and helped raise a record-breaking £2m.


4. Think about style, tone and format

Minds wander, very quickly. If you haven’t grabbed someone’s attention in the first few seconds you will have lost them altogether. Opening with a question can be a good way of achieving this, as can introducing a tantalizing nugget of information that will leave audiences wanting more.

The length of a story is also important, particularly in relation to digital media. While there are some occasions where long-read essays are welcomed, in the main online stories need to be short, sweet and concise.

Language is also very important. Littering a story with complex technical terms will almost certainly turn people off. Use plain English at all times.

For examples of charity jargon at its best (or worst, depending on which way you look at it), read Aidan Warner’s blog on charity clichés. It’s a couple of years old but the same sentiment still applies.


5. Make the most of photos, video and audio

As the saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words. Photos, graphics, cartoons and illustrations can all be used to help convey complex ideas simply and effectively. Indeed, digital content, be it on Facebook, Twitter or websites, receives many more click-throughs and shares if accompanied by a photo.

Video and audio can also be hugely impactful. A colleague of mine told me about the time she interviewed a number of donors about why they gave to her charity. These were then played to the entire organisation in a darkened theatre. Removing all other sensory elements while the team listened to the supporters was a hugely emotional and motivational experience for all those involved.

WaterAid used images – both still and moving – to full effect as part of its The Big Dig. They armed their workers on the ground with smart phones and instructed them to report back on the progress made as they provided a village with clean water. Day-by-day, week-by-week, images of the build and stories of the villagers were uploaded, providing supporters with an almost real-time perspective on how their money was making a difference.

In a world where we receive thousand of messages every day, standing out is difficult. Storytelling can help you cut through the clutter and engage people in powerful, emotive and inspiring messages. Tell a memorable story, and chances are your audience will remember you.  


Found this Blog useful? You may also like:   

The Power of Storytelling: Six Top Tips by Mike Zywina  
Storytelling Tips for Charities by Becky Slack 
How to make friend with the media by Kay Parris
Get your charity’s voice heard by Duncan Hatfield




Image © WaterAid/ Jason Larkin/ Emily Fyso