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Tell Me a Story: Using narrative to create more powerful messages for your association

Posted By Laurie Pumper, Friday, November 14, 2014
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From the time that we are young children, people everywhere learn how to make sense of the world through stories. I can hear some association executives now: “But how will that help our association’s bottom line? We need our board to focus on the numbers.”

My answer is that the power of narrative can help make sense of data. By adding context to numbers, your members are more likely to understand and retain the information. In addition to a spreadsheet, write a few short paragraphs about the monthly financial report: Is volatility in the stock market causing unusual swings in your investment portfolio? Were there unusual one-time expenses that make this month’s year-to-date figures seem completely off the rails — or do the expenses signal an important challenge that the board needs to address immediately?

If your nonprofit organization does fundraising, strong storytelling is absolutely essential to your success. Your annual report may show that 90% of funds raised go to directly improve the lives of young people…but without testimonials and pictures that show the story of your organization’s impact, your fundraising messages are likely to fall flat. I’ve volunteered for the Minnesota 4-H Foundation for more than a decade — and once we started including those success stories and photos of 4-H members doing interesting things, we saw better returns on our direct mail efforts. When we started using segmentation, so that (for instance) alumni donors who are especially interested in 4-H’s arts program get a story and photo related to that interest, results improved again.

More tips:

  • Include one or more case studies in articles that appear in your association’s publications. Getting the case study might be as easy as emailing or calling a member to comment on her experience.
  • If your organization does a survey to get feedback on your latest webinar, pull out a quote or two from an enthusiastic attendee that explains how useful the session was, or how it solved a problem — and use the quote(s) to promote your next webinar or your archives. This tactic also works well with promoting in-person events.
  • Rather than simply listing the names of the people in a photo, use the caption to tell a short story about what they were doing. Better yet, explain how it relates to your organization’s mission.

Additional resource:
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, by Daniel H. Pink, 2005. The book devotes a chapter to the importance of storytelling and provides exercises to improve your storytelling ability.

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