July 23, 2014 | Category: Blog, Story Guide | Author:

Telling good stories — communications expert Andy Goodman

Today on the blog, storytelling tips from Andy Goodman, who trains nonprofits, foundations, government agencies, educational and cultural institutions in how to tell great stories. His book Storytelling as Best Practice is now available in its sixth edition. Learn more at Andy was responding to a question posed to him by Narrative Arts on behalf of a grantmaker, who wanted to know how to tell good stories about supposedly “boring” topics such as campaign finance reform or national security. 

Start by focusing on the people behind the issue. Ask yourself: who’s involved and who has something at stake? Many nonprofit stories are boring precisely because they’re about an organization, issue, place or thing – everything but real people! To be interesting to other people, your story must be about a person, someone to whom audiences can relate. If your group works on campaign finance reform, for example, your protagonist might be a voter whose voice is drowned out by money in politics; or perhaps it’s a Congressman who’d sooner side with corporate contributors than with the residents of his district.

Stories must also have conflict. You already know that from great books or movies, but too many nonprofit stories amount to “We came, we saw, we conquered.” Or in nonprofit-speak, “We saw a problem, we created a program, we achieved the desired outcomes. Now, please give us more money.” If everything that nonprofits and activists did were that easy, we’d have solved all the world’s problems by now. It’s conflict that gets people invested in the story—and hence in the work you do. For campaign finance, the conflict might be between the voter and corporate lobbyists, or maybe it’s a pair of investigative reporters who, like Woodward and Bernstein, go up against powerful interests to reveal corruption in government. The more clearly you show what’s at stake and how your character struggles, the more your audience will care.

Finally, stories must have meaning beyond simply “what happens”. Your audience has given their time and attention—an increasingly precious commodity—to your story. By the time the last line is spoken, they should know exactly why they took this journey with you. Otherwise, you’ll have wasted both your time and theirs.