In between welcoming a new baby to the world and traveling to my sister’s wedding last month, I was lucky enough to get to spend a little time at the SPIN Academy, where I presented a new workshop on Storytelling. In pulling together the deck for that presentation, I came across a number of different ways of thinking about how to build an effective story. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing some of the best of these ideas from master storytellers, along with some of the implications of their thinking for nonprofits.
The simplest version of what makes an effective story comes from This American Life‘s Ira Glass:
In Ira’s framework, stories are made up of a narrative (a basic sequence of events) and a moment of reflection, when you tell your audience why you thought the story was worth telling in the first place. Ira is talking specifically about stories for broadcast, but I think there’s some important implications for nonprofit storytelling in what he has to say.
Narrative is the most basic building block of a story, and it is an incredibly powerful one. In the chain of events we relate in an anecdote, we pull our listeners in, engaging their desire to hear what happens next. There are powerful reasons for this engagement, going all the way back to our origins as a species, when we created myths to make sense of the natural world, and our origins as individuals, related to how are brains develop.
In the narrative form itself we’re holding up a mirror to the way we perceive the world. Each “thing” in a story– each event, piece of dialog, description of a person or place– gets woven into a larger whole, and we assign some meaning to that whole. Human brains work the same way, with our senses feeding data to our brains, which assemble all the sights, sounds and smells into a coherent narrative of what’s happening around us. Storytellers are doing that work for their audience, and humans have a natural affinity for the form. That’s why stories are so much more compelling to us that reams of data and statistics.
As important as a compelling narrative is for a good story, the moment of reflection is even more important for nonprofit stories. This is where an organization’s values are transmitted, and you should be clear about what values you want to communicate even before you pick a story to tell. When you’re clear whether your story is really about justice, or community, or human rights, it makes it easier to pick the right details to include in your narrative. It sets your audience up for the moment of reflection where you make the point of your story explicit.
Are you clear about the values your stories are conveying? And are you making sure to include a moment of reflection in every story you tell about your organization’s work?