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The Science of Storytelling for Nonprofits

Thursday, February 16, 2017 12:27 PM | Tom Williams (Administrator)



Tom Williams

Nonprofit Management Consultant

Tom@nonprofnetwork.org





Did you know that humans are hard wired to relate to stories? Neuroscientists tell us that the brains of people listening to well-told stories fire on the same path as if they were experiencing the circumstance themselves. Likewise, if you and I are hearing the same story, our brains will fire in similar areas. There is quite a bit of science in people connecting with one another. Add to this that humankind has been sitting around ancient fires or watering holes relating guidance and requests verbally as stories for eons. (Interesting sources here and here.)


Humans like stories.


Stories have been ways to educate, inspire, and motivate for ages and today’s technological advances haven’t changed that one bit. In fact, we can now share stories so much faster with technology that our storytelling skills are needed more now than ever before. The great news is that storytelling is a skill that can be learned.


I can think of many reasons a nonprofit organization would want to enhance its storytelling skills. A couple off the top of my head include:


  • Storytelling is about persuasion. Isn’t persuasion our reason for being? We want to persuade people to choose our cause. We want to persuade them that we are a priority for the use of their funds. We want to persuade them to invest their precious time being engaged with us.
  • Storytelling reinforces your data. Data about your cause can make your point and demonstrate you know what you are doing. Communicating that data in a story can assist you in connecting with the listener in ways that dumping raw facts on them just won’t.
  • Storytelling fights burnout. A good story can be a shot in the arm to reinvigorate your staff, board or even donors that may be experiencing some fatigue in the cause. It’s another way of reminding us “why” we do this.
  • Stories are repeatable. This simple fact makes them gold to a nonprofit organization. A repeatable story about your cause, your successes, your needs or your vision for the community is the tool to engage those people you haven’t met yet.


In our nonprofit world there are at least five different categories of stories every organization would benefit from adding to their pool of stories. Give some consideration to stories you may have about:

  1. Founding. How your organization got its start…what motivated that effort?
  2. Focus. Stories can serve as a great way to get across exactly the cause you address
  3. Impact. Stories about how you make a difference
  4. People. It's about sharing real people experiences that real people have
  5. Strength. Stories can be a cool and very sociably acceptable way to toot your own horn on successes.

Tips on becoming a better storyteller:


  • Keep it short. Long stories lose the listener
  • Keep it simple. Ultra-complex stories cause listener to mentally check out
  • Highlight people, not programs
  • Consider your audience. It’s YOUR story, but it won’t get heard if you misread your audience.
  • When you get to the end of the story, STOP. Continuing past the end, buries the point you wanted to make with the listener.
  • Practice your story telling by writing “mini-sagas.” These are stories with a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of an obstacle, written in exactly 50 words.


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