April 2017 – Gonser Gerber Bulletin on Advancement

In writing direct response solicitations or when building a case for support, advancement professionals typically rely on one of two approaches:  a fact-based, quantitative, logical, “hard data” approach, or a qualitative, testimonial, “storytelling” approach.

At many institutions, the “hard data” approach is viewed as being the more rigorous, more scientific, and more persuasive and effective way to make the case and move donors to give generously.  Administrative leaders, Board members, and others will often stress the need to “prove our effectiveness” to potential donors as the primary way to encourage their giving.  And while data and statistics can be helpful in creating a persuasive solicitation or a case for support, research clearly shows us that “hard data” approaches simply do not move donors the way great storytelling can.

As an example, Thomas Kida’s classic book entitled, Don’t Believe Everything You Think offers the following:

“Research demonstrates that we prefer to rely on stories instead of statistics.  As an example, one study had people view a taped interview with a prison guard.  Some saw an interview with a guard who was humane, while others saw a guard who was extremely inhumane.  Half of the subjects then received information indicating that the guard was either typical, or not typical, of the majority of prison guards.  It turned out that the information concerning how representative the guard was of guards in general had little effect (emphasis added) on individuals’ opinions.  Instead, people relied more on the information conveyed in the single interview, and ignored how unreliable or unrepresentative that interview might be (page 37).”

Or think about this: Research also has shown that doctors who treat patients that smoke and develop serious medical conditions because of their smoking habit are far more likely to quit smoking themselves than are doctors in general practice. Of course, all doctors have access to and understand the data on smoking, but it is those who experience the stories and personal effects in their patients who are most likely to quit.

So, storytelling works. Or perhaps it is better to say that good storytelling works. Good storytelling helps the reader/listener remember what is being conveyed. And good storytelling can lead to action. Here, then, are five essential tips to telling stories better so that donors and prospective donors respond more often with generosity:

1. Get to the action quickly – you will lose readers or listeners if you spend too much time attempting to set-up the story itself. Instead of starting with introducing the story by sharing the biographical information about the story’s main character, jump right into the heart of the plot. For instance: “Cindy never fully believed she could afford to go to college” is a much stronger opener than, “Cindy came to our institution from a large farming family in rural Iowa.”

2. Highlight the positive – many organizations and institutions have heart-wrenching stories to tell based on the dire life circumstances of those they serve. But telling only the negative or difficult stories will not move people to action the way that uplifting stories will. Stories that are remembered and encourage the best in others follow a time-tested arc of narration. Specifically, the storyline goes something like this: “everything is ok, something bad happens, a decision or a struggle to overcome ensues, and a hero figure provides assistance to make everything better.” Ending with a positive outcome gives the listener or reader hope that their decision to get involved will matter.

3. Make it personal – where possible, resist the desire to tell the story for the person. In other words, if you are writing about Cindy’s efforts to afford a college education, let her tell her story. Telling her story on her behalf is simply not as powerful as having her share her story in her own words. Feature her picture and words in a direct response piece. Include her interview in a campaign video. First-hand accounts are the most powerful to readers and listeners.

4. Be authentic and plain spoken – when we tell meaningfully personal stories in our own lives we do not search for the perfect or most eloquent words to use. Instead, we speak from the heart. Yes, the words we choose are important. And, just as important, is the authenticity with which we communicate those words. Concepts like passion, energy, enthusiasm, all matter in storytelling. Good development storytelling should carry that same authenticity, energy, and enthusiasm. One way to communicate authentically is to speak plainly or easily, just as you might when telling a personal story to a friend or family member. Position the story in language that is easily accessible and quickly understood, and more people will respond.

5. Invite them specifically to be the hero – once you have told a compelling, inspirational, positive story, invite them to help. Use the word “invite,” which carries a much different and more positive psychological connotation than the word, “ask.” Inviting the reader or listener to help in specific ways is most effective. For instance, “Today, Cindy invites you to help by making a $100 gift to the scholarship fund,” is much more effective than, “Today, we are asking you to give to the scholarship fund in support of students like Cindy.”

Throughout human history, storytelling has been the most utilized and effective way to teach, engage, connect, and pass along wisdom and culture. Simply put, we are wired to respond powerfully to stories. As advancement professionals it is important to remember that the better we tell our stories the more generous donor responses will be.