“There are three rules for writing the novel,” the author Somerset Maugham once wrote. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” The same holds true for nonfiction stories. In his latest book, Storytelling Can Change the World, author and fundraiser Ken Burnett distills some valuable tips and techniques that he’s picked up in his more than twenty years as an advertising copywriter and fundraising consultant.
Key among them is to trust your readers. “Writers everywhere quickly learn that their job is not to tell the whole story, to etch in every detail of characters, places, impressions, and actions,” Burnett writes. “Much better instead to leave it to the reader’s imagination to fill and color in the gaps.” This is especially true for nonprofit storytelling, in which writers are often tempted to buttress their case with impressive facts and figures that only end up smothering the story. “Stories stick,” Burnett admonishes. “Statistics don’t.”
You can avoid data dumping by taking the time up front to think about what the reader will want to get out of your story. To help writers put themselves into the minds of their readers, Burnett recalls a lesson from playwright David Mamet. For every scene in a drama, Mamet taught, a writer has to ask three questions:
- Who wants what?
- What happens if s/he doesn’t get it?
- Why now?
Even then, it may be hard to hear the beating heart of the story the first time you sit down to write it. Experienced writers know that the best stories require multiple drafts. Newbery Award-winning author Shannon Hale has likened the first draft to shoveling sand into a box from which she will later build sand castles. Feedback and testing are important for improving drafts; don’t be afraid to ask people to read each version and tell you what works for them and what doesn’t. But when you do, stress to your readers that you’re not seeking rewrites, approvals, or sign-offs at this stage. Draft stories are vulnerable to well-intentioned meddling, which inevitably hurts the story more than it helps.
A great story is an investment. The more work you put into crafting your story up front, the more durable, and thus cost-effective, it will be for your organization. Burnett recalls how, when he was working with the international nongovernmental organization ActionAid, fundraisers were concerned that a film about the organization and its mission that they showed to prospective donors had become overused and was no longer an effective motivator. However, testing quickly revealed that the film’s effect was just as potent as when it had first appeared; it was the fundraisers themselves who were getting tired of it, simply because they had shown it so many times. As a result, ActionAid’s fundraisers continued to show the film to great effect for many more years — generating gifts that might have otherwise been lost had the film been retired early.
How much have you invested in your fundraising stories?
This post was adapted from “Once Upon a Time: How Storytelling Can Motivate Donors to Support Your Nonprofit Without Being Asked,” by Paul Lagasse, Advancing Philanthropy, Summer 2016 (reprinted with permission). You can read the whole article here.