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The Anatomy of a Story: A Roadmap to Clear and Compelling Communications

By Madelyn Jones



Recall to mind a recent dream. Was it more like a whimsical scene from Alice in Wonderland or a computer booting in DOS mode?


Unless you are part cyborg, your dreams are probably more in line with the former. Why?

Because our brains organize information using stories. Stories are how we make sense of the world around us.


The Power of Storytelling

Storytelling has been around as long as prehistoric humans have been finger painting on cave walls. It's how knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation.

It's why as young children, our parents not only told us that lying is wrong but also the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. It's why Jesus spoke in parables. It's why we all click on ‘See More’ when scrolling through our social media feeds.


We are far more likely to be drawn in by narrative than fact.


There is a place for data, but data alone will not compel someone to keep reading.


We recently sat down with screenwriter and Bags and Grace nonprofit founder Tom Provost to discuss the value of story. Provost agrees that story is the most effective way to engage readers, and that even “journalism has gone narrative.”


NPR’s Morning Edition also captured this in their report on the macro topic of inflation in June 2022. To illustrate a global economic problem, did they share a financial model generated by Harvard Business School professors? No.


Instead, they interviewed a retired couple that had become regulars at a Virginia food bank to feed the two grandchildren they are raising. A school bus driver conveyed similar lifestyle changes due to rising prices.


NPR shared these individuals’ experiences because they know that no matter the subject, the most compelling way to convey impact is through story. “People want personal connection,” notes Provost, and stories about real people accomplish that.


Applying Structure

Storytelling may be considered a soft skill and an art, but that doesn’t mean we can’t apply structure to it. Writers are often described as being either plotters or pantsers.


Plotters tend to create outlines of their work before generating a more extensive piece. These people are planners (I’m looking at you, enneagram 1’s).


Then there are pantsers. Pantsers are named so because they fly by the seat of their pants (hello there, enneagram 7’s 👋). Their creative process is less predictable.


In reality, the two types are bookends on a spectrum, with most people falling somewhere between.


If you lean more towards pantser than plotter, keep in mind the benefits of a framework within the creative process:

  1. Writer’s Block Buster Few things are more daunting in the workplace than having a deadline and a blank Word document. Rather than relying solely on inspiration to appear in a moment of need like a fairy godmother, defeat the blank-brain syndrome with a clear structure.

  2. Consistency Having a framework in place makes it far easier to be consistent across channels when repurposing content for a single communication series. If your story in print is drastically different from the same story retold for a social post, potential donors may think of you as unpredictable and, therefore, not worthy of their generosity. Cohesiveness demonstrates professionalism. Professionalism points to authority (more on authority below). DRG Tip: If you haven’t jumped on the CORE (Create Once Repurpose Everywhere) bandwagon, check out our post 16 Ways to Repurpose Content to make your life easier.

  3. Stickiness A concept becomes sticky or memorable if we reduce the energy one must use to store that information. Since our brains process and regurgitate information in narrative form, we can help the memory do its job by initially offering relevant details in a predictable order.

From media psychologist Dr. Pamela Rutledge on the psychology of story

Put simply, tell someone’s story - and tell it clearly - if you want to make an impression.


Marketing expert Donald Miller breaks down some patterns used in successful storytelling for millennia. We’ve simplified his framework and adapted it for donor relations.


The two most critical story elements in this model are character and plot.

Character

In his book Hero on a Mission, Miller describes four types of characters:

  • Victim This translates to your beneficiary or who/what benefits from your organization. It is someone who faces an existing or potential loss. Example: An elderly person needing end-of-life care

  • Villain Unlike the malicious masked character from a Marvel movie, a villain in the nonprofit world is the problem your organization solves. It is the source of conflict. Your villain is what needs to be overcome. Example: Financial hardship

  • Hero This is your reader or donor. We use these three terms (hero/reader/donor) interchangeably throughout this post.

  • Guide The guide is who helps the hero help the victim. This is your organization. Your nonprofit is the weapon that your donor needs to help them overcome the villain.

Miller’s model is an acknowledgment that people do not give to organizations. They give through organizations. People first connect with the cause. If they believe your organization can solve the greater problem, they will make a gift to the cause through your nonprofit.


This makes sense because the research shows that humans make decisions based on emotion over logic - a truth preached across industries. Negotiation experts like former FBI negotiator Chris Voss, Stanford behavioral scientist Nir Eyal, and just about any child psychologist agree on this.


DRG Disclaimer: We recognize that language like ‘victim’ and ‘villain’ are not desirable in our work. Please note that this is general terminology taken from literature.



Hero/Guide Relationship

Making your donor the hero is a philosophy that DRG has embraced for years. Someone who makes a gift to change someone else’s life for the better certainly deserves hero status in our book.

Adopting this mindset goes beyond our emotional reaction, though. It is also good behavior economics.

People tend to self-identify as the hero of their own stories. So if you, as the writer, assume the identity of the hero, your reader subconsciously feels competitive rather than receptive. That is not the mindset we want our reader in when setting ourselves up for making a successful ask.

Instead, position your organization as a guide to help our hero (the potential donor) overcome a villain (the problem your nonprofit solves).


So before your fingers hit the keyboard, take a moment to get into character. Remember that your reader is looking for two things from you as the guide:

  1. Empathy People want to be seen, heard, and understood. So show you understand your donor and beneficiary by using empathetic language ie: “Like you, we are frustrated by the volume of waste in our country” or “Nobody should have to face homelessness." The goal here is that element of human connection that Provost mentioned above.

  2. Authority Your reader needs to feel like you have the competence to facilitate resolving their need or desire. Your message must convey that you are trustworthy enough to use their funds in a way that will accomplish their goal.

I can not overstate the power of empathy and authority as persuasive tools. Authority without empathy is cold. Empathy without authority is impractical. But the two together result in a very convincing argument.


Plot

Once the characters have been established, we can plot their journey. Your favorite films or literary works likely follow a sequence of events like this:

  1. Set-up The victim encounters a villain. Or rather, your beneficiary is faced with a problem.

  2. Story Gap It is clearly stated what the victim risks losing if the villain wins. This is where you convey what is at stake. In a solicitation, this is the fate of the beneficiary if the reader does not make the gift.

  3. Call to Action The guide calls a hero to action to save the victim. This is how the problem can be fixed. It is the plan for our valiant fight against the evil villain. Demonstrate authority to ensure the hero that it is safe to follow you, the guide. Clarity is the key here. While it is essential for every point within the plot, the stories you tell will only have the desired impact if you make your ask incredibly clear. In fact, we recommend making your ask multiple times throughout your letter. Pro Tip: For all of your skimmers, treat your PS line as a TLDR (too long, didn’t read) to reiterate the ask.

  4. Resolution If a hero does step in to help, the victim’s problem is resolved. This is when everything comes together in a successful outcome for the victim, hero, and guide. This is the plot sequence we used for this fall appeal for Diakon Lutheran Ministries, a nonprofit offering assisted living. To summarize, the plot went like this:

  • Set-up: Bill requires assisted living but has outlived his financial resources.

  • Story Gap: Bill now faces the possibility of homelessness.

  • Call-to-Action: Please make your gift today to Diakon Assisted Living Facilities.

  • Resolution: Doing so will allow Bill to remain where he has grown to call home and receive the care he needs.

Key Takeaways

Find a story to tell.

Cast your reader as a character within the narrative. Thanks in part to social media, our greatest resource is no longer time but rather attention. Keep your audience engaged by calling them into the story.

Make your characters’ journey well-defined by following a framework. You can begin your next assignment by opening up a new Word document and filling in the blanks below using the definitions from above:

  • Victim: ___________________________________________

  • Villain: ___________________________________________

  • Hero: ___________________________________________

  • Guide: __________________________________________

  • Set-up: __________________________________________

  • Story Gap: _______________________________________

  • Call-to-Action: _____________________________________

  • Resolution: _______________________________________

Writing a persuasive piece does not have to be anxiety-inducing. Follow this roadmap early in your creative process to ensure that your communications are clear and compelling.

What are some strategies you use for building a convincing argument? How do you draw your reader into the story?

Please comment with your approach and thoughts on this blueprint.


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