Stories, Not Bullet Points

We all tell stories, though not necessarily well.

I like to think I’m better at it than most, but my too-deliberate-and-full-of-detail style doesn’t work with everyone. It particularly bugs my friend Mary. On more than one occasion she’s interrupted my meandering narrative and said, in total deadpan, “OK, Al. Now cut to the chase!

But talented or not, we all persist in telling stories. We describe what happened when the cop pulled us over on our way to work. We talk about how we nearly rode our bike into a moose (seriously — this happened to me over the weekend), or describe how our extended family reacted when a bat flew into the dining room, or recount how we turned on the t.v. just in time to see the game-winning overtime goal in the Stanley Cup. (“I just kinda had a feeling!”) We give the blow-by-blow of an argument at work, and we talk about how we let our boss know that we’d taken another job. (“What a look on his face!”) We tell stories about our kids, and movies, and books, and, well, everything.

Story-telling serves multiple purposes: to entertain, to process, or simply to answer the most common question at the dinner table: “So how was your day?”

I thought about this the other week when I was helping to lead a workshop for nonprofit folks on how to “make the ask.” At the end of the session, we asked three participants to model making a pitch for a contribution. Then, after getting feedback from everyone in the room, they each tried it a second time.

There was some inherent awkwardness in the setting – standing in the front of a room role-playing a scene. But the deeper level of awkwardness came simply because it involved the act of asking people for money. Asking for support brings out anxiety in many people, and in the process they don’t communicate very effectively. Instead of telling stories, they fall back on their bullet points.

So the first time through, people tended to stiffen up, slip into jargon, and, without showing any warmth, they rattled out the reasons the listener should consider a contribution. “We have been hit with a funding cut because of sequestration, and our vulnerable population is at risk,” the speaker would intone. “Without support, our outcomes will slip,” said another. No smiles. Arms crossed. Bland. Cold. Uninspiring.

The group gave all the speakers more or less the same advice: tell a story. Tell a story about a client, someone whose life changed thanks to your organization.

The difference the second time through was striking. “Let me tell you about a young woman named Maria,” one of the speakers said, and she started gesturing, her face opened up, and when tears came to her eyes in talking about Maria’s transformation, the audience was hers. The same thing happened with the other presenters (though without the tears). Once the speakers started talking about actual human beings, they connected with their listeners. People got it.

Part of the effectiveness of telling stories is that stories facilitate a human connection. Talking about individuals translates the organizational mission statement into something real, tangible, and personal.

But another reason it’s so effective is simply that people are comfortable telling stories. They have lots of practice. Again, people are storytellers, and when they tell stories, they come across as relaxed, genuine, credible, and winning. It’s hard to do that citing statistics about recidivism rates, or describing catchment areas and program enhancements. But talking about Maria or George or Jenny – well, that’s right up our collective alley.

People will say that they’re not good at asking for money. And they’re probably right. But they’re much better at telling stories – and to a large extent, that’s what fundraising is all about.

Copyright Alan Cantor 2013. All rights reserved.

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3 thoughts on “Stories, Not Bullet Points”

  1. I can’t wait to hear about the moose next time you’re in DC! I wish more panelists, fundraisers, and speakers would remember this. It is so easy to think your audience doesn’t need a story that they’re on the same page with you, but every audience needs a story. It is just picking the right one.

  2. Al: An excellent lesson here very well articulated and one followed at the NH Charitable Foundation’s annual meeting last week by the three contestants for “best pitch”, all of whom told stories of a person who benefited from their org’s services. My best, Woolsey Conover

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