To be human is to be a storytelling animal. From Gilgamesh to Game of Thrones, humans have turned to them for pleasure and solace, insight and wisdom. Narrative is, moreover, “the default mode of human cognition”: We use stories to organize our lives and identities, as well as to give coherence to our understanding of people and problems. Stories foster social cooperation and impart social norms.
They are also what TedX speakers and digital marketing firms like to call “sticky”—that is, memorable in a way that mere information is not—because they engage us not just intellectually but also imaginatively and emotionally. You might not remember the first thing about what your pastor or professor taught last month, but you’ll remember the bit about the unlikely mishap involving the neighbor’s dog and the Sunday roast.
For all these reasons, storytelling is to fundraising as butter is to cooking: what Anthony Bourdain once called “the first and last thing in every pan.” The base ingredient and finishing touch, binding agent and sauce thickener. Skip it—and produce thin, unmemorable, unaffecting gruel—at your peril.
We already know all this, intuitively if not actively. Even so, there’s a decent chance that you’re still not relying enough on the power of storytelling to drive your fundraising—from direct mail and personal emails to prospectuses, foundation proposals, and all the rest.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll dive into some of the types of stories that drive successful fundraising, as well as some writing guidelines to make your stories snap. Today I want to focus on something more elemental—the fairytale—and how its basic narrative structure ought to inform all your writing.
Everyone knows how the standard fairytale begins and ends, from once upon a time all the way to and they all lived happily ever after. Call those two ingredients “context” (the setting) and “resolution.” In the middle, a problem arises (one day a dragon…) and portends consequences that demand a solution (…laid waste to the villages).
The key point is that this pattern isn’t simply narrative convention but rather reflects an archetypal pattern of human perception and experience: into life (context) comes a disruption (problem) which matters (consequences) and must be solved (resolution). Thus this pattern, as Kate Turabian’s Manual for Writers points out, is how just about any writer worth her salt seeks to persuade a reader of the importance of her work. Let’s whip up some (fictional) examples:
The particulars are different, but the sequences are the same: kingdom, dragon, consequences, knight. Establish the situation, introduce the disruption, emphasize the significance, provide the resolution—in that order.
If you can’t easily spot these fairy tale ingredients in your writing, chances are your reader won’t intuit them either. If the parts are missing or out of order, your reader is unlikely to feel compelled by what you’re presenting; you haven’t engaged their fundamental instinct and appetite for narrative. The all-important fundraising question of why your plea matters, why your audience should act—by first caring about and then supporting your mission/project/proposal—will remain unclear.
So next time you are writing or revising a fundraising document, remember the fairy tale. What’s the kingdom? Whence cometh the dragon? What are the consequences? How will the knight prevail?
Lead with the story—that’s where the gold lies.
This is the first in a three-part series. Read the second part on the importance of storytelling here and the third part here.