But before any organization can harness the power of storytelling, it’s important to first understand what makes a good story. A story can be everything from a 140-character tweet, to a longform interactive narrative, to a six-second video on Vine. But regardless of the platform, channel or medium, it all starts with having a good story.

Stories articulate transformation, real-life experiences, impact and emotion are the most successfully that connecting with customers. And though each concept sounds simple, often times they are complex to execute.

Fortunately, The Center for Social Impact Communications at Georgetown University has been studying storytelling for many years and has developed “Five Essential Building Blocks of Compelling Stories” that you can use to help your organization achieve its storytelling goals:

  1. An Effective Character. Stories should contain a single, compelling character that is relatable to the audience and who is comfortable relaying specific details, memories and experiences. This should be a person whose life has been impacted or changed by your organization, and it doesn’t always have to be a beneficiary or client. But equally as important, resist the temptation to position the organization as the main character.
  2. Trajectory. Stories should chronicle something that happens, an experience, a journey, a transformation, a discovery, but they don’t need to be a linear, sequential recounting every time. Think about the stories you tell in your daily life. Chances are, they have one central characteristic in common, they are about something that happened. For a nonprofit story to be effective, it has to capture the “what happened,” whether this is a transformation, a discovery, a journey or an experience.
  3. Authenticity. Stories should show—rather than tell—the audience about the character’s transformation, using rich details and featuring the character’s own voice, devoid of jargon. If the trajectory of a story is its skeleton, then authenticity is the meat that adds critical substance to those bones. Authenticity is what sustains the connection between your audience and your character throughout the story, and what ultimately compels them to follow through on your call-to-action. It’s what creates emotional resonance, which countless studies have shown is essential for successful fundraising. Appeal to the heart, and you’ll appeal to the wallet, so the saying goes.
  4. Action-Oriented Emotions. Stories should convey emotions that move people to act, and marry these with clear, easy-to-find pathways to get them to those desired actions. In Georgetown University’s research, slightly more than 75 percent of the organizations surveyed indicated that they have a concrete goal or purpose for the stories they collect and share, with the primary goals being fundraising (60%) and raising awareness (25%).
  5. A Hook. Stories should capture the audience’s attention as quickly as possible, giving them a sense of whose story it is, what’s happening, and what’s at stake. This is more important than ever with the diminishing attention span of the average online reader. Consider the following: According to a 2010 study by Visible Measures, 20 percent of video viewers abandon watching after the first 10 seconds; this grows to 44 percent who abandon after 60 seconds. In another study, the Nielsen Norman Group found that users read at most 28 percent of the words on a webpage during an average visit.

While this blog touches on only the fundamentals of what makes up a good story, this alone won’t transform the storytelling practice of your organization. Effective storytelling requires talent, time, and money. But when the stakes are high, powerful stories can motivate volunteers and members, engage business leaders, galvanize public officials, and inspire donors.

Additional storytelling resources you may find helpful:

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