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Build a Story Bank to Seize The Power of Storytelling


storybank visualHow do you interest newspaper readers in a story about federal regulation of the cosmetics industry? With a story about an 11 year old girl who lost her hair—you use the power of storytelling

The New York Times published this story, featuring a photo of 11-year-old Eliana Lawrence whose hair fell out two years ago after using a new brand of shampoo. The story featured a classic plot—the fight between good and evil. Without Eliana’s story, the article might have appeared in a Capitol Hill newsletter, but almost certainly wouldn’t have made it in the New York Times.

Stories humanize complex issues, making them something we care about. They highlight impact and show why small changes matter. They bring life to dry data points and give audiences a reason to care.

That’s why your organization needs a story bank. A story bank is a vault of stories that illustrate your impact and bring it to life. You can pull them out to make a point, share with donors, or pitch the media.

Start your own story bank by interviewing your clients, grantees, donors or partners. You can also collect them online via Facebook, YouTube or your own website. It’s a great way to begin an interactive conversation with your constituents.

Here’s how to get started:

Understand what makes a good story.

A story is compelling emotionally. It has interesting characters that change, and grow during the course of the story. A story has a plot with a beginning, middle and end.

Identify the kinds of stories you want.

Create stories that show your impact and reinforce your core messages. Consider stories about people you serve or work with, challenges you have overcome, or ways you have affected change and advanced your mission.

Decide how you will track and store your stories.

First, choose your technology. You will want to be able to sort your stories by keyword, track contact information for your sources, and identify the format of each one. For small organizations, a simple spreadsheet can work well. Salesforce also has a storybanking plug-in that has gotten good reviews. Some organizations develop their own content management systems.

Next, decide how to organize your stories. What keywords will you use? Who are your spokespeople? Do you need to sort by geography, age of storyteller, audience? Identifying all of these factors upfront will make it easer to cover all of your bases.

Develop your interview protocols.

Open ended questions to encourage storytelling. Try some of these:

  • What attracted you to this organization?
  • What barriers did you face?
  • How did you overcome these barriers?
  • How has this changed your life?
  • What do you want people to know about your story?

Make your stories accessible.

Stories are useless if you hide them like money in a mattress. Make it easy for people to use your stories. Train staff and board members to use them effectively. Share them on social media. Add a story spotlight to your website. Incorporate them into speeches. Be creative and have fun.

Want to know more about starting a story bank? Email me to set up a time to talk

Lessons in Nonprofit Communications Strategy From the Democratic National Convention

Do the right thing
My twenty-year-old son volunteered at the Democratic National Convention, and, like savvy sons everywhere, he knew his mother would want a memento. Thanks to Andrew, I now have a stack of signs that were waved as speakers like Michelle Obama and Michael Bloomberg encouraged us all to say, “I’m with her.”

The DNC gave us four days of lengthy speeches. My collection of signs distills into a few short words the big takeaways from those four long days. “Yes we can” Stronger together” “Change maker” and my favorite, “Do the most good”. They convey the optimistic tone and can-do spirit that the Democrats strived for in their convention, albeit in much shorter form than the lengthy speeches. Most importantly, they are far more memorable. Of course, the DNC knew they would be; research backs them up.
Sixty-five percent of people are visual learners
. They are unlikely to remember the details of your speech, but they will remember what they saw. Did you look friendly? Did you seem trustworthy? And they will remember the thousands of concise and colorful signs waving across the arena. Whilepolitical speeches are cited in history books, visuals have greater real-time impact on the everyday voter.

stronger together

You may have heard communications consultants talk about “optics,” the PR buzzword that refers to how something appears to the outside world. It sounds like jargon, one of those phrases we public relations professionals use when we want to seem invaluable. In reality, it is a reminder to put your audience first by helping them absorb information in a way that works for them. Distilling your complex concepts into a few pithy and visual statements shows respect for your audience by putting their needs ahead of yours.change maker

Nonprofit and foundation executives can improve their communications if they start by thinking about how their audiences learn. There still is a place for speeches, lengthy articles and reports, but if you want to make them memorable find a way to make the visuals matter.

I’ve hung my DNC signs on my office walls, and they make me feel inspired and empowered. I’m keep them up after the election as a reminder of the impact of well-chosen – and well-designed — words.


A Better Starting Point For Foundation Communications

In September, I helped facilitate a session a Philanthropy New York organized by Exponent Philanthropy’s Local Engagement Group that focused on Communications Strategies for Small-Staffed Foundations. Since PNY staff received good feedback from attendees about the session, they asked me to pull out a few key ideas for grantmakers who couldn’t attend that day.

Sometimes the very first question a foundation or nonprofit asks me is, “Can you get me into the New York Times?” Or “I want to break 1,000 followers on Twitter. What should I do?” These tactical questions are the last ones to consider not the first.

If your foundation is starting or revamping your communications program, you need to follow a simple but strategic process to develop a realistic plan. Read the rest of the article here.

New Resource for Social Impact Communicators


If you are a social impact communications geek like me, you are probably frustrated by the fact that the world lacks a stockpile of resources that are indexed, inspirational and up-to-date. Now a new webpage, Frankology, is aiming to fill that gap. Frankology is part the Frank website, produced by the public interest communications program at the University of Florida. The web page features summaries of recent peer-reviewed research from disciplines ranging from neuroscience to economics. The summaries concisely highlight key takeaways for communicators. They are indexed by topic.

Franks writers don’t extrapolate from the research. A recent article about farmers’ views of global warming doesn’t offer analysis of what this means if you are trying to talk to city dwellers about global warming or trying to interest farmers in world hunger. You have to think through those connections yourself and experiment to see if your ideas hold water. That can be time-consuming. But Frank’s database of stories is still in its infancy. As more research is added, it may become easier to see trends and themes that help communicators in their day to day work.

Right now you won’t find research translated into concrete steps to make your communications program more effective. Instead you will find some quirky new research, surprising data and fresh perspectives that just might inspire that big idea you’ve been waiting for.

Can You Adapt Your Communications as Newspapers Shrink?

Newspaper print and online ad revenue. Source: Pew Research Centernewspaper-print-and-online-ad-revenue-

The Gannett Company joined the ranks of media companies that are dropping newspapers from their empires. Gannett, publisher of USA Today and dozens of local newspapers, just spun off its print holdings while retaining its higher-profit digital outlets. Another casualty of declining newspaper profits.

This is a loss for all of the towns that depended on Gannett papers for local coverage. It means that these papers will have smaller budgets and, likely, fewer reporters. Those reporters will have even less time to research and write in-depth stories and to develop expertise in specific beats. Many more stories will be online only.

For communications strategists, this means that every pitch needs to be carefully researched and perfectly targeted. Reporters don’t have the luxury of fact checking a release or skimming a pitch that doesn’t seem dead on at first glance. Keep pitches short and don’t waste reporters and editors valuable time.

We communications strategists, especially those of us who love writing, need to remember that in the digital environment a picture is worth more than a thousand words. Simply put, pictures are easier than words to appreciate online. As more and more Americans get their local, national and international news online, they are likely to learn more from infographics and videos than a well-crafted 1000 word article.

Let Me Count The Ways…


Shakespeare was on to something when he wrote that headline. Turn the pages of almost any magazine and you will find a listicle–an article in the form of a list. Five things we’re excited about this month…Ten steps to healthier eating.

Why are they so prevalent? In our overcharged, hyperactive communications world, lists are orderly. Lists don’t waste time on lengthy musings. And they are simple to read on your smartphone and tablet.

Their titles offer a clear understanding of what is to follow. And they always deliver on their promises. If the list promises ten steps to cleaner air, it doesn’t include nine or eleven steps.

Most importantly, lists provide information in a way that is easy for your brain to process. They are visual as well as verbal. They are far more memorable than paragraphs.

Almost everything has a list component to it. You can use this technique to breakdown complex topics to make them easier and more appealing for your audience. It is also a great way to issue a strong and clear call to action. Here is one example of complex public policy recommendations broken down into a list of five. Check out this article from The New Yorker with more research on why our brains like lists.

One-Word Communication Strategies.

I’m done with six word memoirs. Whole Foods had shown us that all it takes is one word to tell a story. And they did it by relabeling their bins. No longer do you put your discards in the ‘Trash’ or Recycling’. You now either “Compost” or add to “Landfill”.

Why is this so effective? Whole Foods customers don’t want to contribute to Landfill. It evokes images of mountains of garbage destroying the environment. It makes you think twice before dropping off your empty take-out sushi container.

And if you can’t say it in one word, try two…Text Stop

Governor Cuomo set the standard for two word stories when he renamed rest areas at “TEXT STOPS” as part of a campaign to stop distracted driving. These signs, which come at frequent intervals along the Thruway, are constant reminders not to drive and text. They are high impact, low cost and much better than a traffic ticket for distracted driving.