Learn storytelling from the masters

Excerpt from How to Turn Your Words into Money: The Master Fundraiser’s Guide to Persuasive Writing

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Uncle Herb, the family storyteller, kept three generations spellbound at the dinner table. We’d sit and listen long after the kitchen chairs became noticeably uncomfortable.

You’d come away from an Uncle Herb story session thinking, “He’s had such an interesting life.”

In reality his life was ordinary. He was a decent man who raised a good family in the American Midwest. He served in the Army but never saw action or left the country. He had a long career as a machinist at a series of midsized factories you’ve never heard of.

Most of his stories were ordinary events that had happened recently — “Just last Thursday” or “The week after Christmas.” They were anecdotes about his encounters with friends and coworkers — funny, strange, or telling exhibits of human nature. The kinds of things that happen to all of us, but most of us don’t polish them into stories.

Uncle Herb’s secret wasn’t a rich technique. With his meandering narratives, Uncle Herb was a straight-line descendent of cave-dwelling storytellers — those who kept the clan entertained around their fitful campfire while saber-toothed tigers prowled the darkness outside.

If you’re willing to borrow some of Uncle Herb’s time-honored techniques, you can tell powerhouse colloquial stories that grab donors’ attention and prepare them to take action.

He Pulled the Listener into the Narrative

Uncle Herb punctuated his stories with asides directed at specific listeners. He’d lean over, rest his heavy hand on your shoulder and say, “You’ll love what the cop said to me next.” And sure enough, it would be something that especially tickled you.

Uncle Herb understood that every listener to every story tells his own inner narrative. She evaluates the story she’s hearing. She considers its meaning and significance and explores how it supports (or affronts) her values and beliefs. When Uncle Herb knew you, he’d find something in his story that he hoped would click with you, and he’d point it out.

Addressing the listener (reader) this way enriches his or her experience of the story. It grows more relevant and meaningful, because it connects with the listener’s inner narrative. It also guides the listener’s interpretation of the story. You’re saying, This is why the story I’m telling matters to you.

You aren’t Uncle Herb, facing a small circle of relatives or friends you know personally. But most donor audiences share values and beliefs. You can make decent guesses about what in your story draws them in and makes them part of it:

Not everyone can look into the eyes of a great ape and appreciate the mind that’s so nearly like yours and mine. But you can. That’s why I believe you’re one of those rare people who understands the importance of helping the apes.

He Was in His Stories, but Not Too Much

All of Uncle Herb’s stories were told in the first person. But he was never the star. He was usually an observer, a foil, or a straight man. Because he was in the story, he was able to add color.

Flowery language wasn’t in his toolbox, so he made his descriptions rich with firsthand observations. Instead of just telling us it was cold, he would say, “My fingers got so cold I couldn’t bend them!”

He inserted these comments judiciously, so he didn’t turn the story into a monologue about himself. That wouldn’t have been as interesting.

Here’s how you might do the same in a fundraising story:

I’ve been in that same forest preserve and listened to the calls of the gorillas echoing through the mountain mists. Let me tell you, it gives me goose bumps just to think about it now. Those amazing animals really do have a connection with you and me.

Telling stories in the first person, rather than the third person, is a good choice in fundraising.

The Structure of His Stories Was Clear

You always knew where you were while Uncle Herb’s stories unfolded. He made sure of that, often by telling you what the climax was going to be: “Let me tell you about the guy at the hardware store who poured an entire gallon of pink paint over his head.” Knowing the climax of the story, you could watch it unfold.

If you’ve ever squirmed through a speech or sermon where you had no idea whether it was going to last another five minutes or thirty, you know how important a clear structure is for the listener. Don’t do that with your fundraising stories. Give your readers signposts of the structure:

When the great silverback hunkered down in the brush a few feet away from Marika, she thought it was the most exciting moment of her life. It was about to get a lot more exciting

His Stories Ended on Time

Even Uncle Herb’s most complex and involved stories didn’t seem long. You never started wondering, How much longer will this last?

He kept them short but complete.

How long should a fundraising story be? I can only answer with the answer Abraham Lincoln is said to have given when asked “How long are your legs?” Honest Abe said, “Long enough to reach the ground.”

His Stories Were True

Uncle Herb’s brother Hubert was also a storyteller. In some ways he was even better than Herb. But eventually everyone discovered Uncle Hubert’s fatal flaw: His stories were made up.

There’s nothing wrong with fiction. Sometimes it rings truer than truth. But when you hear an amazing tale that seems to be true, and then discover it’s fiction, you feel taken. It’s a lie.

The lack of reality was what gave Hubert the early advantage over Herb. His stories were more exciting and more tightly structured. But eventually everyone would sniff out they weren’t true. They regarded his stories as not worth listening to, despite his craftsmanship.

Fundraising stories have to be true. If they aren’t, you’re toying with people’s emotions. That’s uncool as well as unethical. And your falsity will be sniffed out just as surely as Uncle Hubert’s always was.

Want to learn a lot more about storytelling? Check out the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference, in San Diego, October 28-30. I’ll be there, talking about storytelling for arts and culture organizations. Hurry: Save $300 if you register by this Friday, October 11th.

How to Turn Your Words into Money is available at:


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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