What makes a story special? Of course, this question is central to the work I do with leaders and their teams and is something I ponder daily. (Stay tuned to the end of this blog for an invite to help you answer that question.)
I titled this post “Stories That Get Standing Ovations,” inspired by some work I did with a single mom earlier this month. She agreed to tell her story at a holiday gala fundraiser for the nonprofit that provided her shelter from her abusive situation.
She is strong and intelligent, and I am so proud of her for having the courage to do this so that her life experience would help raise more money to help more women in her situation.
The story drew a standing ovation and some tears. She made many connections that evening as people sought her out afterward.
The goal in storytelling isn’t necessarily to get a standing ovation, but we want to move people to do something. Inspired by our process, I want to share some tips for stories that get standing ovations.
The context here is essential – the situation is sensitive, and we didn’t want to “trot” someone out to say ‘woe is me’ and tug on heartstrings. If you are in the nonprofit sector, I know this is something you worry about regularly.
- Don’t Dramatize: Storytellers risk getting caught up in the moment. You are in the spotlight and may not even realize you are doing it, but you get carried away. Elevating the drama in your story is a sign of insecurity about your story, and your audience can see right through it. They question your intent, and you erode trust. Be confident this story is worth sharing the way it is – the way it happened and the way you felt. If it isn’t enough, find another story to make your point. In other words, we are not doing the Sally Struthers thing here. (too young to get the reference? That’s OK. My point is we aren’t “playing” people with our stories. Stick to the facts and the feelings without overdoing it.
- To evoke emotion, you must invoke emotion: What happened in the story is important but not enough. How did the characters feel? What were they thinking? What did they fear? Telling a story without feelings is like looking at Google Maps without the terrain layer on. It’s flat with some lines – no contours, no texture, and missing so much detail. You see the landscape but can’t get a sense of what it’s like. Experiences are unique, but emotion is universal, so don’t forget to turn the emotion layer “on.”
- Get micro: Bring life to the story with a remarkable detail: In the first run-through of her story, this mom mentioned she had $7 left after she paid for gas and, at that moment, knew she had driven as far as she could. She began making calls to find a place that would offer shelter. I didn’t know until later that she had made 76 calls at that gas station. This was a detail we consciously added in. For one, it shows she was counting, but it demonstrates desperation and frustration without detailing those emotions. We can all imagine (but not comprehend) being out of cash and sitting in a gas station making 76 calls. Micro details help your audience live the experience.
- But not too many details: How to find the balance? Start with a clear understanding of the key message you want your story to deliver. Like a mission statement where every initiative should serve the mission, every detail should serve your message. Remember, just because it happened doesn’t mean it has to be in the story. Good editing is your friend.
If you find these tips useful, you should join my next webcast and start the year with better storytelling. In my Troubleshooting Your Storytelling session on January 18th, we’ll spend some time working on the challenges you face when it comes to telling your story. Learn more and register for free here.
Take care out there.
Some ways I may be able to help you and your team:
Need Guidance And Accountability? Take a big leap: I advise purpose-driven individuals who want to make a big change, level up their career, start a new chapter, or launch a thing. I still have a few spaces available in January for my Take a Big Leap Advisory program. Respond here, and we can schedule a time to discuss.
Help Non-Profit Team Members Level Up their Storytelling. In my storytelling workshops, teams learn how to more strategically find and tell stories that engage the communities they serve, increase funding and effect change.
Contact me for details.
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