Storytelling: Why You Can’t Ignore the Rule of See-Feel-Do

written by: Andy Goodman, Director, The Goodman Center

Good storytellers paint vivid pictures with their words because they understand a fundamental truth about their audience: if they can see the story in their mind’s eye, they will be able to feel it in their heart. And then – and only then – will they be ready to do something in response.

Nonprofiteers often tell stories to elicit a “do,” whether it’s to convince someone to become a member, change a particular behavior, or make a donation. But all too often they tell stories that fail to meet the first requirement – helping their audience see the people, places and things within their narrative. Failing to see, the audience is unlikely to feel, and even less likely to do.

Consider this introduction of a teenage woman taking on the challenges of motherhood. Having read literally hundreds of nonprofit stories, I can assure you it is typical of the language used by organizations large and small and in all regions of the nation:

The client, who was 17, was struggling to keep up with her one-year old son. He was extremely active and was into everything he could get his hands on. By the end of the day, the client was very frustrated and distraught.

Now contrast that introduction with the following version, which uses exactly the same number of words:

Karen, 17, struggled to keep up with Marco, who had just turned one. He would frequently climb all over her, open her purse, and dump its contents on the floor. By day’s end, Karen would often have tears streaming down her cheeks.

Do you see all the differences? Introducing the characters as Karen and Marco (instead of “the client” and “her son”) humanizes them as only names can and helps the audience identify with them.

Abstract terms which don’t conjure images are replaced with specifics that help the audience visualize. “Extremely active,” which is vague, is replaced with an image of Marco climbing all over Karen. “Into everything” becomes a purse that is emptied on the floor. And rather than simply telling us that Karen is “frustrated and distraught,” the second version show us “tears streaming down her cheeks” and lets us draw our own conclusions.

Storytelling can be a very powerful way to engage an audience and move them to action. But keep in mind that people will not act if they don’t feel something first, and it’s hard to feel what you cannot see.

You won’t be able to feel what Andy is talking about if you’re not at Full Tilt Nonprofits to see him up close and in person, so register now.  Andy will be this year’s keynote speaker and will also present a concurrent session so participants can put into practice what they learned in “Change the Story, Change the World.”  Be there!  

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