Effective Storytelling: 4 Tips to Best Engage Your Audience

By Mariah Fosnight, CFRE, Consultant and Doug Wallack, Client Service Associate

For over 40 years, Alford Group has tested the effectiveness of written material with a variety of stakeholders (donors, volunteers, partners, community leaders, foundation and corporate funders, etc.) for nonprofit organizations ranging in size, sector, lifecycle stage and geography.

Over that time, we have identified aspects of effective storytelling that remain universally true. Below are four tips to keep in mind while crafting your prose.

#1 Establish narrative tension

Let’s face it, we live in a world flooded with disturbing headlines and sad news stories. Fortunately, nonprofits are uniquely poised to balance that disheartening content with accounts or stories that uplift and inspire readers to act. Through a combination of anticipation, uncertainty of an outcome and emotional investment, we can capture our audience’s attention and keep it, while stimulating optimism and a desire to act.

We should be careful not to equate tension with doom. Consider narrative tension as a balanced combination of compelling stories and data that arouses curiosity and moves the reader from start to finish. It provides context, defines direction and keeps a reader on the edge of their seat.

Be sure to engage program colleagues when developing your stories. They have trusted relationships and will help you identify impactful stories to humanize your data. Gather multiple perspectives that are different from your own and reflect how those you serve describe themselves and their community through strengths-based messaging.

This will help ensure that you do not display a false or skewed sense of the reality of the people or issues you are elevating. It will also help you to avoid focusing solely on the negative and will ensure the story doesn’t just discuss the need, but also provides hope for change.

Finally, include a clear path toward a solution. Without one, you’re leaving readers with just another list of what’s wrong in the world.

#2 Communicate what’s at stake

Hook the reader from the very beginning. 

This is the most frequent feedback we hear from our clients’ stakeholders when testing materials and messaging.

If narrative tension is what keeps readers on the edge of their seat, then understanding what’s at stake is what gets the reader to slide forward on their chair (or lean in) to begin with. If the stakes are not communicated early in the material, readers do not invest emotionally, and as a result, quickly lose interest.

Whether you are writing a strategic donor proposal or a case-for-support, stakes are what draw the reader in.

What we have found in our experience to be most effective in holding readers’ attention is strength-based messages that lift up those who benefit from the organization’s mission first and provide dramatic statistics that exemplify the need your organization fulfills second.

#3 Write with your audience in mind

At a basic level, storytelling interprets and mediates between the actual events or issues at hand and the mental landscapes of audiences. Like any act of interpretation or translation, doing this well can require some imaginative and empathetic thinking. How can you meet readers where they are? What context do they need to make sense of your arguments? What is the best philanthropic value proposition for each audience?

The best way to develop this muscle is by maintaining personal relationships with stakeholders and audiences.

The choices you make here will vary based on your target audience: frontline line staff at an organization will have a different perspective and knowledge base than board members or partner organizations. You’ll need to tailor your writing accordingly. If the piece you’re working on is meant for multiple audiences, one way of navigating this tension is to address it explicitly: you can include a “What does this mean for me?” section that speaks to various audiences in turn.

#4 Keep it short

In a perfect world, readers would evaluate your communications solely based on the quality of the content. If it were important enough, they’d stick with it and read through to the end. But the reality is, you’re always vying for readers’ attention. Brevity is key.

Make your writing scannable. Include headings (like this!), highlight key points and break up long paragraphs into chunks of 3-4 sentences to move your reader through the text.

Also, the medium matters. When you’re writing a narrative summary in a report, longer passages of richly descriptive copy may fit the bill: your readers may be more committed to paying careful attention to what you’ve written in that context than when reading web copy or a blog post.

These recommendations about length and form are broadly applicable, but the more your story has to compete for readers’ attention, the ‘stickier’ it should be.

Have questions or need support crafting your next communication material? Contact us!

For information on effective donor communications strategies, view Alford Group’s on-demand webinar.