Doug's Blog

Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Putting stories to work for good causes

For the past 30 years, I’ve been putting the basic skills (in my case, they’re basic) of finding and writing true stories to work for nonprofit organizations. Recently I gave a couple of workshops, in Vermont and California, on how to do this, and I wondered if I could put my main points in a single, simple post. So here goes:

Every good story is unique; there’s no perfect way to write, tell, or otherwise share one. But when you’re doing good work in the world, and you want to employ storytelling — in the media, on the web, in fundraising materials — to help build public understanding and support, I think these elements are key:

1. Stories center on people — not organizations.
When they know their work is making a difference, folks at nonprofits get frustrated that the media doesn’t just “get it” and print their press releases, or feature their projects. But what the media wants, and what the public connects with, is stories — and stories center on people. Organizations, however worthy, are far less engaging. So find a person whose narrative exemplifies the impact of your project or your work. You’ll connect best by starting with that person’s story, then broadening to talk about the program’s wider impacts.

2. Begin in a way that engages — usually by creating tension.
Creating tension pulls people into a story, so be clear about the realities your efforts are confronting. Organizations often focus entirely on fine, positive results — but that skips the tension that is sparked when we face a problem, confront a challenge, and/or work to make positive change. So make this clear early on.  

3. Give key facts, in the right places.
Think about developing the story in the reader’s mind. Where’s best to place each piece of information that we need, so we can follow — and you can develop the impact you want? The rule of thumb in news features is to give the reader the “nut,” or the key facts that make this newsworthy, within the first three or four paragraphs.

4. Use direct quotes, to build the story and give it voices we can hear.
Because they talk directly to the reader, quotes engage us; they enliven a story. A well-chosen quote can go anywhere that helps tell the tale — at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end.

4. Resolve the tension or drama you’ve built, in a way that shows the impact of your work.
Stories tend to have an arc: they create tension or drama, build it, then resolve it. In communicating for an organization or initiative, the resolution should serve your purpose — should leave us motivated in the way you want us motivated. Now that you’ve introduced us to someone (or several people) whom we can care about, who are struggling with this issue or challenge, how did your work make a difference for them? How do they exemplify the larger group of people whom you’re working to help, in this important way?

Finally, remember that storytelling is natural, and you know how to do it. 
Everyone tells stories, and everyone connects with them — so be natural! Take a relaxed, personal tone. Use simple, clear language.

In other words ... just tell the story.

When readers become champions
Reading good stories: the new brain therapy?
 

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Sunday, 23 February 2020

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