8 practical tips for your charity storytelling strategy

8 practical tips for your charity storytelling strategy

Once upon a time digital marketing was all about the content. Good content, compelling content, shareable content. But then the people reading the content started to get overwhelmed by the volume of it and only the exceptional content was read anymore.

Social media for organisations is moving on, it's no longer about simply writing something that you hope your audience will find interesting, but about telling the stories that will engage them. Stories are much easier to remember than statistics and have the ability to trigger much stronger emotions, tugging on those heartstrings that will help build loyalty to your organisation. In fact, stories actually affect our brains in a way that facts and figures don't, as this Science of Storytelling infographic describes.

Charities by their very nature can't help but have stories. From emotional, life-changing yarns and heroic fundraising tales to everyday accounts of how people are getting on, charities are full of compelling, authentic, personal stories of battles won and hardships overcome.

But how do you get your narratives across without storytelling becoming another digital marketing initiative that you don't have the time or expertise to put into practice?

To help you on your journey, here are our 8 pieces of practical advice on how to implement storytelling into your digital communications strategy along with some of our favourite examples of charity storytelling:

1. Make sure your stories are relevant and helpful to your audience

A collection of stories on the Ovarian Cancer Action website convey different experiences of Ovarian Cancer. Tales of overcoming the disease sit side by side with stories from people who have lost loved ones and are working to raise awareness of the illness. Telling her story in her own words, Ovarian Cancer survivor Angela says "I was diagnosed with a large tumour over both ovaries. I had been expecting to be told to eat more prunes!". In this case, Angela's humour and personality shine through, plus insights into her home and family life help remind the reader that she is an individual just like them with a life and family. Sharing stories like this means that each protagonist becomes a hero on a journey, battling their own demons. Stories like these can provide so much to so many people:

  • Giving volunteers, staff and donors a sense of pride about the organisation they are supporting or thinking about getting involved with.
  • Giving information and hope to people who find themselves in a similar situation.
  • Giving potential donors a reason to donate (note the clear yet delicate call to action at the end of Angela's story).

2. Remember to structure your stories

A story is typically comprised of a hero, quest, danger, battle and triumph so bear these in mind when you are asking people to share theirs. This handy infographic describes some of the key elements of storytelling in further detail and will help you create structure to ensure you are grabbing the attention of your audience.

3. Get your people to tell their stories in their own words

Patrons, clients, patients, volunteers, customers, trustees and staff all have stories of how they came to be involved in an organisation. When people share these stories in their own words they automatically sound natural and authentic, just like in Angela's story above and in an example we found from Homeless charity Emmaus. Emmaus communities primarily support individuals moving on from homelessness, but they also pride themselves on helping lots of other people in different ways. They sat down with volunteer Denise and asked her to tell the story of how the charity craft group pulled her through a difficult time. Her story is a great way of illustrating what Emmaus is about as well as giving readers a nice snuggly feeling inside.

4. Let people tell their stories however they tell it best

Use different means to gather stories to enable as broad a spectrum of contributors as possible. Some people might like to write their story down on paper, others may prefer to sit face-to-face and tell you about it. Storytelling may come naturally to some and others might need prompting through a series of questions. Children in particular may find it easier to express their story through drawing or painting and initiatives such as BITE and Hip Hop Psych teach poetry, rap and hip-hop as a means for young people to communicate experiences they might otherwise feel uncomfortable talking about. As one Hip Hop Psych participant puts it "the beauty of hip-hop is that anything whatsoever can be expressed…"

Everyone involved in your organisation is different, so ask questions, listen to the answers and help people discover how they can best get their story across.

5. Curate and collect the stories about your charity

We wrote last year about how social media curation tool storify can be useful to charities, enabling you to pull elements together from various social media sites and make it visible to anyone with a web browser.

6. Embrace the power of images to tell your stories

Images can tell stories in a way that text can't. You may not have a professional photographer available to tell emotive photo stories like on the Unicef website but we'll bet that one of your volunteers is a budding amateur photographer just waiting to be asked to take some snaps for your blog. A photography student from your local college or university might be in need of a subject and iPhone photos of day to day activity can be a great way of telling your followers what you're up to and showing them a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes. Images ignite a curiosity and urge questions such as "I wonder what's happening there", which will prompt people to click through to find out more. The same principle goes for video too. Check out Oxfam UK's most recent campaign showing customers discovering treasures in the Oxfam warehouse as a way of driving awareness of Oxfam's online shopping platform.

7. Make it easy for your supporters to tell the stories for you

If you can encourage users to share their stories themselves on their own social media, you can potentially reach even more people. By encouraging twitter users to share pictures using the hashtag # notbymyselfie earlier this year, AGE UK gathered hundreds of stories highlighting the problem of loneliness in old age, doing a great job in raising awareness of their work.

8. Don't let the desire for a lengthy story put you off

Your stories don't have to be epic to be compelling. The Robertson Trust, a grant-giving organisation, have a collection of short stories on their website describing how their funding has aided the organisations they support. None of the stories are long and overly detailed, but they perfectly illustrate the work of the trust, and as a collection, may help to inspire other local groups and projects to apply.

In days long ago when content was king, stories were simply a means of entertainment. Now they are a vital part of your digital communications strategy, creating loyalty and support and inviting people to become the next chapter in the story of your organisation.

We love unearthing great examples of storytelling, so please tweet us and let us know about how you are telling the stories of your organisation.