Why Storytelling is Key for the Social Sector – Three Do’s and Don’ts

Suzanne Smith

MISTAKEN IDENTITY: Focus on the Why vs. Who/What – Think about your elevator speech. We bet you do what everyone does – start with who you are and what you do. This is a common mistake for all of us. However, in the social sector, people are most interested in the why of what we do. We should share how we impact our clients and communities first and once we engage our audience, share what we do and who we are. Trust me, they will be interested. Try this small tweak for one week, and you will see the difference.

CONFUSED IDENTITY: Focus on One Thing vs. Everything – We also have a lot to say about our programs and our work, but let’s be honest – when we throw it all out there, it just confuses most people. To break through the clutter and engage people, it is crucial to boil our work down to the one thing that folks will remember. In fact, Maurice Saatchi of Saatchi and Saatchi, a famous advertising agency, calls it one-word equity. For example, the company MasterCard’s word is “priceless.” President Obama used “forward” in his political campaign. This may be tough to accomplish in the social sector, but I encourage you to identify the single word, or “big idea,” for why you exist and connect everything else to that one thing. Brainstorm your one word using our exercises.

STOLEN IDENTITY: Stories Exist No Matter What – If you don’t tell your story, others will. Do you want them to control the message, or do you prefer to control it? We recently worked with an amazing nonprofit on a strategic plan. Yet, when we asked its supporters and constituents to describe the nonprofit, the one word they mentioned most was “history.” While this is good for credibility and a great foundation to build upon, “history” is not a word that moves people to support a cause or organization. The nonprofit realized it needed to own its story in order to positively and more accurately shape its reputation in the community.

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