Published: 20 July 2012

Seeing the story

Writer Robert McKee says it’s the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today. And after recently reading his influential book Story about the art of storytelling, I’m inclined to agree.

“Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience,” he says. “They are the currency of human contact.”

Charity communicators can share some of the world’s most moving and memorable stories. Yet, sometimes, when you’re bogged down in bureaucracy, key messages and a never-ending workload, there isn’t time for story crafting. It can be hard to see beyond what you are doing to the story that will get supporters, donors and funders connected.

I believe that you can better see your charity’s story by applying aspects of storytelling to your comms, whether you're putting together a web page or writing a funding application. Here are five ideas for how to use storytelling techniques in your charity communications.

1. Take people on a journey. All communications should have a beginning, middle and end. Say you’re putting together a case study about someone supported by your charity. It needs to show what their life was like before they got involved with your cause, what you did to help them and how this has changed their life now, and in the future. Use the same structure (problem, what support you provide, the impact this makes) in all of your writing, whether it’s a report or a policy statement, so it’s more dynamic and communicates your vision.

2. Show the problem you aim to solve. In storytelling this is called “conflict”. So for example, a character might stop someone else achieving their goal. Similarly, in order to show the impact of your work, you need to clearly communicate what it is you are trying to change.

It’s the difference between…

We run 10 young carers projects across the country which support over 100 children and young people.

…and:

Young carers can be isolated, lonely and miss out on having an education. Our 10 projects support 100 young carers so that they can have a break – and a childhood.

3. Be people-focused. Including people in stories is what makes them resonate with readers. It’s remarkable how many charities rely on stock images to tell their story on their website. Investing in one or two days of a professional photographer’s time will give you pictures that tell your charity’s story in a more authentic way. Many charities don’t include case studies in their more “formal” communication materials either. But if you’re moved by the story of X volunteer or Y service user, then your audience is likely to be too. So, do include it in your funding application or newsletter to commissioners.

4. Think empathy. A useful question to ask each time you work on a new communications project is “Why should this audience care?” Stories only resonate with an audience if they can identify with them. This might translate to a carefully targeted pitch to a journalist rather than a blanket press release or a tweaked subject line in an email you’re sending out. Imagine you’re a charity that runs after-school clubs in disadvantaged areas. A story about the launch of your new project might tie into news of local authority cuts for a journalist audience. But if you’re explaining the service to mums, they’d want to know that it’s safe, free and local.

5. Focus on resolution. Most stories have some kind of resolution. Make sure you communicate with supporters about “the end” of stories you have involved them in. So, if you’ve sent out a direct mail pack appealing for donations to fund a specific project, always update donors on what happened next. If you don’t, their story of your charity may end with you asking them for money, and not thanking them for donating. That might result in a cancelled direct debit. Or if you’re writing your annual report, use this idea about resolution to remind you to focus on outcomes.

Instead of…:

This year we launched a new website to provide support to people around the world living with cancer.

…you could have:

Since we launched our new website in January 2012, 20,000 people have downloaded our guide about living with cancer and membership has increased by 65%.


Trina Wallace, copywriter and editor, freelance

Trina Wallace is a copywriter, editor and communications consultant with around 14 years’ experience in the charity sector. She has worked with over 70 charities, including Cancer Research UK, Rethink Mental Illness, Alzheimer’s Society and Oxfam. Trina specialises in writing audience-focused communications that inspire people to take action.