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The power of personal narrative: unlocking the story potential within your people

12 July 2022

An open secret floats among many in the charity sector. It is not the knowledge that stories are the foundation of human culture. Many of us know that stories help us understand ourselves and our surroundings and connect people from all walks of life. When told well, the common language that is story, will ignite a passion and curiosity inside your audience better than anything else – and when we feel personally connected to the story, amazing things happen. So what is the open secret?

It is that too many people representing charity organisations struggle to connect with the stories they are telling. Why? And how can we overcome this obstacle?

As a coach who works with charities day in and day out, I believe that the power lies in the personal narrative. When personal stories are woven into the fabric of fundraising, put at the heart of partnership engagement and used in our internal communication, everyone can connect meaningfully with the stories they tell and drive results that make all the difference.

So how do you and your teams harness this power?

Empower people to find and tell their own stories

Not everyone has lived experience of your charity’s work. Yet there is a way to explore your own stories, and those of your team, and find the gems lurking there if you know how to look. It is in personal stories that we build the most powerful understanding and emotional connection. Below are some tips on how to find these personal stories to tell and if relevant link them directly to your charity’s work in a way that enables you to forge personal connections that enliven future communications.

1. Break down your message, mission, vision or values and pull out keywords or underlying themes. 2. Reflect on your own life experience and identify where the underlying themes are evidenced. 3. Focus on the 5Ws + H and create your own story library.

How to find stories using your charity’s mission

Every charity has a clear mission. One thing often overlooked is that the underlying essence of most missions have a universal theme. This is good, because it allows everyone in the organisation to find their own connection to the work that is being done, without feeling like an impostor. Below is an example with some story mining prompts to find stories that connect.

At Marie Curie, their mission is to help people and their families living with a terminal illness make the most of the time they have together by delivering expert care, emotional support, research, and guidance. By embracing personal storytelling, they showed you don’t have to have direct lived experience of your charity cause to harness personal stories in your role but you do need to find a relevant connection. Here are the steps they took:

Step 1. Breaking down the charity’s mission:

Let’s highlight useful keywords…

To help people and their families living with a terminal illness make the most of the time they have together by delivering expert care, emotional support, research, and guidance.

Step 2. Look for stories in personal experiences

You and your team can ask yourselves…

What does making the most of your time mean to you? Can you remember what you were doing when you were making the most of your time with someone you love? This may have been as a child or recently as an adult. It can be any experience you cherished so let your mind and heart run free!

When were you given emotional support by someone who cares about you? What happened? What did it mean to you at the time? Do you recall receiving guidance from someone at a time when you felt most vulnerable? What were the circumstances? Why did it matter to you?

A great example of this is action is in this powerful keynote personal story told by Anne Hillion from the Legacy team at Marie Curie.  

Here’s what members of the Marie Curie Partnership Team had to say:

“The method/framework to tell a story genuinely works. It’s the first time I think all of us felt we were able to tell the Marie Curie story emotion and gravitas that felt personal. When I casually told a colleague (who hadn’t been there on the day) my final story, she immediately had tears in her eyes! It was an incredibly powerful way to connect with an audience”

Sharing personal stories at work can make people feel vulnerable and should only be done if they feel comfortable and safe doing so. It is about creating an environment where individuals are comfortable being authentic and not feeling forced.

Step 3. Create a story library

Now you and your teams have started to explore events in your life, it is helpful for each person to have a library of their own stories to refer to for future communication engagements. Stories come to life when a storyteller considers, who they were with? What happened? When and where something took place? Why they were there? How an event made them feel? A story library template is available to download for free here to help.

Don’t worry if you haven’t had the direct lived experience of the charity’s work. For example, someone working for the Stroke Association, may not have had a stroke themselves, or been impacted by someone they love who has a stroke. But this does not mean they do not understand the universal human value of “deserving to live the best life”! When you see that everyone’s experience is full of powerful stories that connect with a charity’s purpose, it enables you and your teams to tell those stories that are unique to you, carefully and with heart and drive home your message.

Unlock the human potential in your charity

We know the storytelling brain is a meaning-making machine. When it is connected to our emotional experience, it comes alive and fuels our purpose in our fundraising, partnership development and leadership engagement work. Energising ourselves and our people to tell their own stories at a time when many are looking for authenticity, we must seek ways to continually innovate and still stay true to our purpose.

Just as funding is the life blood of a charity organisation, stories are its beating heart. Now it is time to unlock the power of the personal narrative of your people and teams. Powerful stories that exist within each and every one of your people are dying to be told.

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Banner Image: Karolina Grabowska on Pexels

Calvin Niles

strategist, copywriter, and transmedia storyteller, Calvin Niles: Charity Storytelling

Calvin is a strategist, copywriter, and transmedia storyteller. His clients are from across sectors in the UK including Teneo Global, The Challenge, Marie Curie, Mencap and more. An expert facilitator and coach, he has specific interests in storytelling training, keynotes, multimedia, content creation and writing.