Crafting Sticky, Emotional Stories That Reach Your Audience

I’m taking a break from my website strategy series to bring you a blog on storytelling that was originally published on TechSoup. If you like this, don’t forget to check out my other posts on storytelling

Sitting around the campfire!
Imagine a story being told to children around a campfire. Now swap out the children with adults. It’s going to be a different story, right? The more you write directly for your audience, the more they will relate to your story. (Photo credit: Scott Kozinchik)

Remember the old woman who lived in a shoe? Or the man who stepped in a puddle up to his middle? Or Peter Peter, pumpkin-eater who had a wife but couldn’t keep her? Even if you don’t remember the full rhyme, one of them probably rings a faint bell. That’s because these aren’t just children’s nursery rhymes; they’re sticky stories, or stories that stick with you for decades.

When we were children, we all knew how important stories were. Many of us demanded them every night, sometimes over and over again. We like to be entertained, and we definitely like to hear about the impossible.

So, isn’t it obvious that’s how you should be reaching your audience? And I don’t mean rhymes, but really high-impact, emotional stories, true stories. Because there are many out there waiting to be told.

Now I know storytelling is a buzzword right now, and buzzwords come and go. Storytelling has been a buzzword before, and will be again. As a former journalist, I was passionate about it before, and I will continue to be long after people have moved onto the next buzzword. But even when storytelling is not a buzzword, your story needs to be told.

And these stories you want to tell need to stick, they need to entertain, and yes, sometimes they need to talk about the near impossible.

So, How the Heck Do You Tell Such a Sticky, Emotional Story?

We’ll get to that, but first, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.

  • Understand your audience. Imagine a story being told to children around a campfire. Now swap out the children with adults. It’s going to be a different story, right? The more you write directly for your audience, the more they will relate to your story.
  • Understand your goal. Do you want people to see your organization differently, or take an action, or make a donation? How are you communicating this goal?
  • Interviewing skills are essential. You will need them if you want to write an amazing story.
  • Read a lot and practice a ton. The best way to learn how to tell a story is to read other stories and look at how they were developed. For instance, take this long, amazing story, “Invisible Child: Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life” by Andrea Elliott, published in The New York Times. That story took 15 months to develop.

Reading articles like this will only get you so far. You also need to practice crafting your own stories. So, next time you have an in-depth talk with someone, play with crafting their story in your mind. How would you write it?

  • You Understand the Issues — Use That to Your Advantage. Just by working at your organization, you may know far more about your cause than you realize. Your background information will come in handy. The hard part will be figuring out how to put that into words and which pieces are directly important in this particular story.

You should also ask yourself a couple of questions.

  • Who should tell the story? Does it make sense for you, someone else on staff, or should you bring in a consultant to help?
  • Should you ask your audience to share their stories? This depends on a number of things, including the size of your audience and what kinds of stories they could share. It also depends on what you want to accomplish by collecting and sharing stories, and on you understanding and accepting it will still take a decent chunk of time.

As a co-coordinator for NetSquared DC, I recently helped organize a storytelling event in DC. One of our presenters, Brandi Horton, vice president of Vanguard Communications, shared an interesting case study. She worked with Farm Aid to solicit about 500 stories from its audience to share. Some of her top tips included: Provide guidelines, offer incentives, get releases, and save time for quality control.

  • What platforms should you share your story on? You can tell your story via email, website, video, and social media. You might be able to expand it on your website, then promote it and link to it from any one of your platforms. Each time you share it, you should tailor it to your audience on that platform. This, of course, takes time, so be strategic about which platforms make the most sense to share a particular story on.

And, finally, how do you craft a story and keep it sticky from the beginning to the middle to the end? Start with a strong lead, structure your story well; add lots of flavor; remember, show, don’t tell; and, of course, end it superbly.

The Beginning: How Do You Draw Your Reader In?

“Rahul Udebham’s wife tells me about the morning before it all happened, when the loan shark came to claim payment of all the debts, how he paced like mad among the cotton plants screaming: ‘If you don’t pay, this land will be mine!'”

That opening in “Graves of Cotton” by Fernando Molina Cortés immediately grabs your attention, and leaves you asking questions and demanding more information.

Just like this piece by Tyler Riewer at charity: water: “It was an unseasonably warm summer night, and 14-year-old Grace was rushing down the narrow and secluded path from her village to Lake Victoria.” Based on short summary text before the start of the story, you already know that Grace was assaulted. Now the author writes to draw you in to being on the village path.

You have three sentences or fewer to catch your reader’s attention and convince them your story is worth reading before they move on to something else.

And catching people’s attention has a lot to do with drawing them in with emotion. This was also something that was agreed on by all of our speakers at the recent NetSquared DC event I mentioned in my earlier post.

For example, check out this amazing video that tells the story of a volunteer at The Salvation Army by documentary filmmaker Vladimir Pcholkin.

People don’t connect with other organizations; they connect with other people, Mr. Pcholkin said to our audience. And with this video, he connects you directly with this volunteer’s powerful story.

Reading these opening sentences above or watching this video makes it look easy, but when it comes to writing it on paper, it can be tough. What has worked for me is often not sitting down to write until I have already written a story opening in my head.

However, other times you might start your story one way, and then find a more perfect beginning buried at bottom. It’s perfectly normal if that happens; just take the new story opening and move it to the top and make any necessary adjustments.

Other times you really are unable to write an opening you’re happy with. Whenever that happens, it probably means you haven’t done enough reporting on your story. Talk to someone else or circle back with people and ask new questions. Keep digging, and you’ll find a way to communicate your message.

The Middle: Why Should Your Reader Care?

After your opening paragraphs, you will need to provide your reader with some context, to show them why this story matters and how it affects them. Sometimes it’s a good idea to state some facts and figures here to help the reader understand this.

Scroll through the first few paragraphs of these excellent stories:

Each reporter has a specific reason for every fact they have included. You need to think about it the same way when writing your story.

It can be easy to get distracted with all the information that you know, or all the information that you think is important. Melissa Rogers, supervising producer at Stone Soup Films, echoed the same thought at our NetSquared DC event. Everybody always wants to tell everything, but you need to stay focused, she said.

The best way to do this is to pick one topic for the story, and keep all the other information not directly related at the bottom of your current document or even in a separate file. If it comes out when you’re writing, copy and paste it in another document. You can always write another story on another topic with another goal.

Here are a couple of other tips for continuing to keep the reader engaged:

  • Use details. Add descriptive flavor and great quotes that help move the story along. You get both of these with great listening skills. Tanya Hutchins, who produces videos with the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, reminded us at our NetSquared DC event that listening is crucial.
  • Accuracy is vital.
  • Always do more research. Whether you do this through interviews or reading will depend on the goal of your story, but soak up as much as you can on a topic. Even if that information is not directly included in the final story, it will help you craft it.

The End: How Do You Wrap It Up?

Who cares about the ending? Will anyone read that far? The short answer is almost everyone, and definitely. You hear everyone talk about movie endings, right? Yet, the endings of stories often get left until the writer is tired, or rushed because there’s never enough time.

I hate to see a great story ruined by an ending that falls flat. But the most important reason to have a great ending is because the people who make it to the end — and love the ending — are going to be your super fans. These “super fans” are your champions, or your biggest supporters, and they are the ones who will share your story.

When I say you want to have a great ending, I’m talking about how it’s written, not necessarily the emotion it brings across. Great endings can evoke a range of different emotions.

Here are some tips I’ve either used or come across on story endings.

  • Endings can offer a hint of the future.
  • Stories should start wrapping up earlier than the last paragraph, so endings don’t seem abrupt, or come as a total shock.
  • What you want people to feel or leave people thinking about depends on your goal.
  • Unlike in academic papers, story endings should not summarize what has already been said.
  • They can refer back to the beginning of the story.
  • They can end with a great quote.

And here’s my quote: “Crafted well, stories can have an amazing impact and can be part of a movement to effect change. Start crafting that story in your head now and see where it takes you.”

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