The Art of Storytelling: Telling Stories that Matter

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Short Story Long, Diving into Storytelling 

Nowhere are stories more important than in the nonprofit sector. Also, nowhere is it easier to find stories than in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits often do serious work and it can be hard to recognize your great stories when your head is always down working on a plan to save your little corner of the world. But telling stories is the most powerful way to communicate your mission, successes and failures—yes, failures.

Stories are one of the few things that we humans do universally, across time and across culture. They have been used to shape culture and morals, recount history and simply entertain. Our unique ability to tell stories has been with us for ages and is a part of our DNA. It makes sense to leverage something so ingrained in the human experience.

We will do our best to help you craft your own stories and leverage your storytelling power using a few simple concepts and a couple of written exercises.

What a story is and what it is not

From a mechanical standpoint, a story is a series of events with a beginning, middle and end. This definition, equally factual and banal, leaves out a few key elements.

A story shows transformation, a story makes your audience feel, and a great story is relatable—we can all understand it because we all share the experience to one degree or another. And stories don’t need to be long to be effective:

I gave my very good friend of 30 years a couch to sleep on for a month, because his 27-year marriage was coming to an end after an epiphanic heart attack, immediately followed by a triple bypass, which gave him a new perspective on happiness.

This is a pretty extreme story of transformation. Why is this story powerful? Transformation. Feeling. Relatability.

What a story is not

Stories are not rants. If I had told you how horrible my friend’s wife—now ex-wife—was, then that would be a rant. It may be filled with anecdotes, but it isn’t a story.

Stories are not journalism. Journalism is intended to recount events and tell the facts. Yes, there are some stories in journalism, but the two are not synonymous. (For more about journalism, see the link below.)

Stories are definitely not academic writing. Academic writing is designed to be void of emotion and personal experience, and just deliver hard truths and data. It is fine to use data in stories; in fact, it makes the data more memorable.


You have great stories

At this point, you might be thinking…

“I’m not sure if I have good stories…”

You do have good stories; you just need to dig them out! The reason you feel this way is because you are so close to your organization. It seems ordinary because you see it, and do it, every day. Your organization is made of people who volunteer, who work, who donate, who receive—all for the same mission but for their own reasons. This is where it gets interesting. Show the humanity of your organization.

“Nothing ever happens that anyone would want to hear about.”

The little things can be very interesting. What do we remember about the movie Office Space? The red stapler! The passive-aggressive guy with his stapler is way more memorable than any other part of the story. Why? Because his struggle against the insurmountable force of his apathetic boss resonates with all of us. His persisting battle imbues the one thing we all share: tiny crusades for a crumb of peace and happiness against the maelstrom of modern living.

“But I want to show the best side of our organization.”

You should, but vulnerability is authentic. The greatest irony of life is that the difficult moments are what make life worth living. We are forced to live more fully when we struggle. Besides, how boring would Harry Potter be if everything went his way all the time and life was peachy-keen for the boys and girls at Hogwarts? You must tell the story of your failures, uphill struggles and how you conquered them (or failed to).


If you are not telling stories because you’re afraid of offending people or getting sued, don’t worry about it. Just ask for permission or change the names and specific locations to protect their identities.

“I couldn’t afford child care during my undergrad, so I occasionally took my shy 6-year-old daughter to school. We were sitting together in the front row of a packed auditorium, me with my notebook and she with her Powerpuff Girls coloring book. Professor Simmons, a young and long-haired sociologist, was lecturing on communications in micro culture when he singled her out as an expert in what he called “kid language.”

She knew he was talking to her. She froze for a moment and then looked up at me like a lamb that knew she was heading to the dinner table.

Not quite knowing how to respond, I just told her not to worry and “just go back to coloring.”

She put her head down and started to sob while trying to finish her picture.

There was a simultaneous “Awwwww” from every girl in the room, which just made things worse.

Is this story true? Yes. Was Professor Simmons a sociologist? Also yes. But his name wasn’t Simmons. He knows who he is. We’ve joked about this incident; in fact, I brought my now adult daughter to his office one afternoon to bring it full circle.


Tell the truth and you don’t have to remember anything. ~ Mark Twain

How many times have you been at a party and somebody started telling a story and suddenly the story took an unbelievable turn? You didn’t need to fact-check them—you knew that the teller didn’t know where to go with the story and just made up the last part, at which point they lost all credibility.

You must maintain the truth; people can often see a manufactured story a mile away. Maintaining the truth doesn’t mean that you need to recall every little detail and everything said. The little details are not that important—they can be left out or just made up, so long as they fit or make the image more vibrant.

When I met her, she was sitting on the university lawn, barefoot, reading Irish poetry and drinking tea from an NPR mug.

Do I remember that it was Irish poetry? Or that it was an NPR mug? Nope. But those details don’t matter. And yet they can be used to paint a vivid picture of who this person is.


Lawrence of Arabia: Who am I? Where am I from?

Finding Nemo: Trust each other

Romeo and Juliet: Love knows no bounds

We can all relate to these themes. We can identify with these characters and their struggles. These themes are simple and are woven into the story without ever explicitly stating the theme. Why is it not explicitly stated? Because the writers trust the intelligence of the audience.

What it the theme of your organization? This is different from the story of your organization, as in exercise No. 4, which is seen below. Is the theme trust? Bringing people together? Acknowledge your theme and use it to relate the stories to your audience, and trust them to get it.

Find your stories

Keep a journal, even if it’s just sticky notes or scribbles on scrap paper. When things happen, jot them down. Anecdotes are the seeds of stories.

Look inward. What have you struggled with? What are the failures? How did you overcome them? Is your organization the underdog? Why? Did you beat Goliath? How?

Leverage your supporters and volunteers. You have a huge network of people with their own unique experiences and they would love to tell their stories.

Story-finding exercises

Answer these questions and keep answering them until you run out of answers. For each, jot down anything that comes to mind: anecdotes, people involved, setting, time frame, etc. Look for extremes, find the quirks.

  1. My org is _____________.


  1. My supporters are __________.


  1. My org was _____________.


  1. ________ is the story of my org.


  1. ________ is the theme of my org.
  1. My org’s biggest flaw is ________.
  1. I wish my org was like _______, but it is really like ______.


These things will alienate your audience. Really, who wants to hear a story that starts with…

“I left my winter clothes at my sorority house back at Brown. I’ll just have to buy new ones when I get to Aspen…” said a young, model-thin girl at a group interview for a job at a big name tech company.

“Well, I took a job at a terrible Mexican restaurant because I can’t afford to buy groceries,” replied the Arab Texan who attended a small state school. He was the odd man out in a room thick with the scent of the Ivy League.

In short, don’t:

  • Brag
  • Be too cool for school
  • Name-drop or place-drop

Also don’t:

  • Use clichés like: “The student became the teacher”
  • Be predictable if you can avoid it


  • Show the stakes; set the stakes at the top of the story
  • Make us care about the characters (yes, you, your org and your volunteers are characters)
  • Show how much you care and how far you’re willing to go
  • Show why the journey matters

Key takeaways

  • Find the stories, look for extremes and quirks
  • Leverage your people
  • Find the theme
  • Be honest but don’t sweat the small details, or use them to your advantage
  • Ask permission or simply change the names
  • Take notes and more notes

Want to take the next step? Apply what you just learned to your calls to action. Here’s how.

For more about journalistic writing.