Making the Most of Your Best Stories

Focus on a few great stories and build as many doors into them as possible.

Upheaval. Disruption. Revolution. These are the words we associate with the Internet’s impact on traditional storytelling. It has eroded the power of gatekeepers; rendered broadcast nearly obsolete; birthed new, creative forms and constraints; and put the power of data in every organization’s hands.

A lot of my work takes place in the borderlands between nonprofits and digital storytelling, where upheaval, disruption, and revolution aren’t always taken as positives, opportunities, or signs of progress. In fact, they can place an intimidating burden on nonprofits not only to deliver their core programs, but also to play the role of media companies and publishers, expected to constantly compete with professional storytellers.

Perhaps at your organization, it feels like this expectation is tantamount to suddenly being expected to compete in, I don’t know, real estate. Well, we can go with that metaphor for a minute, if you’ll bear with me—because carefully constructing a story that both communicates and furthers your mission is a little bit like building a house from scratch. If you approach it like a traditional house with one door and many windows, you’ll find yourself with a story most people can merely peek inside. That’s the kind of house most journalists, authors, and filmmakers have traditionally built—their industries are used to painstakingly producing great stories … and then immediately moving on to the next ones. But you don’t have to get stuck building many houses in quick succession; instead, focus on inviting as many people inside a single house as you possibly can.

The thing is, you don’t need more stories. You need more doors—more ways to get inside the story. 

And here’s where digital storytelling should become an asset—not a burden. With the tools and platforms at your fingertips, one great story can open more doors than ever before. Just keep a few things in mind:

  • Design the doors before you build the house. If you construct a perfect story without a clear sense of who’s supposed to hear it and how they’ll find it, you’ll limit possibilities and probably even waste your time. Make sure the doors are also as accessible to your audience as possible—data can help you learn where they spend their time, and social media can help you reach them.
  • Create clear paths to your doors, designed to attract a variety of audiences to open them and come inside. This is where great headlines, A/B testing, memes, animated GIFs, and listicles come in. Think of them as teasers, but don’t let these tactics distract you from constructing the best core story possible.
  • There are probably great stories to be told about the building of the house, and about your many builders. Consider versions of your story where your staff, beneficiaries, and allies are the protagonists. Don’t be afraid to build doors even to the unfinished or slightly dilapidated rooms: Some of your target audience might better identify with those doors than the ones that are shiny and new, and you want to let those folks in too because they might be able to help you build even more.
  • As long as the foundations and the core structure remain intact, be prepared to accommodate some redecorating or even some unintended additions. Ceding some amount of control comes with the territory; better to invite people in to help finish the construction than to shut them out for the sake of keeping your home immaculate.

Metaphor aside, my point is that every nonprofit has access to the emotional ingredients of a great story—an asset that commercial marketers spend millions to invent from scratch—and the luxury of a focused mission that traditional content companies don’t have. So, fear not! Today you might feel you’re stretching to catch up with professional storytellers, but if you focus on a few great stories and build as many doors into them as possible, you may find the pros will start striving to catch up with you.