Storytelling is an important art and skill for any fundraiser. Brian Fitzgerald, director of Dancing Fox, shares his tips on how to tell stories that will inspire listeners, so that they want to take action.
“In the dark, I heard the bear charge. My life now depended on one single decision: did I cover my head and play dead, or leap up and make myself as huge and scary as possible?”
There are good strong evolutionary reasons your brain lights up and comes to attention and wants to know how that story turns out. All of us, regardless of race or nationality, are hard-wired to pay attention to the stories our fellow humans tell of choices they’ve made, and how well those choices enabled them to overcome an obstacle or an enemy.
Even if we don’t live in a country with bears, there’s a part of our brain that projects ourselves into that story and asks what we would do, because stories play an important role in human society: survival.
The ability to hear a story is an outrageously complex skill. Our brain needs to filter story elements from the mass of incoming signals - who is the hero? What’s the challenge? What values does the protagonist hold and how do they compare to mine?
Stepping into the shoes of the storyteller, we weigh their choices against what we would do. We approve or disapprove of the teller depending on the choices they make. If the teller survives or succeeds, we tuck the story of the choice they made away – in a place we can find it if we ever face circumstances remotely akin (literally or metaphorically) – to those presented in the story.
We’re good at it, because we’ve been selected over millions of years of evolution to BE good at it. It’s precisely what has made us the apex species on planet Earth. Those of us who learned from the experience of others, who “lived to tell the tale” ourselves, lived to tell the tale again. Those who were unable to analyse, store, and extract the lessons from those stories? They got eaten by the bear.
So in a world where the tribal story circle in the forest clearing has been replaced by the digital campfires of the web, email and social media - a borderless world - how do we tell stories that make the brain light up and pay attention? How do we tell stories that model or champion choices that we want our audience to make?
At Dancing Fox, we teach storytelling techniques to communicators, fundraisers, campaigners, and change artists. Among my favourite is a technique that Marshall Ganz and Caesar Chavaz developed as young organisers among the migrant workers of California back in the 60s: Motivational storytelling through three chapters: the story of Self, Story of Us, and Story of Now. For anyone looking to motivate an audience to take action, it’s a powerful formula whether executed as speech or written word. I’ll take you through a few simple pointers on how to apply the formula to borderless storytelling.
Chapter 1: Story of Self.
Find a real person with a deeply personal story that makes the choice you want your audience to make heroic, but human.
Your protagonist may be a victim that has been rescued, a donor who feels deeply thankful for the chance to make a change, a hero who saved a life or a village. They need to be able to tell a story that makes your audience admire them, want to help them, or want to BE them. They need to tell a genuine tale of a choice they faced, and why they chose to act, in a way that makes your audience say “YES, I would do that as well." It needs to be a human story, told eye to eye to the audience as if it could come from the reader or listener’s brother, mother, or a mate in the pub: anything but a worthy, larger than life, up-on-a-pedestal superhuman. Your storyteller needs to feel what your audience would feel, fear what your audience would fear, love what your audience would love. Emotion — not rationality, not fact — is what’s essential here.
Chapter 2: Story of Us.
Erase the personal boundary. This is when you tap into the values of your audience and invite them to see themselves as part of the storyteller’s tribe.
Once your hero has established their story, they need to bring the audience in to it. You need to know the audience you’re reaching for at this stage. When you’re speaking to a global audience, you need to go deep into the human experience. Whether you use it literally or not, the bridge to the Story of Us can usually be phrased “We all know what it’s like to…”
We all know what it’s like to face a difficult choice. We all know what it’s like to be afraid. We all know what it’s like to know the right thing to do...
Your storyteller needs to invite the audience to recognise the common human bond with the storyteller, so that they slip into their shoes. None of us want schools to be places where our children are bullied — and all of us know what it’s like to be made fun of because we’re too tall, or too short, or too smart… There are dozens of ways to take the most niche and unusual circumstances and plant them squarely in the context of your audiences’ own lives. The "story of us" is the point where you establish community, where the story of your hero becomes the story of everyone listening.
Chapter 3: The story of Now.
Give a sense of urgency and agency to your call to action. Your storyteller made a choice. Now is the time to ask the audience to make their own choice. If you’ve constructed your story well, your audience is ready: they admire the choice the storyteller has made, they feel they would do the same literally or metaphorically, they feel their values have been reinforced, they feel a sense of unity with the storyteller and the listeners: what remains is to show them a choice that matters.
The best calls to action are urgent. They make the audience feel their own action is essential to success and absolutely has to happen NOW - no matter where they are in the world. You’ve created a magical sense of community, of bond not only with the storyteller but with the others they know are hearing this tale. People power is flexing its muscles. The strength of the crowd is rising. What it needs is the fierce urgency of a set task, now, to make the lightning strike.
“I remembered the words of my old scout master about bears: if it’s black, attack, if it’s brown, lie down.” In the pitch dark, a sudden flash of lightning revealed my attacker was a black bear, and I leapt to my feet, threw my arms wide, and screamed at the top of my lungs. The bear did a cartoon skid and turned, terrified, to run back into the forest. And there's a story to remember about bears.”
About Brian Fitzgerald
Brian is director of Dancing Fox, a creative agency based in Amsterdam that specialises in beautiful mischief and storytelling for change-makers. Together with Tommy Crawford, he founded the agency after 35 years of storytelling and activism with Greenpeace International. Dancing Fox helps NGOs and charities articulate their organisational stories, runs trainings and workshops in story technique and story as theory of change, and helps shape story-based campaign strategies. He tweets, blogs, and speaks on story, activism, art, behavioural economics, persuasion science, and technology.