By Maria Dieter, Communications Coordinator, PSI
“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” – Mother Teresa
At PSI and NGOs like us, we’re often focused on statistics. It’s with great pride our website reads: Last year, PSI added 38.1 million years of healthy life with our products and services, and 18.6 million couple years of protection with our family planning products.
That’s because numbers equal impact, and we need to prove impact to our donors. But when you read that sentence, did you feel connected to our work? Did you feel empowered to support it?
Our donors want to prove their impact too. And they want the human angle of these statistics. At USAID, for example, their advice for writing “Success Stories” is clear: “Use powerful statistics; communicate progress … and bring it to life with a personal narrative.” We’re being asked to bring our statistics to life with stories that describe not only the obstacles those who we serve face, but the approach that we bring to helping to solve some of the toughest issues in development.
And it’s not surprising that donors and partners request stories. There’s neuroscience behind it. Stories played a part in the earliest human evolution. Scientists have found that the simple act of hearing or watching a story can activate feelings of empathy within the listener. When you can get someone to feel for a subject, you can often get them to act.
Stories can be about anyone, anywhere. But a well-written story will always have four elements:
- Small story/significant saga- When telling the story of your work, you want to keep in mind the “so what?” In other words, what does this story hope to tell about the larger state of the world in which your character lives. The significant saga may be about the number of women with an unmet need for contraception in a given country, but the small story is about one woman’s journey to get her need met. The significant saga lends broader meaning to your work. The small story gives life to the larger story. You need both.
- A relatable character– Every story must have a protagonist. And remember that a good story helps your audience feel for the subject, allowing them to connect with your character in some way. Maybe they have relatable pain or suffering, or are unfairly treated. But it doesn’t have to be a negative trait. Perhaps she’s an entrepreneur or someone who loves to run marathons. Could you imagine your audience identifying with your character? Think about your favorite children’s story; what makes you root for the main character. At NGOs and non-profits, we have an additional responsibility. We aim to portray our characters as people first, not as victims. The most compelling stories are about individuals who are given access to tools that empower them to help themselves, and hopefully have the ability to take control of an aspect of their lives.
- Desire- Your character should want something very badly, and this should be obvious from the beginning of the story. This goal should be singular, concrete and specific. For example, “to get healthy” is not a concrete or specific goal. “To get to the clinic on Friday for an IUD,” is a very specific goal.
- Conflict- What stands in the way between your character and their desire? Conflict is an integral part of storytelling- the story starts when conflict starts, and ends when the obstacle is overcome.
Want to see these elements in action? Check out some of the stories PSI has written using the “storytelling formula.”:
PSI also conducts storytelling trainings for our colleagues. Our next training in Washington, DC will be held November 8-9, and is now taking signups. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if interested.