Whether you’re fundraising, asking people to support your cause, or recruiting volunteers—we need a single face to compel others to action. Your personal stories are that face. And more than a face—it’s the emotional impact your personal story has because we don’t make decisions just with our heads—we make them through a combination of head, heart, and (if you’re asking me), chocolate-frosted Old Fashioned Donuts. HELLO!
Aside from the donut part, there’s another deeply disturbing reason to focus on sharing personal stories: when a nonprofit mentions statistics, fundraising drops by 50%.
WHAT YOU’LL GET OUT OF THIS POST
How to craft a short, personal story you can easily weave into conversations with donor prospects, new board members, volunteers, public speaking events, and more. After sharing two very different storytelling approaches, you’ll learn a simple framework to help craft your “scene.”
Ready? Set? ACTION!
YOUR LIFE IS A MOVIE
I love movies because they’re a great storytelling device we’re all familiar with. Plus, I believe our lives are one continuous movie. In fact, a whole series of movies. And, within each of those movies are a series of scenes.
So, rather than a string of incidents that cross a vast amount of time—think of moments that happened in a single day, or maybe over the course of a few weeks. Let’s call them “life snapshots.”
Telling your stories this way will keep them tighter, punchier, and easier to tell.
STORYTELLING APPROACHES: WHICH IS BETTER?
1) The Straight Line is a chronological sequence of events: “This happened, then this happened, then this…” etcetera.
2) What a former employer gleefully dubbed, “auGified.”
Note: It’s an honor when someone dubs a writing style after your name. But here’s the rub—once people learn of your skill, you’ll become the go-to for every single brochure, email, or sales deck that needs editorial punch-ups.
“Hey, auGi. Will you please auGify this email to my grandma? Thanks.”
THE STRAIGHT LINE VS AUGIFIED
To illustrate the differences between the two, here are a couple of scenes from my own life. Let’s start with The Straight Line.
WARNING: This story may cause extreme drowsiness. Do not operate heavy machinery while reading.
THE STRAIGHT LINE
My mom lived with MS (multiple sclerosis) for 34 years. I got involved with the Society after she passed away in 2009. First at Walk MS. Then I spoke at Gala MS. Then I produced a do-it-yourself fundraiser at the end of 2011.
By 2012, I was well acquainted with the Chapter President. At the time, I was working as a creative director with a background in writing, design, video production, performing and producing shows. The Chapter didn’t have any local marketing support. So I pitched the Chapter Prez to do a video for Bike MS Oregon.
Six months later, I was freelancing for the Society. Then in November of 2013, I was hired full time as Marketing Director, which ultimately led to my career as VP of Marketing & Events.
Did you fall asleep? I don’t blame you. The Straight Line sounds like a résumé, right?
Here’s the good news: I know, firsthand—from my time in Hollywood to my work with numerous wonderful organizations—there’s a far more powerful way to tell your story.
So here’s another scene from my life—but this time, I’ll auGify it.
I’m alone in the cold, damp basement of a funeral home. And I’m absolutely terrified. Because I’m about to go upstairs and stand in front of a crowd of over 100 people—mostly strangers—and pour my guts out.
For the next hour, I stand beneath bright yellow lights, looking out at a sea of barely visible faces. They wince. They cry. They laugh.
Yeah, they laugh. Loud. Really loud.
See, I’m not reading a eulogy. This is Portland, Oregon, man – you know, land of big beards, tattoos, and the occasionally smug Barista who scowls at you for ordering a grande blended mocha.
“How dare you, sir! We do not mix coffee with chocolate into a preposterous caffeine shake!”
I’m at a place called The Woods.
Two hipsters, who look straight out of the show, Portlandia, have converted this ancient funeral parlor into its obvious next evolution: a nightclub.
I’m headlining a Do-it-Yourself fundraising show for the National MS Society in memory of my Mom.
The reason I was terrified that night had nothing to do with a fear of public speaking. I’m one of those weirdoes who enjoys humiliating himself in front of complete strangers. What scared me was the content of the one-man show I was performing.
It was called Rockstar Trapped in a Nurd’s Body.
In a nutshell, it’s my story—about growing up in the middle of nowhere, feeling trapped by the small town life (much like Luke Skywalker felt on Tatooine), but instead of finding my own hero’s journey through a couple of droids, the event that sets me off on the adventure is far more profound:
When I was 14, I went to a Rush concert.
It’s called “Rockstar Trapped in a Nurd’s Body” for a reason. Actually, two reasons:
Because I play songs I wrote when I was 14 inspired by Rush and
I’ve always felt like Neil Peart (Rush's drummer), but I look more like Art Garfunkel
But the show is also about my family; how we worked together to help my Mom cope with MS, much of it through humor. And how she encouraged me to follow my passions, even when she was slowly watching her own artistic abilities—and her voice—disappear.
After the show was over that night, something totally unexpected happened.
A line of friends lined up in front of the stage to talk with me. At the very back of the line was a woman in her early 30’s. Her name was Marie.
“I have MS. And I’ve been so bitter about it, so depressed...” Marie spoke with an intense stutter that reminded me of Mom. By the time she was 60, Mom could barely get out a single word; and here was this young, vibrant woman, already struggling.
Marie surprised me when she added, “But auGi…after hearing how your family used humor to cope, I’ve decided—I wanna try humor, too.”
Through the story of my Mom, Marie found hope. Her vulnerability to admit her own pain made me realize why sharing my Mom’s story—and how my Mom was so special to me—could be life-changing for others.
Hearing Marie say those words “I wanna try humor, too” changed my life.
Q: WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE STRAIGHT LINE AND AUGIFIED?
Now that you've witnessed two completely different ways to tell a "scene," which approach do you feel is more effective for the mission you’re working to accomplish?
THE 4 BUILDING BLOCKS OF YOUR SCENE
Aside from the classic “beginning, middle, and end,” including these four elements will supercharge your scene:
1) Show, don’t tell. We connect with stories best when we can see what you’re talking about. So use plenty of imagery.
2) Be in the story. Bring us into your world. The story may include other characters, mentors, or heroes, but YOU need to be the central character.
3) It’s OK to be vulnerable. Ultimately, we all make decisions with our emotions. When you show your heart, or your challenge, or your rawness, it will resonate more deeply because we’ve all experienced difficulties. Or as I learned the night Marie opened up to me about her anger towards MS: When you show your vulnerability, it gives permission for others to show their vulnerability.
4) Switch direction with a reversal. If a story has no conflict, guess what happens? Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. The way to insert conflict is to use the “B” Word. This magical word will flip your story and keep us listening or reading.
Q: What is this magical “B” word?
A: Bread? Butter? Botox? Or Burt Bacharach?
According to Howard Suber from the UCLA Film Archive, it's something else:
“Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, Casablanca...any statement you make about the central character [hero] has to be followed by the word 'but.' So Michael Corleone is a cold-blooded murderer, but he does it for his family. Rick Blaine sticks his neck out for nobody, as he tells you three times, but then he does, and sacrifices the only thing he’s ever really loved for the cause.”
Watch any episode of Fargo, Better Call Saul, or Magnum P.I. I guarantee, no matter if the scene starts with a positive/negative situation, it will flip the opposite direction by the end of the scene. This grabs our attention and our curiosity. It poses questions that make us wonder “What’s going to happen next?”
BONUS TIP: Keep your scene short and crisp. Though we’re all tempted (me included) to write a novel, we only need to share one scene from our life.
WHAT SCENE SHOULD I DEVELOP?
Great question. Assuming you work with an organization dedicated to social good, a great place to start is identifying a “genesis” story. And by that, I mean a moment in your life, like the moment I shared with Marie at my fundraising show, that started you down the path to your current mission.
Your scene could be from a childhood trip, a hero you met when you were young, a movie you watched, a book you read, or even your first concert (which, I’m going to guess, was New Kids on the Block).
Just think of a moment in your past that may have ignited your interest or passion in your cause, map out your beginning, middle, and end, and auGify it.
NEED HELP CRAFTING A STORY FOR YOUR TEAM, FUNDRAISERS, OR SUPPORTERS?
This is a really interesting article about why statistics fail to inspire fundraising:
The Science Why People Give Money to Charity – The Guardian
Kudos to my good friend, anthropologist/college professor/improviser, and frequent collaborator, Brad Fortier, for his gift of sharing the concept, “Linear" and "In Living Color,” which were the inspiration for “The Straight Line” and “auGified.”
#BringLuvity #EmpoweredByFun #storytelling