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The Importance of Listening for and Sharing Stories

October 10, 2018

Share_your_story­When leaders of today's most vibrant social movements gather in a ballroom for a day to share advice and lessons learned, we ought to listen — and not just because as leaders of nonprofits competing for people's attention, dollars, and time, we should welcome opportunities to learn as much as we can about how best to apply our efforts to bring about change.

In September, leaders from the Ad Council, the Born This Way Foundation, Young Invincibles, the Transgender Law Center, the MBK Alliance, the National Geographic Society, and other organizations and causes gathered in Washington, D.C., at the Influence Nation Summit to talk about the tactics they've used in the past to move large numbers of people to take action.

Running through their remarks were two critical points that many nonprofits struggle to operationalize: 1) Listening is more important than talking; and 2) Sharing authentic stories with a compelling message is at the heart of every successful movement.

Listening is more important than talking

If you're a professional fundraiser, you've heard the admonition to focus on your donors and establish them as the "hero" of the narratives you share with supporters and stakeholders. You've been told to use "you" in your messaging instead of "we," to evoke donors' empathy by appealing to their emotions, and to assure them that whatever your organization has accomplished is due to their generosity and passion for the cause.

Imogen Napper, one of the speakers at the Influence Nation Summit, is a marine biologist and a National Geographic Sky Ocean Rescue Scholar who is focused on ridding the oceans of plastic, including plastic fibers found in clothing. Without listening to the online conversation around the topic, however, you might think Napper supports a ban on synthetic fibers in apparel. Not so. As she told attendees at the summit, "Plastic is a fantastic material as it is so versatile....Seventy percent of clothes are made of plastic. Therefore, it would be difficult and often expensive to completely avoid it." What people want instead, she said, is access to information that allows them to make informed decisions about the clothing they buy.

In other words, before you go out to recruit new donors to your cause, it's imperative that someone on your staff spends some time finding and listening in on the conversations that are already happening around your issue.

Telling authentic stories with a compelling message

The second component of a successful movement naturally follows the first. Careful listening should give you a good idea of the language, concerns, and passion points surrounding your issue so you can then use that information to create stories that don't overpower the conversation but instead dramatize the issue in an unforgettable way.

Conservation International's Anastasia Khoo, another summit speaker, said those of us who work for causes have to make sure we are inspired by the messages we create. "We have to be bold and fearless," she added. Michael Skolnik of the Soze Agency agrees, stressing the need for authenticity and passion. "I have to believe that you believe it," says Skolnik. "Tell a story from your heart."

So while you're recruiting new donors and working to retain the ones you already have, try to gather information you can use to create compelling stories for and with your supporters. How? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Look for ways to create common ground. How is your issue personally relevant to the lives of those you want to engage? How can you make that connection? Your goal is to help potential supporters "see" themselves in your organization or cause, which will make them much more willing to give their time, money, and attention.

Invite people to share. Most people won't talk about themselves unless they're asked. So ask — on social media, on your website, in your email communications, and at your events. Charge your staff with collecting stories that might be good for sharing. (And if someone asks that their name or story not be used, be sure to honor their request.)

Learn how to tell stories via Facebook Ads. Facebook may not be the best place to make a cold pitch, but it's an excellent platform for telling stories. Pay attention to organizations, causes, and campaigns on the platform that seem to work and try to emulate them. Using Facebook Ads, you can post a video, tell a story in a single ad or sequence of ads, or start a story in a post and the provide a link to the rest of it. Facebook has kept the cost of the service low, so it's easy to test to see what is and isn't working. And remember: the key to a story well told is eye-catching imagery.

Social movements that achieve success often seem to have done so spontaneously, but that's rarely the case. Behind every successful movement are people and organizations that have taken the time to listen first and then find and craft stories that pack an emotional punch. It isn't a new idea: nonprofits have been telling stories and talking about their causes for decades. What's changed is the environment in which stories are told and shared, including the speed and reach of digital communication, the greater awareness of social issues across a wider swath of the population, and the way young adults view their personal capital (dollars, time, attention). We live in an increasingly "noisy" world and breaking through the noise with a well-crafted message isn't getting any easier. But if you listen first and then dig in and create stories that appeal to others with a passion for your cause, your chances of success will improve dramatically. 

Headshot_derrick_feldmann_2015Derrick Feldmann (@derrickfeldmann) is the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change and the founder and lead researcher for the Millennial Impact Project.

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