Breaking through the clutter

By Paul VanDeCarr, Managing Director, Working Narratives

Editor’s note: Paul spoke to WRAG members and local nonprofit representatives earlier this month at a program titled Storytelling for Social Change, part of WRAG’s 2014 Brightest Minds series. We asked him to share some storytelling advice for both funders and their grantees.

How do I break through the clutter and reach people with a great story? It’s a big question facing anyone who wants to boost support for her organization or cause. There’s a lot of talk in the philanthropic sector about “amplifying” our stories to reach people. But sometimes the best way to break through is not to go louder and broader, but to go smaller and narrower, like an arrow.

Consider these tips:

Know your audience. In strategic communications, there’s no such thing as the “general public”—only a specific group of people you need to persuade so you can achieve your objectives. That may be a particular policymaker, for example, or a narrow demographic of prospective donors. Breaking through the clutter is easier if you’ve identified an audience for each of your objectives. 

To do: Read Spitfire Strategies’ communications planning tool, the Smart Chart. Foundations can have a communications staffer or outside trainer work through communications strategy with grantees.

Tell a good, piercing story. Too many nonprofits tell success stories without revealing the struggle that the protagonist went through en route. As a result, audiences have nothing to hang on to or even feel. Tell stories of struggle, challenge, even failure, and you give audiences a way into your people and your cause—it invites people to join you and help create a good “ending” to the story. 

To do: Get together with colleagues for a brown bag lunch to discuss or present your favorite short stories, web videos, or other narratives. Examine them not for content but for how the storyteller draws you in—putting the protagonist through progressively tougher challenges, subverting the reader’s expectations, or whatever else.

Leave room for curiosity and suspense. The website has become famous (and reviled) for producing a stream of “irresistibly sharable” stories about “stuff that matters.” The site’s success is thanks largely to its headlines, which are designed to inspire curiosity that can only be satisfied by watching the video stories. Whatever you think of Upworthy, theirs is a valuable lesson: When telling a story, plant questions or doubts in your audiences’ minds, so that they want to stick around to the resolution; indeed, there is no resolution without a question to begin with.

To do: Review your own foundation’s or organization’s stories for whether you give people a reason to stick with you. Foundations could give extra funds to grantees or a grantee cohort to do market research—even informally—about what stories, headlines, or characters resonate most with target audiences.

Make your stories actionable and sharable. Once you’ve told a good story, audiences are more likely to want to participate in your work. As I write in this Working Narratives blog post, make your stories “actionable” by linking the personal to the political, creating pathways to action, and building partnerships starting early on—all so that people can more easily understand what action is required and take it. Also make your stories sharable; people are more likely to read or watch content that’s been recommended by a friend than from other sources. 

To do: Do an audit to see how “actionable” your stories are according to the criteria above.

I hope these techniques help you hit your target. For ongoing discussion of story strategies for funders, nonprofits, and storytellers of all sorts, please read the Working Narratives blog. New content is posted every Wednesday, including an upcoming series of posts in which story experts answer “narrative strategy” questions from people like you. Please write to with your questions and comments.