How to tell engaging stories

Michael Wunder | Community Storyteller

Stories are an essential tool in community building. They foster emotional connection, make information more memorable, and build stronger understanding of other people’s experiences. You should absolutely use stories when promoting your affiliated fund. But writing a story can feel daunting, so we’ve put together some tips to help you get started.

Why are you telling this story?

Some might say storytelling is a bit of an adventure. But one with an itinerary, because losing the plot can derail even the most tantalizing tale. When writing for personal reasons, going with the flow can be intensely freeing. While writing to share your fund’s message? It can get frustrating. Fast.

First, you should determine why you’re telling this story. Are you raising awareness? Trying to inspire donations? Influence decision-makers in your community? For instance, in this story, we wanted to inform readers about the importance of early childhood education in Keith County.

With your why in mind, begin working on an outline. Preparing a rough layout of your story is helpful when you start interviews and writing, but this outline should be flexible. Be open to changing your story as you gain a deeper understanding of the subject or your goals.

With a roadmap ready, we can start figuring out the people who can help us tell our important story.

Identifying sources

Try to have at least two voices in your story, because, like a good soup, more ingredients provide depth. Consider first featuring someone with personal experience of the issue at hand. For instance, in the story about Keith County and early childhood education, the reader first hears from a mother who has seen the benefits of having a variety of providers. She speaks about the subject from a personal, on-the-ground level.

Then seek comments from an expert in the field who can provide more in-depth information about the subject. Someone who has dedicated their career to this field and can speak with authority and credibility. That same Keith County story features interviews with an early learning coordinator and the local chamber of commerce director. Find sources through our NCF network, looking at university faculty lists, reaching out to local governments, etc. It can be trial and error, but people are usually helpful and can direct you where you need to go.

It’s important to remember the people you’re writing about are real people with real lives, families, and experiences. They aren’t just characters or pieces in your story. Think of them as partners in storytelling. They’re being gracious enough to share their story with you, and they trust you to responsibly share it with a larger audience.

What makes a great quote?

An ideal quote should have a little flavor. Don’t waste quotes on sharing statistics or dry information, you can paraphrase those. Use quotes when your subject is expressing a strong feeling or opinion. They can do that better than you. Use quotes sparingly, too many could disrupt your story’s flow.

This quote, from the Keith County story, is packed with emotion the writer couldn’t convey as effectively:

“I cried the first couple of times I dropped him off, but that’s an adjustment for every parent,” she said. “I don’t feel like I have to worry about my son getting hurt. I don’t have to worry about any of that, I can go about my day and do what I need to get done. When he is home, I can focus solely on him and enjoy those moments.”

Story structure

There are many, many ways to write a story. We’re going to stick with two of the most widely used in journalism, marketing, and public relations: the inverted pyramid and the Wall Street Journal Formula.

If you’re writing a press release, you’ll usually want to stick with inverted pyramid. Start with the big news up front, then add less-important details in subsequent paragraphs. It’s designed in such a way that people who only read the first couple paragraphs can get the most important information. For more on how to write a strong opening to your press releases, read this NCF Classroom post on the subject.

For more narratively focused stories, the so-called Wall Street Journal Formula is one of the most popular structures for writing features. It looks like this:

  • Open with a personal anecdote from someone with direct experience with the issue you’re writing about.
  • Transition to a larger picture, setting the state for an investigation of the issue.
  • Bring in expert interviews, statistics, and research to provide a deeper look.
  • Circle back to your original “characters,” ending with another personal, descriptive paragraph.

The Keith County story we’ve been looking uses this exact formula. It begins with a personal anecdote, a slice of life from a walk with the mother and her son. Then we zoom out to examine statistics and hear from our two experts. After that, we end the story by returning to hear from the mother again.

Does it call for a call to action?

One of the things that differentiates more “promotional” storytelling from standard journalism is a call to action, in other words asking your reader to do something at the end of your story. You might request that they visit your website to learn more, get in touch with a member of your Fund Advisory Committee, or support your cause financially. Keep it simple and straight forward. One request is plenty. The more complicated you make it, the less likely your reader is to follow through. A call to action may not always be appropriate (and may not be condoned by your local media outlets) but do make sure to give it some thought. This is an easy opportunity to appeal to a wide audience via “native advertising,” that is, a more subtle promotional method that matches the form and function of the medium upon which it appears, and importantly, compel them to act!

Storytelling is fundamental to our lives and can be a powerful tool in your community-building efforts. Use the information from this blog to help you tell your affiliated fund’s stories and reach out to mwunder@nebcommfound.org with any questions!

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