In one of my favorite books for nonprofit marketers, "Made to Stick," Chip Heath and Dan Heath identify three different types of inspirational stories: the Challenge Plot, the Creativity Plot and the Connection Plot. All three have very basic elements, and all three are invaluable in nonprofit marketing.
If you don’t know how to write these stories, now is the time to learn. Trust me, the nonprofits raising the most money and expanding their lists of supporters the fastest know how to tell their stories well. You can too.
Once you know what to listen for, you’ll begin to hear story snippets all around you that sound like the chorus of a familiar song. Then you just need to do a little investigating to fill in the verses. You’ll have great stories to tell for your appeal letters, newsletters, websites, and other communications.
Here are some tips for writing each of the three basic plots.
1) The Challenge Plot
The challenge plot is your basic, three–act structure that practically every Hollywood movie is based on. These are your classic underdog, against-all-odds stories.
You start by introducing a character and her situation and goals. Then in Act 2, she faces barriers to reaching those goals and the tension mounts. Will everything work out? Usually not until things get even worse. Then in Act 3, we get to the big climax where our heroine finally triumphs!
One common mistake nonprofits use when telling Challenge stories is making themselves the hero. In most cases, your nonprofit won’t appear in the story until Act 3 and then you are typically just part of the supporting cast that helps the main character get over those barriers. These stories work best when the main character is a client, volunteer, donor or someone else involved in or affected by your work, but not the nonprofit itself.
2) The Creativity Plot
Creativity stories create those big "Aha!" moments and tell those "what if we … " stories that work out in the end, even though the idea may seem a little too crazy or bold at the start. For a good creativity plot, you need a well-understood problem and a standard response that just doesn’t work.
Again, use the people around you — clients, volunteers, donors — to explain the problem and inadequate solution. Then introduce the new approach that your nonprofit or someone affiliated with your nonprofit is trying. Theoretical solutions and test runs are OK here – you don’t have to have all the details figured out in order to inspire someone with the possibility of new solutions. Then you end the story with a vision of a new reality and how that original problem would be solved.
Many nonprofits use this plot to tell their "founding" stories because finding creative new solutions to old problems is behind the formation of lots of nonprofits.
3) The Connection Plot
Of the three different story plots, this one is the hardest to pull off. If you don’t get it right, your story will sound sappy or manipulative. But like the others, if you can identify the different parts and find the right way to string them together, you’ll have a very powerful story.
Connection stories are the "bridging the gap" stories and "big meaning in small events" stories. Start with a small, specific situation or event, and then look for the larger connection to the greater human experience. These stories usually have a little surprise or epiphany in them that really drives the point home. It’s a nice little story, but the meaning doesn’t become really profound until you add in those last few surprising details or revelations. You’ll see heartfelt connections between the people in the stories and also between the storyteller and the reader.