Using stories in your nonprofit annual report is a great way to bring to life what might otherwise be some stiff writing on your activities and accomplishments. But simply throwing some stories into the text won’t do. You need to be very focused and highly selective about which stories you use and how you tell them in your annual report. Here are my top five tips for using stories in annual reports.

Make the Story Immediately Relevant. A touching story about a little girl’s struggle to overcome a rare disease is heart-warming, but it’s nothing more than that if I don’t understand how this child is connected to your organization and specifically to the accomplishments. I’m reading your annual report to understand what you achieved last year. That little girl’s story needs to help me understand what your organization did. Ideally by the end of the first paragraph, and definitely by the end of the second, make it clear to me the role your organization played in helping this child. It’s what journalists call the “nut graph.”

Put Stories in Context. Stories about a single person are great for many reasons, but we also need to understand the larger context. How many other children have been helped by your support program, beyond the one you are telling us about in detail?

Cut the Fluffy Details. If you spend an hour interviewing someone, it can be really tough to hone in on which details matter most. But you need to include only the details that support why you are telling this particular story in the first place. We do not need a life history. We don’t need to know about all the other players in the story. Look at every detail and quote you provide and ask yourself if it reinforces or detracts from that nut graph.

Keep It Short. Let’s face it — people are more likely to skim your report than to read it, which means short, tight writing is much better than long essays. It’s also very unlikely that each story you tell is going to connect with all of your readers in the same way. That’s why I would rather spend 200 words on one person, 200 on another, and 100 words pulling it all together in a 500-word section than spending the whole 500 words talking about one person.

Let the Subject Approve the Copy. You are telling someone’s personal story as a way to promote your organization’s accomplishments. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the person agrees that you played the role you say you did. By allowing the story’s subject to approve the final copy, you ensure that both your organization and the individual will stand behind the claims you are making about your successes.

I’ll keep my eyes open for good storytelling in annual reports and let you know when I see some strong examples. If you find some, please share by leaving a comment on this post.

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