Composing and Conveying Your Essential Story

by Terry Axelrod, CEO, Raising More Money

The easiest way to provide an Emotional Hook for your organization is through
stories. People will remember a story. Long after the specific facts have slipped
from their minds, that story will linger. You need to decide as an organization
what your main "Essential Story" will be. Then you can choose the
ideal medium by which to convey this story.

The Essential Story is the archetypal story that conveys the emotional essence
of your work powerfully each time that story is told. It may be a true story
about one particular person or group, or it may be a composite of several stories
of real people whose lives have been changed by your organization. Perhaps it
is the story of the abandoned child, the person who beat the odds, or the family
that your organization helped get back on its feet. This story should move you
every time you tell it.

In working with groups in our workshops to identify the Essential Story for
their organizations, we have dissected the Essential Story into three distinct

Stage 1: The "Before" Stage.

Choose one person's story, give the person a fictitious name, and briefly describe
their situation before they came in contact with your organization. Describe
in vivid language what their life was like then. What exactly were their circumstances?
What, if any, impact did this person have on the person relaying the story?
Did it upset or inspire the storyteller?

Stage 2: The "Intervention."

What brought this person in contact with your organization? What specific services
or support did they receive from you? What was your personal observation of
them at that time?

Stage 3: The "After" Stage.

What are the results of the intervention? How has life changed for this person?
What is now possible for them? What does this person now say about his or her
life? How are they giving back to others?
For an example of an Essential Story incorporating these three stages, please
see the Sample Essential Story.

And finally...

Take the time to practice telling the Essential Story for your organization.
Of course, knowing and using this story does not preclude you from using other
stories as well. It just gives you a fail-proof fall-back story that everyone
on your team can always trust to successfully convey the emotional essence of
your organization's fine work.

Once you know your organization's Essential Story, you can use any or all of
the following elements to tell it at your Point of Entry Events. You may tell
the story exactly or adapt it to fit the teller. Be sure to keep it brief and
to the point.

* TOUR: Let people see your compelling work firsthand. Intersperse each stop
on the tour with anecdotes, highlighting the needs as you go. You are painting
a picture as you walk people through the building. Even if all you have to tour
is a standard office, you can set up stations in each work area with photos
and stories of people served. Have two or three staff members prepared to give
testimonial stories of people they will never forget. Their passion for their
work, combined with the gripping stories and photos, will move and inspire your

* VIDEO: Although it's not a necessary element of the Point of Entry, a video
is an effective way to communicate the Essential Story. If you decide to make
a video, consider any video footage you may already have before launching into
a costly production. A brief news clip about your organization, with verbal
remarks to put it in context and add the missing points, can be excellent. If
you are part of a national organization, check to see what generic video material
is available to you.
If you want to make a new video, try to get it donated or get special funding
to produce it. Consider hiring a producer who has worked in television news.
They are experts at painting a succinct emotional picture with images, words,
and music that both educate and move the audience.

* LIVE TESTIMONIALS: There is no substitute for the live testimonial. Having
the person tell their own story right there at your Point of Entry can be extremely
compelling—assuming the testimonial speaker is having a good day. It can
also drag on too long with too much or too little emotion. If you are planning
to have the same speaker at each of your Point of Entry Events, consider their
availability as well as their skill at telling their story consistently each
The structure for the testimonial talk is quite simple. It follows the same
outline as the Essential Story:
1. What my life was like before.
2. I decided to make a change and found this wonderful organization.
3. Now my life is so much better, for example: ________.
4. Now I'm more committed than ever to helping others in the same situation
I was in by doing ________.

* AUDIOTAPE: Audiotape is also a highly effective medium for communicating
your Essential Story. It is inexpensive to produce and easy to transport, and
yet offers the immediacy of voice and sound. Many groups, especially those who
feel they have "boring office syndrome," do very well with audiotape.
It can be combined with a tour by having different audio-taped testimonials
played at several points along the office tour.

* LETTERS: Testimonials in the form of letters are also very powerful, especially
if they are read by someone who knows or knew the person who wrote the letter.
A simple letter of thanks to a caring staff member, with details of how the
person's life was changed by the organization, can be very moving. These also
work well in confidential situations and in cases where the Point of Entry will
be moved to many remote locations.

* PHOTOS: If it's true that a picture conveys a thousand words, what better
way to tell your story? Whether through a photo album on the table or large
blown-up photos posted on the walls, do consider using photos at your Point
of Entry. Sometimes the addition of a caption or quote from the person in the
photo can add that extra tug at the heartstrings.
No matter how you decide to convey it, the Essential Story is truly "essential"
to communicating the emotional impact of your organization's mission.

TERRY AXELROD is the CEO and founder of Raising More Money, a Seattle-based company that has trained nearly 2,000 nonprofits around the world in fund-raising, including the Salvation Army, Big Brothers Big Sisters and the American Red Cross. She has published three books and two videos on her fundraising system. Her model is based on her success at raising $7 million in two-and-a-half years for a private inner city school in Seattle. Terry is the director of the American Association of Fundraising Counsels, a trustee of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and a life trustee of the Swedish Medical Center. She received her master’s degree in social work at the University of Michigan, and has founded three nonprofits.
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