- Tue, April 17 2012
- Filed under: Writing
I devour books on writing much the way I imagine amateur chefs devour cookbooks. I get inspired, informed about the craft and smarter about the essential ingredients of a masterpiece. And I can’t put them down.
I’ve recently become a zealous fan of Lisa Cron, who blogs on storytelling and is author of the upcoming book, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. I’m lucky enough to have a galley of her new book, and it’s chockablock with advice that could make all of us far more powerful at telling the story of our work, which is the most important thing you can possibly do as a fundraiser, nonprofit marketing professional or cause champion. I measure a book by the number of underlines and dog-ears I make (handy for referencing the parts to reread), and this one is a marked up mess. That’s a good thing, along with the fact that I can’t put it down.
Lisa has written, “Have you ever gone into a bookstore, pulled a novel off the shelf, glanced at the first page and thought, ‘You know, this is kind of dull, and I can’t tell what it’s about, but I’m sure the author tried really, really hard, and probably has something important to say, so I’m going to buy it, read it, and recommend it to all my friends?’” The answer is, of course not.
I feel the same way about most of what I receive from nonprofits. I open the letter or email, start reading and then stop. Because even though someone tried hard and the cause matters, that’s just not enough.
So how do we do better?
Here are three of my favorite principles from the book for nonprofit readers. Try using them for your next appeal, report or anything and see what happens.
1. If we’re not feeling, we’re not conscious. And if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading. You have to get under the skin of the people (or animals) that are at the heart of your cause so you can make people care.
2. The story is in the specifics. A big part of accomplishing #1 is specifics. Lisa writes, “In October 2006, nearly six thousand people worldwide perished in hurricane-induced floods. Quick, what do you feel after reading that sentence? ... Now imagine a wall of water coming straight toward a small boy, who clings desperately to his frantic mother. Trying to soothe him, she whispers, ‘Don’t worry baby, I’m here, I won’t let you go.’ She feels him relax in the moment of deafening calm just before the water rips him from her arms. The sounds of his cry above the cacophony of destruction - trees ripped from the ground, houses smashed to splinters - will haunt her for the rest of her life… Now how do you feel?” Without specifics—and without a person whom we understand - we cannot get attached. But with those specifics, we feel the “ineffable magnitude of it all.” We aren’t being told a story, we’re living it.
3. Zero in on your point. Make sure everything you express cuts to the point of your story and the essence of your cause. If a detail, a person or a quote doesn’t drive it home, cut it. Remember, a good story is life with the boring parts cut out.
Thanks Lisa for giving us a great guide to making our stories vivid and our work intensely relatable - and therefore impossible to ignore.
(If you want her book, you can pre-order it here or stay tuned, I’ll post again near the release date.)