Writing For Movies Or Asking For Grants: Seven Questions To Sharpen Your Stories
Now that Charitable Words has its IRS 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit, we’re preparing to ask for funding to do more Charitable Words Scholars assignments in the 2013-14 school year.
That has involved finding guidance by pouring over pages of grant proposals by others – some good, some…let’s just say not “best practices” material. Most seem formulaic and jargon-filled. Dull.
I had a breakfast meeting this week with two decision makers from the philanthropic arm of one of our community’s largest business names. They agreed. Good storytelling counts.
A friend of Charitable Words shared an article about storytelling that explored the art through the eyes of Andy Goodman, a nationally recognized author, speaker and consultant in the field of public interest communications.
Along with Storytelling as Best Practice, he is author of Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes and Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes. He also publishes a monthly journal, free-range thinking, to share best practices in the field.
Here’s what Goodman said in one of his newsletters in a post headlined “Seven Questions to Sharpen Your Stories”:
“Good stories cut through the clutter and connect with people’s hearts, opening their minds to your point of view. Dull stories don’t, and all too often, that’s what public interest groups are telling.”
He compares grant writing to script writing. It’s a bit of a stretch, but a point well taken:
Ask someone from a typical nonprofit to tell the story of “The Wizard of Oz,” and you’re liable to hear something like this:
An at-risk youth from a blended family in the farm belt is rendered unconscious during an extreme weather event. When she awakens, she undertakes a long, hazardous journey in which she is aided by an assortment of variously-challenged adults…
He goes on. But you know the story. It has been told in a better way. And the story is etched in your mind, repeated again and again, with smiles and empathy. Can you say that about the last grant proposal you wrote, or read?
Here are Goodman’s questions:
1. Who’s the protagonist?
Just as a car needs a driver to get it where it’s going, stories need someone to drive the action. This person (or group of people) is called the protagonist, and traditionally structured stories follow protagonists in pursuit of clearly defined goals. To help your audience identify with the protagonist and enter the world of your story, don’t be afraid to name names (when appropriate) and provide enough physical description or background to let them see this individual in their mind’s eye.
2. What’s the hook?
Another technique for drawing people in is beginning the story where the audience is. This is your story’s “hook” – the description of a place, circumstance, or premise that everyone understands and with which they readily identify. If the subject of your story is global warming, for example, starting with facts about concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not going to engage the average person. On the other hand, saying, “Have you been reading about the incredible heat wave in Europe?” is more likely to get heads nodding.
3. What keeps it interesting?
Predictable stories are boring, and no matter how proud you are of a recent victory, if your story boils down to “We identified a goal, we pursued that goal, we reached that goal!” you’re not likely to have audiences rapt with attention. “The stuff of storytelling,” says Robert McKee, a renowned Hollywood script doctor, “is the gap between what we think will happen when we take an action, and what actually happens.”
Take another look at that success story of yours and see if you can recall any barriers or surprises that cropped up along the way. From the listener’s perspective, that’s where the story gets interesting.
4. Where’s the conflict?
There is no drama without conflict, and comedies, for that matter, also fall flat without it. Heroic action always comes into sharper focus when juxtaposed against villainous misdeeds, and while your stories will probably not reduce to simple-minded battles of good versus evil , it helps to have clearly defined heroes and villains with different notions of how the story should end.
5. Have you included telling details?
Recently, I heard a story about a small community in West Virginia whose economy collapsed when its primary industry, coal mining, was shut down. The narrator described the place as “a company town,” but the image of a controlling and penny pinching company became vivid when she added that every home was required to turn on its porch lights at 7 p.m. each evening “because that’s how the mining company made sure the streets were lit.” A single telling detail such as that can replace a paragraph or more of description, and good stories have just enough telling details to set the scene and people it with colorful characters.
6. What’s the hook?
By consenting to read or listen to a story, the audience subconsciously enters into a contract with the storyteller. In return for their time and attention – an increasingly valuable commodity, not so incidentally – they expect more than a recitation of facts. They want an emotional experience that makes the time worthwhile. “Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living,” says McKee, “not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.”
7. Is the meaning clear?
Finally, your story should have a crystal clear moral, a reason for taking this particular journey. “We don’t need more information,” writes Annette Simmons in The Story Factor, “We need to know what it means. We need a story that explains what it means and makes us feel like we fit in there somewhere .
That’s good guidance. Thanks Mr. Goodman, and the Charitable Words friend who introduced me to his newsletter. I’m subscribing.
And awaiting word from the IRS so I may officially start asking for funding for scholarships and intern assignments for students who want to work in the nonprofit sector.
Wish me luck, as I do you.