My colleague Jennie recently wrote a blog post in which she highlighted the importance of sharing stories. In it she shared her own story of wondering whether she was really ready to climb Mt. Kilamanjaro. A wild race through Heathrow airport, just in time to make her flight, not only got her to her destination; it showed her she was ready for whatever challenges may lay ahead.
It’s a great story, one I’ve heard more than once but would gladly hear again. What separates this great story from a mediocre one? How does she not only keep us riveted to the end but also happy to have heard the tale?
There are a number of critical elements to a fantastic story. As you know from our other posts, a great story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a single protagonist, and ultimately there’s a reason the story is being told.
And yet I bet you’ve seen the nonprofit stories that technically contain all of these elements and still fall flat. That’s because they lead us to a destination that we anticipated from the outset. They’re boring, and they’re pat.
I’m paraphrasing, but the boring story sounds something like this:
Brian had been living on the streets for three months. He was hungry and tired of the hand life had dealt him. He had been to numerous shelters around town and had received a meal and a bed, but a day later he was right back where he started. Then one day Brian came to Town Services where he got more than a handout. He got a hand up. Our service providers enrolled Brian in classes that helped him learn a trade. Now his life is back on track.
There’s nothing wrong with the story I’ve shared above—it has all the required elements: a protagonist, a beginning, middle, and an end. It even helps us understand the organization’s mission. But it’s so predictable that it’s meaningless.
I recently watched a Masterclass led by playwriter David Mamet. I’m not the biggest Mamet fan in the world, but one really important takeaway from the series was his assertion that a great story is both inevitable and unexpected. A great story begins with the reader thinking she knows where it’s headed. Then something happens that shifts the expected outcome, and the story ends up somewhere else. Yet all of the story details could have led us to that conclusion all along.
Here’s an example:
Brian had been living on the streets for three months. He was hungry and tired of the hand life and dealt him. He had been to numerous shelters around town and received a meal and a bed, but a day later he was right back where he started. When he came to Town Services, Sarah met him at the door. They talked about his current state and where he hoped to be. She helped him find food and shelter for the night and the next morning helped him enroll in a class that could help him put food on the table for himself. And yet two days later Brian failed to show up. Sarah noticed, but also knew that any number of challenging factors—from mental illness to drug addiction—could be at play.
Brian showed up again several days later, but the pattern continued: in for a few days then out again. Finally, Sarah confronted Brian directly: did he really want to make the changes in his life that would help him move off the streets? Was he ready to commit?
That’s when Sarah learned something she hadn’t expected. Brian’s frequent disappearances were the result of sharing care for a pet dog. Most shelters won’t accept animals. Brian and his friend Julio would each take turns living on the street so that their dog Sunshine would be well cared for, while one of them got a night’s respite.
When Sarah better understood Brian’s needs, she knew what she had to do. She picked up the phone, and today Town Services proudly partners with Home for Fido to ensure that people experiencing homelessness—and their pets—can find a better life. Brian now works full time there caring for the animals.
The difference between the first story and the second are the unexpected elements: that Brian is caring for a dog, that Brian’s experience led Town Services to create a new program, and that Brian now has meaningful work that matches his passion. Each of these surprises propels the story forward, and makes it more interesting, inspirational, and memorable. Fantastic, not flat.
Mamet’s words are instructive. A great story is unexpected and inevitable. Just like with Jennie in the airport, we didn’t know what was going to happen, but once we arrived at the end, we realize that’s where we were headed all along.
Try this technique with your stories and then share them here. Our team will review every story posted and offer pointers on how to make flat stories fantastic!