Change we can believe in

14 Aug

Ever seen those irritating ads for magical reduction of bellies that pop up on the web? How many times have you thought to yourself, “That’s Photoshopped!”?

Why do we think these photos have been digitally altered to tell a lie present a false case? It’s because the transformation is so sudden, so drastic, that it is seems unbelievable. There’s often no change in the subject’s clothes, accessories, hair or even the light that falls across their forehead. Nothing to indicate that the person has been through a journey that took months or years, and not 10 minutes on Photoshop.

Where am I going with this? In the direction of my favourite topic, non-profits and the stories they tell.

All too often, the stories we tell – of change in the lives of people, families and communities – sound too pat sudden to be true. In the first sentence, the protagonist is in the throes of the problem. In the very next sentence, the protagonist’s life has completely transformed.

“Harry was an introverted young wizard who lived in a cupboard under the stairs for years. Now he’s defeated his arch-enemy, married the girl of his dreams and is very wealthy, thanks to an undisclosed source of income.”

There’s only one place where such a construction works: if you’re using it as a teaser to get people to read more, find out more, ask questions, approach the table, and so on. We’ve used this often in posters (another topic for another day.)

In all other places – in our annual reports, brochures, websites, direct mailers – a story needs detail. Lots of detail. Till the reader can see the protagonist, as clearly as if they’d met her.

“How do we know Rani badly wanted to go to school? She’d watch students in their uniforms pass by her home every day. Why wouldn’t her father let her? What was the one thing that led him to changing his mind? How were her first few days at school? What did she like to do best? What did she have the most difficulty with? I heard she dropped out a couple of times. Why did that happen? Who supported her and got her back to school? What are the things she does now that she would never have imagined doing a year ago? How does that make her feel? What do her folks think? What are the things she still finds a challenge?”

Asking such questions gives the story detail. (To know what kind of detail to avoid, read Stop documenting, start communicating.)

Detail helps with a very important story-telling device: Tension.

Tension is what enabled JK Rowling to spin seven books of pure magic and millions of pounds in earnings. Tension is what made kids and adults pre-order the books and then queue up at 5 am on the date of the launch.

Tension is what makes the donor appreciate the challenges that Rani has been through.Tension will help the donor understand that some of this change takes time, and that it’s important to stay the course.

Tension is why your reader donor remembers believes in your story. Because now, they’ve walked the journey with you and with Rani. That’s change they can believe in.

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