Storytelling for community groups

Book on wood planks over beauty mountains landscape background

Here at Pure Arts Communications, among other things, I run two kinds of writing training – professional writing for organisations, and fiction writing (because, when I don’t have my PAC hat on, you can find me writing fiction under the name L.M. Merrington). One of the great misconceptions I encounter, however, is that the gulf between these two types of writing is huge and insurmountable.

In some ways, of course, they’re very different – but increasingly we’re starting to see businesses incorporating many of the principles of narrative storytelling into their communications. Why? Because as humans we’re hardwired for story, and narrative storytelling is one of the most effective ways of conveying information. Just how effective this method is can be seen in the phenomenal success of TED Talks, the most popular of which has garnered nearly 24 million views (yes, you read that right!).

So how can you start incorporating storytelling techniques into your organisation’s communications?

Understand your organisation’s story

Community groups and not-for-profits often have rich stories and histories, because more often than not they’ve been started by people who are incredibly passionate about what they do. Think about why your organisation exists and what drove the people who began it. What community need is it meeting? This sort of story – where you came from, where you’re going and why you care about it – is perfect for your website’s ‘About Us’ page. Being able to clearly articulate your group’s story is also crucial for fundraising, because people want to know what they’re supporting.

Find and emphasise common themes

A couple of years ago, I helped a community theatre group prepare an oral history project (through a series of video interviews) as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations. A thing that interviewees consistently said – no matter whether they’d been there right from the start or had joined relatively recently – was that they stayed because the group was like a family. Given that the amateur theatre world can sometimes be cliquey and elitist, having lots of clips of people saying that they found the group warm and welcoming was communications gold, because it showed how they were different and what their values were.

Be passionate, personal and authentic

One of the reasons storytelling is so powerful is because it connects with our emotions. People who are looking to get involved with a community group will probably use a rational basis for their decision – Is it close to me? Does it engage my interests? – but they’ll also be looking to connect on an emotional level as well. Is the group friendly? Will I fit in here? What are their values and do they align with mine?

One of the best ways to connect at this emotional level is to talk about your organisation passionately and authentically, and in a way that builds relationships. This may mean asking some of your members to tell their stories about why they joined and why they stay – testimonials are very powerful – but also showing the passion that your organisation has for its cause.

Being authentic and passionate doesn’t mean being unprofessional. It simply means finding a voice that’s unique to your group and staying true to your organisation’s values across all your communications.

Enjoy it!

Storytelling is great fun, and it can make your communications so much easier and more interesting. There are many, many resources for non-profits available online, so have a look around and give it a go. Even if you’re not a natural writer, you might surprise yourself!

5 steps for scoping a project

For many volunteer organisations or community groups, scoping out a large project can be a daunting task. We’ve all been there – when confronted with a massive undertaking, such as developing a new policy or procedure, it can be hard to know where to start.

But learning to outline a project effectively is imperative – having a properly-scoped project will help you complete it on time and on budget. If you’re looking to work with an outside professional, such as a freelance designer, writer or consultant, you’ll also need to have a good idea of what you want before you approach them, because they’ll need to know details and timelines. So here are a few simple steps to make the process easier.

1. Start with the big picture. What is it you want to achieve with the project and why? E.g. “Develop a sexual harassment policy for our organisation to bring us into line with best practices and ensure we meet our legal and ethical obligations.”

2. Break it into chunks. Almost all projects can be compartmentalised to a certain extent – a long document can be broken into chapters or sections, for example. A large project becomes much more manageable once it’s in smaller pieces.

3. Prioritise the most important things. In most projects, there will be some areas that are critical and some that are less so. Figuring out what your priorities are will help you decide which tasks you need to complete first and/or which you need professional help with. This is particularly important if you’re working with a professional but don’t have the budget for them to complete the entire project. You can use a system such as MoSCoW to help align your priorities – list the things you Must do, Should do, Could do, and Want to do.

4. Develop concrete tasks. This is about translating your project from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’ – from a great idea to something that can actually be done. Your tasks need to be as specific and detailed as possible, so that the people doing them know exactly what they need to achieve. This is particularly important if you’re outsourcing some or all of them to professionals, because they’ll be working off what you tell them and any late changes could lead to an increased cost. Take each of the areas you’ve prioritised above and work out exactly what you need, e.g. “500 words outlining the history of our organisation, based on existing documents.” Make sure you think about all aspects of the task, including the amount of research or development that needs to be done, and a realistic timeframe for achieving it.

5. Set deadlines. Decide on an overall deadline for the project, and then work out individual deadlines for each task according to its priority. Make sure you factor in things like final proofreading for written documents, or board sign-off. The deadlines should be realistic, especially if you’re working with a professional, because quick-turnaround tasks will cost more. Note: ASAP is not a deadline!

Scoping a project takes time, and it can be frustrating when you’re enthusiastic and just want to launch straight into it. But it’s worth investing the time at the start to ensure you’ve got a really clear idea of how it’s going to run – it’ll save you a lot of grief down the track and will also help you maintain good relationships with any outside providers you’re working with.

Why all community groups need a sexual harassment policy

Taylor Swift. Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage

Today a jury in the US found DJ David Mueller guilty of assault and battery against pop star Taylor Swift, for putting his hand up her skirt and groping her at a party. For the many women around the world who have been subject to sexual harassment or assault, this was a vindicating moment.

Most workplaces these days have come a long way in how they deal with sexual harassment allegations, with comprehensive policies and procedures that comply with the relevant laws while being as just and fair as possible. Many community groups and small not-for-profits, however, still have a long way to go.

It’s easy to see how developing these policies can be put off. They’re complex, difficult to get right and may even require legal advice. When a volunteer board has its hands full keeping the organisation running, policies and procedures often get put on the backburner or take a very long time to come to fruition.

Unfortunately, many community groups only realise how important these things are when they’re needed, which is far too late. It’s not unusual for a community group to go into meltdown over a sexual harassment allegation when it doesn’t have a policy or procedure to follow. The resulting process risks being neither just nor fair, and may fail to conform to best practice for investigating these sorts of allegations as set out by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The complainant may also have grounds for a complaint to either the AHRC or their state-based anti-discrimination authority due to failures in the process, which could end up being drawn-out, painful and costly for all involved. Dealing with sexual harassment allegations is never going to be easy, but having a proper process will make it less traumatic for both the complainant and the accused, and will increase the chances of a satisfactory resolution for all parties.

If your organisation doesn’t have a sexual harassment policy, the time to develop one is now. The good news is there are plenty of resources available to help you.

Developing these sorts of policies and procedures isn’t just about protecting your organisation – it’s about ensuring all parties are treated justly and fairly, and that the process is transparent and well-executed. You may think the cost in time and potentially money (should you require legal advice) is high – but the cost of not doing it can be far higher.

Authentic communication

One of the biggest sticking points for community organisations when it comes to outreach is worry about having to engage in ‘marketing’ or self-promotion. Terms like ‘personal brand’ can give the impression that we have to create something apart from ourselves, a persona that’s disconnected from who we really are. This is particularly alarming if you’re naturally introverted, and the thought of having to blow your own trumpet gives you chills.

In fact, however, the most effective engagement usually comes from simply being yourself. This is a surprisingly difficult lesson to learn – I say this from experience – because, especially in this age of social media and carefully curated images, it’s so easy to keep comparing ourselves to others and feeling like there’s a whole lot of things we ‘should’ be doing, even if they don’t really float our boat.

A common refrain I hear is that people feel their group needs to have a presence on every social media platform, but they just don’t have the time or the inclination to manage it all. My response to that is simple: if you don’t like it, don’t do it. The chances are your audience will be concentrated on one or two main platforms (probably Facebook or Twitter, although Instagram may be more appropriate for artists or those with a strong visual focus, and LinkedIn can also be good for professional-level networking), so go where they are and don’t worry about the others. It’s much better to learn how to use one or two platforms really effectively than to spread yourself too thinly across many.

The same thing goes for organisations’ websites. Some people get great engagement (and presumably enjoyment) out of having a blog for their community group, but blogs take maintenance, and if that’s not your thing then don’t worry about it. Your website needs to be informative and serve your audience’s needs – and this may or may not include a blog.

I understand this pressure all too well, having gone through the same thing with my own business. Being in strategic communications, I felt like I should be blogging about new technology or developments in search engine optimisation, because that seemed to be what everyone else was doing. Then, at the prompting of a very wise business coach, I stopped and thought about what I was really passionate about – helping community groups and not-for-profits bring their work to a wider audience, because I see immense value in their work and the contribution it makes to society. Once I remembered exactly why I’d started my business in the first place, blogging suddenly became a whole lot easier, because I believe in what I’m writing about. So if your research and passion is planting trees, or feeding the homeless, or teaching people how to trace their family tree, use that as your main point of engagement. If you’re authentic in your outreach, you’ll attract people who share your interests and who want to hear more about your work. You can’t please everyone, but the good news is you don’t have to.