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!

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.