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5 Tips for Telling Difficult Stories

Marcella Vitulli

Storytelling is a constant drumbeat that resonates throughout the nonprofit community, but increasingly, stories are getting hard to tell. Not so much with good stories, which are a welcome and inspiring; mostly, it's the difficult tales of struggle, desperation, injustice, and urgency that are the most complicated to convey - but the need has never been so great.

We asked nonprofit storytelling expert Vanessa Chase Lockshin about telling stories amid a noisy, negative newscycle that leaves donors (and everyone else) feeling fatigued - here's her advice.

What happens when stories go untold? Stories have the power to unite people through a common narrative, and when we don’t tell those stories we miss the opportunity to bring people together in the movement.

In our current political climate in the US, the progressive movement is as important as ever before. But one of our challenges is that the stories we need to tell are often difficult ones.

Let me explain what I mean by “difficult stories.” Difficult stories are those that get to the "capital-T-Truth" of a situation. In the work that the progressive community is doing, this Truth is often about revealing problems stemming from systems of oppression and inequity. Not only can they be hard to tell, but for some, they will be difficult to hear.

Difficult stories have the potential to be polarizing, which is not always a bad thing. When we tell a story part of what we are doing is communicating values and beliefs because we want to find those to wholeheartedly agree with us. This means that we may run the risk of losing some audience members, but perhaps that is okay. Maybe those people would have never been action takers and it best we part ways.


The Necessity of Difficult Stories

The progressive movement is built on decades of people telling stories about difficult truths. Stories of discrimination, stories of corporate greed, stories of inequality, and more had to be told to gain ground on the issues that matter.

Stories are a way to bridge gaps in understanding. Narrative conveys emotion, beliefs, life experience, values, and more that people can relate to. It is through this association that people can come to new understandings of the world around them. And that is what difficult stories are about - challenging peoples understanding of the world around them.

The real benefit of leading your supporters through this process is that you can start a dialogue from which organizing and action can spring forth. If people are unaware of the full story of what is happening on an issue, they may never fully know what they can do to solve the problem.

Telling those difficult stories can catalyze people to act and ultimately start to change the broader societal narrative on the issue, or at the very least offer an alternative understanding of a situation.

The seemingly constant stream of difficult news and stories these days is proving to be a challenge for many organizations. There is a risk of both your organization and your audience being fatigued by it all.

Take breaks, give people time to digest information, and remember that the reason why you share this information with them is because there is an organizing opportunity, which is a hopeful glimmer for change.


5 Tips for Telling Difficult Stories

How can your organization go about successfully telling difficult stories? Here are five tips to consider.


1. Believe the message because telling these stories requires courage and conviction.

By nature, these stories are difficult. They can open your organization up to criticism (warranted or not) and when that happens you have to be fully ready to stand by what you said.


2. Understand it’s not a one-and-done thing.

I often remind my clients that they should not be telling stories just for the sake of telling stories. You should be telling stories as a part of a long-term strategy. Have a plan and work the plan. (If you are looking for more tips on planning and strategy, check out this post: How to Plan Your Non-Profit’s Stories)


3. Know that difficult stories will not resonate with everyone in your audience.

This piece of advice is true regardless of what kind of story you are telling. But I want to remind you of it in this context because sometimes people will get tentative about telling difficult stories as to not polarize their audience. The truth is, that can happen with any story or message.


4. Express a clear theory of change and values.

Difficult stories are a tool to bring people together and catalyze action. Your story must include a theory of change and shared values so spend time identifying what those are before you dive into telling story.


5. Present a clear call-to-action.

Since you have spent the time telling the story, you want to make sure that you give your audience a clear path to action. Tell them exactly what they need to do and make it easy for them. 


Stories left untold are like a can of soda that you just keep shaking - pressure is building inside and there needs to be a release. Your organization can release that story and with it the power to organize people for change. Now, more than ever before, we must persist with telling stories.


VanessaChase15Apr2014-5-3198824182-OcopyAbout the author - Vanessa Chase Lockshin is the President of The Storytelling Non-Profit where she's helped hundreds of organizations tell their stories to engage and inspire their donors. She’s worked with organizations throughout the U.S. and Canada and to date has raised more than $10 million.

For more great storytelling insights, follow @vanessaechase on Twitter! 


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Topics: nonprofit storytelling