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How to bring nonprofit stories to life with vivid detail

Nonprofit Storytelling

You have such a vivid imagination.

Think about it.

Anytime you listen to a story, how quickly and easily do you create a movie in your head?

You don’t even have to think about it. You just do it.

Everyone does.

People take the verbal information they receive and create a movie in their mind, playing out the story as it’s revealed.

They create mental images of where the story is taking place, what the hero looks like, and their mind sees the action as it plays out.

And the more vivid the movie in their mind, the more emotionally invested they become in the story.

This is because as they play out the movie, they’re also building empathy for the characters.

And this is where the real magic happens…

Your audience then genuinely feels the emotions of the story, even though it isn’t actually happening to them.

The fact that people do this is good for nonprofits because it means you can help your audience build empathy with the people you serve and feel emotionally invested in the work you do.

But this has other implications, too.

In order for your stories to be effective, you have to be able to deliver this emotional experience to your audience.

You have to give them the raw material they need to make a vivid and emotional movie in their mind.

So, how do you do this?

It’s all in the details…

The more detail you provide in your stories the easier it is for your audience to generate their mental movie.

The more detail you provide when describing the setting, your characters, and the action, the more they will get emotionally involved in the story they create in their mind.

But as it turns out, most of us are not good at providing the details people need to make their mental movies.

It’s not that we can’t do it.

It’s just that we underestimate how important the details really are.

We think what really matters is the plot. We start at the beginning, move to the middle, and then go on to the end.

But nothing in the plot can be brought to life without the details.

The details matter. A lot.

CLICK HERE to learn how to tell Emotional Nonprofit Stories!

Never summarize

The worst thing you can do as a storyteller is summarize.

Every time you summarize something in your story you have lost an opportunity to further engage your audience and heighten their emotional investment.

Keep this in mind…

You never want to tell your audience anything they won’t discover by playing out your story in their mind.

This is one of the cardinal rules of storytelling; only provide information using action, description, and dialogue.

To illustrate this, let me give you an example.

Say you are telling the story of your main character and you want your audience to understand that they have been struggling financially, they have two kids, and need help finding a job. So you open with…

“Jack is an unemployed father of two struggling to find a job.”

With this summary you’ve given us an idea of who Jack is, and you’ve probably created some empathy because most people can understand how difficult his current position might be.

But because this is a summary of Jack’s situation, it doesn’t create a vivid movie in our minds. Instead, it gives us an impression, a snapshot that is a bit ambiguous.

If we wanted to take this introduction and make it more visual (and emotional!) then we need to start adding detail.

For example…

“Jack was standing outside the door of his trailer home. He couldn’t bring himself to go inside, not yet. In his fist was another crumpled rejection letter. His third in as many days. He could hear his two kids through the door, asking their mother why they had to eat soup for dinner again. He wanted to help her comfort them, but he couldn’t. Not yet. First he had to wipe the tears from his eyes.”

Now how much more clearly do you see Jack? How much more do you understand his struggle?

How much more emotion do you feel? Do you feel more invested in him?

The only difference is the details. And the details matter. A lot.

Notice I didn’t tell you he was married with two kids. You discovered that for yourself as the story unfolded.

That is how you reveal information through action, dialogue, and description.

Don’t tell people. Show them.

Reveal information by letting it play out in the story.

CLICK HERE to learn how to tell Emotional Nonprofit Stories!

If there are stories that feature prominently on your website or in your email marketing then go back through them and look for places where you are summarizing information.

Then re-write those sections so that they come alive with vivid detail.

Help your audience create that movie in their mind. Give them the details they need to develop an emotional connection to your story.

This will improve the effectiveness of your storytelling and improve the responsiveness of your audience.

Keep doing good work,

Jeremy Signature


5 comments… add one
  • This is a powerful message that every nonprofit marketing or development person should hear. Thank you for this tip.

    • Jeremy

      I couldn’t agree more, Carolyn. Feel free to share the article with others you know that would benefit.

  • Donating money is very personal and emotional.
    When nonprofits make it real by being personal and connecting with emotion – it’s very powerful!

  • Brenda Buschbacher

    I think this is great advice, however, in an age of “get everything quick” because people get bombarded with so many marketing campaigns from numerous not-for-profits and other places, we have to be succinct with the details. I think the struggle is in the balance.

    • Jeremy

      Great point, Brenda. Unfortunately, I think it’s usually the details that get the ax in order to keep things short and sweet. Leaving at least one vivid scene in the story can still make a huge difference in the emotional power of the story.

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