Does your campaign narrative have one or more of these five powerful mechanics? Andy Kelham shares what he learned from a seasoned storyteller
Into The Woods is a book by John Yorke, a man with a wealth of experience creating and producing television drama.
In his book, Yorke talks about story. In fact, he does more than just talk about story; he explains how it works in incredible detail. He dissects the tools, techniques and devices used in great television, film and drama, showing us what the great stories of our time are built with.
It’s a fascinating read (you will never watch a film the same way) and every fundraiser should pick up a copy. Why? Because it is rich in insight and full of provocations that could change the way you structure your campaign narratives forever.
Want five key insights from Into The Woods that relate to fundraising campaigns? Of course you do, and here they are…
“Come in late, get out early”
What does the above quote (attributed to William Goldman, the famed American screenwriter) mean? Be mindful of time and pace. Do not cut the tension too soon, and do not linger at the end.
Great scenes in films heed the above, and your campaign could do the same.
Does your next video really need a three-minute script? Does the supporter letter really need to be 500 words? Does the 15-minute, 35-slide presentation really hit the spot?
What if you went for a shorter, more dramatic execution in your next campaign? What if the video was 45 seconds, the letter was 150 words and the presentation was five minutes or under? Do it well, says Yorke, and the tension is irresistible; your audience will follow wherever you go next.
Give people two plus two, not four
“Good storytelling never gives you four,” says Andrew Stanton (Pixar screenwriter and director). “It gives you two plus two.”
Great stories trust the audience and involve them in their resolution. Not everything is explained and spaces are intentionally created to give the audience room to infer and imagine.
Do our campaigns do the same? Do we leave margin or do we spell things out too completely? Are we opening up room for rich experience, or shutting down our audience and forcing how they should act in response to our stimulus?
Confused where to begin? Here is a simple rule: do more showing and less telling. Show your audience the people your campaign will benefit, let them see their need and connect one to another. Then simply leave your audience with a website. Give them the two plus two, they will make the four.
Correlation does not imply causation
As Yorke puts it in his book, “if 90% of all prisoners drink tea, we can’t conclude that tea is responsible for 90% of all crime”.
We all know the powerful role statistics can play in a campaign. They corroborate theory, bring authority and demonstrate urgency. They are compelling.
But - if we are being honest - sometimes the metrics used in a campaign imply a causation that simply does not exist.
Great stories are based on things that relate. If your campaign is hinged on a weak statistic, then it needs to be reconsidered as your audience will see through it. Sounds simple and obvious, but sadly many campaigns misuse information and undermine themselves as a result.
Whatever you believe should be tested
And not only tested, Yorke argues, but tested to destruction. Gulp.
In the book Yorke talks about Jimmy McGovern, the Brookside writer who was capable of writing compelling, heart-rending work from perspectives he did not hold. This talent created authentic and fascinating work throughout his career, but why did he do it? Because he understood the value and power of opposition in storytelling.
Turning that thought on our campaigns, when was the last time we took apart our principal arguments? Our main themes? The underlying beliefs that underpin all our work? When was the last time we argued with what we say to our audience?
It might sound strange or maybe even dangerous, but how much more powerful might our work be if we approached it as both the critic and the convinced? From Yorke’s perspective, McGovern’s work only benefitted from this fearless approach. Dare we test ourselves the same way?
Order is the root of storytelling
And finally, some good news. Great stories bring chaos into cohesion. The reluctant hero finds courage, defeats his enemy and brings peace. The couple overcome their flaws, find love and commit to one another.
If a great story draws elements together, so should a great campaign. It should show the incomplete, then offer a path to completion. It should show a divide, then offer a road to healing.
Does your campaign bring order? Does it make a way out of chaos or disorder? If it does, then you are onto something - great work!
Andy Kelham is a digital creative and copywriter who loves working with charities and causes that stand for something.