Our recent feature of Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath promises some valuable guidance for nonprofit leaders if you don’t mind putting on your sales lens for a moment.
Credible ideas make people believe. Emotional ideas make people care. The right stories make people act. According to the Heath brothers, a story’s power is derived from two benefits: simulation (knowledge about how to act) and inspiration (motivation to act). Both are geared toward generating action. Mental simulation—recreating events or sequences in your mind—works because people can’t imagine something without also thinking about doing it. According to the authors, mental simulation is not as good as actually doing something, but it’s the next best thing. How does mental simulation apply to sticky ideas? The right kind of story is, in effect, a simulation. Going back to the brothers’ Velcro Theory of Memory, the more hooks you put into your ideas, the better they’ll stick. Stories put knowledge into a framework that is more real, more true to our day-to-day lives. They get the audience ready to act.
The authors also make the point that you don’t always have to create sticky ideas. Spotting them is often easier and more useful. They use the story of Jared, the man who lost weight eating a diet of Subway sandwiches, as an example of an inspirational found story. What if nonprofits could count on their volunteers to be on the lookout for symbolic events or encounters that might inspire others in or outside of the organization? Spotting great ideas isn’t hard, but they are easy to overlook. However, there are story templates that have been proven effective, and learning them helps you spot those inspirational stories:
The Challenge Plot: The key element of a Challenge plot is that the obstacles seem daunting to the protagonist. The story of David and Goliath is the classic Challenge plot. Jared slimming down to 180 pounds is a Challenge plot. Challenge plots inspire us by appealing to our perseverance and courage. They make us want to work harder, take on new challenges and overcome obstacles. They inspire us to act.
The Connection Plot: Connection plots are about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap—racial, class, ethnic, religious or demographic. The movie Titanic and the play Romeo and Juliet are classic Connection plots. Connection plots inspire us to help others, be more tolerant of others, work with others and love others. The authors offer this practical advice: If you’re telling a story at your organization’s Christmas party, it’s best to use the Connection plot; if you’re telling a story at the kickoff party for a new fundraising campaign, use the Challenge plot.
The Creativity Plot: The Creativity Plot involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle or attacking a problem in an innovative way. Creativity plots make us want to do something different, to be creative or to experiment with new approaches.
The goal of learning about these plots is not to invent new stories, but to be able to spot stories that have potential for your organization. You don’t have to make stories up, but you do need to know what you’re looking for so that when a good story presents itself, it doesn’t fall by the wayside. Stories can also beat the Curse of Knowledge. They embody most of the SUCCESs framework in that they are concrete; most of them also have emotional and unexpected elements. The hardest part about using stories is making sure that they are simple—that they reflect your core message. It’s not enough to just tell a great story; it has to reflect your mission.
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