• Nonprofit Learning Lab

Show, Don't Tell: Using Storytelling to Convey Your Message

This is a guest blog and is posted with permission from Chris Hammond of Corporate Giving Connection (CGC).

The best way to create genuine interest and personal investment in a nonprofit organization is to tell stories of the lives that have been changed as part of your organization’s efforts. The delivery of these stories, however, oftentimes doesn’t have a great impact on the audience, even though the work they are doing is extremely important and having a positive effect.

Writers—whether they are writing fiction, magazine/newspaper articles, or even online marketing content—often employ a technique called “show, don’t tell.” It’s a phrase that’s thrown around in writing courses, but what exactly does it mean, and how can your organization employ the show-don’t-tell method to convey its message?

The show-don’t-tell technique can essentially be boiled down to a concept that refers to the way a writer describes a certain experience. In order to make your reader invested in the content and feel empathy, when telling stories a writer must show how the experience unfolded by including the subject’s feelings, relationships, actions, and thoughts rather than just telling the reader what happened.

Let’s start with an example of telling a story:

The boys played basketball in their neighborhood.

Now, even though an image might come to your mind of a group of boys playing basketball at a neighborhood court, this sentence doesn’t actually make you feel anything. But now, let’s show this story:

The streetlights started to turn on and the sound of their slightly deflated basketball thumping on the concrete court echoed off of the tall surrounding buildings. The boys shouted and laughed, each wanting the game to last just a little longer.

Did you get a new picture in your head reading that sentence? You probably have a lot more questions now than you did after reading the first sentence: Where do these boys live? Are they using an old, deflated basketball because they live in poverty? How old are these boys?

And here’s another example of telling tied to a holiday or event, in this case a scary short story for Halloween:

The boy walked through the graveyard.

An image has probably come to your mind of a boy walking through a graveyard. Again, this sentence doesn’t actually make you feel anything. But now, let’s show a scary story:

The sound of his racing heart filled his ears and the boy’s hands shook as he walked through the darkness of the graveyard.

Did your heart start beating a little faster as you read that sentence and as you imagined a frightened boy traipsing through a graveyard? Again, you probably have a lot more questions now than you did after reading the first sentence: Why is the boy there at night? Is there something else in the graveyard with him? How old is the boy?

As you can see, showing how the experience unfolded creates a deeper connection to the story. Building emotional connections in your writing can help your audience feel a greater sense of connection to your organization’s mission and to those impacted by your work.

Mastering the art of “show, don’t tell” is more important than ever in our video-saturated world. When developing a content strategy with your marketing team, try to find ways that you can use the show-don’t-tell method to catch readers’ attention and inspire their imagination.

Consider asking people your organization has served for testimonials about how your help changed their lives. Create a page on your website dedicated to telling these stories, but make sure to give a full picture for your readers: show the problem and how it affected the person’s life, then show the reader how your organization came with a solution to that problem.

For your content to have an even greater impact on your audience, consider pairing your descriptive writing with dynamic imagery. Include photographs of those people whose stories you’re sharing makes them even more real for your readers and will create empathy that leads to action.