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Being immersed in a story

Why stories are so important to charities

ByAndy Heald |MarketingCreativeFundraising |10 August 2018

I recently vlogged about what gets me out of bed in the morning; other than one of my kids, it’s to help charities tell their stories.

I work alongside many charities and yet I rarely have the opportunity to see what they do first hand – the impact they have on society and people. However, I am constantly reading, writing (or communicating in some other way) about their work… I am immersed in their stories…

… Reading about a street child rescued from sleeping in the back of car; an Eastern European family lifted out of poverty, now able to support their community; a young girl freed from sex slavery… I feel involved in these realities – and, more than that, I know that my part in these stories, in the work of each one of the charities that helped make these transformations happen, my part, is to spread the news of them further.

My challenge (and privilege I might add) is to help find and share these stories with others who will resonate with the lives of people whose circumstances are unfair, unjust and can be changed for the better. Once shared, these stories become catalysts to inspire and move people to act – making the world a better place for those in need.

Why are stories more effective than bare facts?

What is it about stories that makes them more likely to move people? Why not simply tell people about a million starving people in country X and how charity Y fed 750,000 of them with its unique food distribution programme?

There is an old advertising adage, “facts tell, stories sell,” but why? There are two key truths:

  1. We can relate to stories
  2. We remember them

Truth #1 – We can relate to stories

I’m sure you’ll identify with this truth. Let’s try something. Here is a list of facts:

  • 12,000 children living in poverty
  • Bicycle
  • Sun
  • 15 miles
  • Bear

Now, close your eyes and try remembering them. How easy was it? Do they make any sense?

They seem pretty meaningless and unrelated; abstract and unmemorable.

But what if we shape them…

7-year-old Jon lives where the sun’s heat is like a furnace. It has burnt all the farmers’ fields and dried up the rivers and lakes. He has to walk 15 miles to get to the nearest well, to get the water his family needs.

Just £15 will buy Jon a bicycle. He could then cycle to collect the water and have enough time to go to school. If he goes to school, he may be able to get a job. Jon’s dream is to get a job so that he can by his baby brother a cuddly teddy bear.

There are 12,000 children living in poverty like Jon. Your gift of £15 can help Jon, or another child like him, get on the road to a life with the essentials they need and the hope of a future free from poverty.

Now try the list again. Is it easier to remember those facts?

Stories link points of information together and provide explanations of the world around us, establishing facts in a context we can understand. They also connect us to it, giving us an ‘experience’. According to Anne Murphy Paul "The brain…does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.”

Setting information in a context, telling a story… helps us live it.

Truth #2 – We remember stories

Shadow puppet show

We are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it has been wrapped up in a story, according to cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner. By connecting facts with our experiences, environments and emotions, stories evoke a response inside us. These responses, especially if they are emotive, form memory imprints. Stories are mnemonics for information, organising abstract material into meaningful structures.

As an A-Level biology student (a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away) I had to learn the classification for biological organisms (a.k.a. taxonomy). I’ve not had to recall that information since my exam but here goes… Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Since looking it up, it appears that ‘Domain’ has been added (it was a while ago!) but, evidently these facts embedded themselves pretty well. Why? Because to learn it, I had to create my own mnemonic for it: Kan (artistic licence) Police Constables Often Find Girl Students.

Facts on their own have no meaning until they are placed in context – when they do, they become memorable and real.

Why stories are important to charities

A charity’s purpose is to make things right; for people, animals, society etc. Embedded within each of us is an innate desire to make things right too.

A charity needs to connect with those people who share in its mission. By communicating about how it makes things right and how someone who wants to make that same impact can do so by supporting it.

That communication needs to evoke a response inside someone, reaching that innate desire, hitting the emotional buttons and helping them take action.

By telling stories about the need for change (what’s not right and what will fix it), it doesn’t matter whether the reader has experienced the situation themselves – the story gives them the experience – and will help them remember what’s needed – including what they can do to help!

Telling your story

What's your story?

If you want help telling your story, think about ones you like. Why do you remember them? What’s in them that makes you relate to them?

If you’d like some help telling your story, then give us a call on 01892 839280 or send us an email

In the meantime, here’s a well-told story we found recently that we like – can you see why?

Charging Bullet challenge


References and Acknowledgements





All images courtesy of istock

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