Storytelling Marketing: 3 Elements of a Successful Story

Person reading a story.

You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

― Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

It’s not only in your best interest to share your organization’s story, it’s your responsibility. When you share both your story and those of the people you serve, you offer listeners the opportunity to take action and change the world for the better.

As a marketer, you use storytelling to develop meaningful connections with your audience and move them to rally around your cause. Yet when we speak about storytelling just as a strategy, device, or technique, we trivialize the role it plays in our society. Storytelling is fundamental to the human experience, and it’s only when we consider it as a part of our greater purpose–rather than just a task–that we can truly inspire others to think and act for causes.

Possible Health perfectly summarizes the importance of nonprofit storytelling to connect audiences to your mission.

“How do we take healthcare delivery in the Achham District, a place that no one knows about, and get people to care about it? We do that through our brand, we do it through our storytelling.” – Laura Schwecherl, Marketing Director, Possible Health

Take action to refine your storytelling and your organization can move even more supporters to affect change. The first step is to make sure it includes all the right elements.

The Key Elements of a Successful Story:

1. The Right Structure

The amount of information people are exposed to online each day is outstanding. One recent study suggests that people spend an average of 490 minutes a day consuming different types of media. As soon as your content is in front of your readers, it needs to do everything it can to capture and secure their attention.

Act 1, Scene 1

How your story begins can determine its overall success. If your reader can’t get past the first paragraph, page, or minute, your story gets cut short and your message goes undelivered.

There are many different ways to start a story effectively. Consider these famous first lines:

  • “Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
  • “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
  • “Mother died today.” – Albert Camus, The Stranger

Melville, Hemingway, and Camus all employ different tactics to introduce information that captures the reader’s attention. Melville starts first with the main character; Hemingway, with background information about who we presume to be the main character; and Camus, with a narrative hook in the form of a tragic event. While these can all be effective techniques in the literary world, the world of online storytelling marketing requires you to choose strategically.

Consider your specific channel and how your reader will digest your story before selecting a technique. For example, a hook like Camus’ might be most effective when your content is directly competing with other emails in an inbox.

The Middle Bit

Despite the broad nature of the problem you address, it’s actually more effective to focus on the individual stories of your beneficiaries to connect with your audience. The identifiable victim effect suggests that this approach will inspire more donations. Studied by Professor Deborah Small at the University of Pennsylvania, this effect shows that charitable giving tends to be greater when donors are presented with an individual story, rather than a large statistic.

Mother Theresa is famously credited to have said, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Small’s study and Mother Theresa’s message both speak to the human experience of connecting with others and the types of stories that empower people to act. Individual stories transform the broad stroke of a tragedy into a personal hardship that is suddenly specific, relatable, and all the more harrowing. When you use individual stories to establish one-on-one connections between your readers and the people you serve, you can boost conversion rates and donations.

In Conclusion

Just as you take special care to begin your story, you also must consider how it wraps up.

In a way, your nonprofit’s story doesn’t end until you solve the larger problem at hand, be it curing the disease, ending hunger, or saving the whales. But each micro-story can celebrate your accomplishments and progress along the way.

Consider each story you craft as an installment in a larger series of your work. Each time you accomplish a smaller goal, you make progress towards the larger dream and strengthen your organization. With the right outlook and tone of voice in your narration, the never-ending story is never seen as a failure, but as an opportunity to continue to reengage your audience and provide them with updates.

2. Vivid Imagery

In order to inspire readers, your story must evoke emotion. Make sure your story resonates with your audience by using techniques that help form deep, emotional connections.


Images are a great way to illicit an emotional response from readers while providing them with a ton of information.

Possible Health often posts on the blog platform Medium to reach new audiences and tell their stories in a visually appealing way. In this particular post, Possible uses a photo to pull readers into an individual’s story. The image below of Pangata and her son, Bishal, magnifies the impact of the following paragraph. Readers not only learn that Possible has increased the number of safe births to date, but that the organization has welcomed Bishal, specifically, into the world—along with hundreds of babies just like him.

Women and her child beneficiaries of Possible Health's services.


Moving pictures are powerful tools that bring your stories to life. Film eliminates a reader’s need to rely so heavily on their imagination in order to envision the scenario you’re trying to paint. Through video, your readers are already there. They can see and hear what it’s like to be inside of your story.

Pro Tip: Your video’s narrative and music are just as important as the images on the screen. Spend just as much time crafting your message and choosing the right music as you do filming.

In this example from Possible, a beautiful, stirring melody is paired with declarative sentences that describe the current situation and the organization’s goals. The video communicates their mission to the audience in a way that brings them into Possible’s story and those of the people they serve.

Beyond just your mission, there are other things your videos can portray:

  • Testimonials from your staff, volunteers, or beneficiaries
  • Inspiring moments from your events and fundraisers
  • Your founding story

Descriptive Language

The language you use to tell your story impacts the way your audience receives it. In order to captivate readers, make sure your wording is action-oriented and easy to understand. When you “show” and “don’t tell,” you place your readers in the scene and help them imagine themselves as characters in the story.

This phenomenon creates a sensory experience for readers that allows them to not just read, but feel the story. Mirror neurons, the scientific explanation behind this phenomenon, cause human beings, and even some animals, to internally mirror the experiences of others when they are observed, or even read.

If the human brain is already wired to internalize others’ experiences, all you have to do is paint these experiences effectively.

Here are some tips from The Write Practice on how to show, not tell, your story:

  • Show a main character’s motivation by answering their “why.” Don’t just explain their behavior, explain why they are behaving a certain way.
  • Show your main character’s mood through their actions, not by simply stating “John is upset.” Describe John’s body language, tone of voice, and other details that illustrate his emotions.
  • Show the setting with descriptive language, rather than just stating your character’s location, point blank.

3. Tailored Content

As a storyteller, you need to meet your audience halfway. Ensure your stories are hitting their mark by considering what questions your audience may have ahead of time.

“For us it really came down to taking a step back and understanding who we are reaching and what they were interested in. Are they more interested in the stories, are they more interested in the data and understanding the nitty-gritty of the impact…It has been a lot of making sure that we’re segmenting in a smart way.” – Laura Schwecherl, Marketing Director, Possible Health

In order to get a clear understanding of what your audience is looking for, you have to listen to them and then segment your communications based on this information.

There are several ways to collect information to better understand your audiences’ interests.

  • Conduct a survey or poll via email or social media
  • Analyze your email open and click through rates to get a sense for which types of content are most popular, and with whom
  • Ask people in person at your events
  • Ask people to provide feedback in blog comments
  • Participate in conversations on social media frequently with your audience
  • Listen to your listeners–follow supporters back on social media

How to Get Started

Even the best storytellers need to practice their craft to maintain their skills. To set your next story up for success, start with an outline that checks off all of the necessary elements.

Try this exercise:

Sit down with a blank sheet of paper or word processing document. Set your timer for 20 minutes and answer the following questions.

  1. Who is your main character?
  2. Will you start your story with a hook, or will you first provide background information?
  3. What are the problems or obstacles that arise along the way?
  4. What is the character’s critical choice, or the climactic moment of your story?
  5. Is there a small resolution that contributes to the larger goal? (Here, think of how individual books end within a series).

If you’re like our content team, talking, reading, and thinking about writing is all it takes to pump you up. However, the hardest part is always taking that inspiration and turning it into productive activity. To make sure your stories meet their potential and impact as many lives as possible, take steps to plan and practice your storytelling regularly. Commit to developing your craft and you’ll develop a cadence for providing your audience with authentic, valuable content that strengthens their relationship with your organization and ultimately empowers them to contribute to your cause.

What is most important is that we’re able to tell that story through smart and dignified storytelling that not only empowers donors, but it really empowers our patients.” – Laura Schwecherl, Marketing Director, Possible Health

Want more practice? Fill in this worksheet and use it as a tool for creating content.

Download Your Free Nonprofit Storytelling Worksheet
  • ButtCrackula

    Great article! I’m working through a bit of writer’s block and was browsing the internet looking for some inspiration or…something. Your five-step exercise helped break loose some of the rocks in my brain. Thanks!

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