The power of storytelling: thoughts from a crime writer

First, a confession, even though Paragraph 1 seems the wrong place for a crime writer to put the confession: As a guy who often writes in 90,000-word chunks (I’ve written 10 crime novels, a thriller and two true-crime books), in my case-statement writing I am occasionally, shall we say, brevity-challenged.

My brevity issues notwithstanding, I find storytelling quite useful in my Marts & Lundy work. I commend it to you as well, Dear Reader, as a tool for fundraising, team-building, leadership development, and capacity building.

Even in this, the era of Instagram, stories still move people: To laughter. To tears. To heroism. To generosity.

Humans hunger for stories. That hunger is ocean-deep and prehistorically primal. Nearly 3,000 years ago, goes one story, a blind bard named Homer mesmerized Greek audiences with tales of the warriors and beauties, gods and goddesses of the Trojan War. Even in this, the era of Instagram, stories still move people: To laughter. To tears. To heroism. To generosity.

It’s easy to see how a pediatric patient’s story – a child saved from leukemia by experimental immunotherapy, say – can tug at heartstrings and loosen purse strings. But there are other kinds of stories we can tell to good effect, stories that are less obvious but also powerful, important, and change-making. Stories like these:

  • The story of a scrappy, inspiring urban university (yes, institutions can be heroes, too) that has given hundreds – no, thousands – of first-generation students a shot at a solid education and a higher rung on the ladder of opportunity.
  • The story of a symphony in a border city, reaching across and through The Fence – intentionally, courageously, creatively – to build bridges, transcend boundaries, and transform young lives through music.
  • The story of bereft parents who channeled their grief and anger over their daughter’s death – a needless, easily preventable death, in a renowned hospital that could easily have saved her – into a nationwide patient-safety crusade that has saved countless lives.
  • The story of an understaffed development team that doggedly and strategically persevered, gradually gained institutional respect and support, created a culture of philanthropy, and mounted a phenomenally successful fundraising campaign.

Such stories can resonate – and make a difference – not just with donors but with the development professionals who are our clients, inspiring and guiding them; helping them, in turn, to inspire and guide the institutional leaders and volunteers whose support is crucial.

Such stories can resonate – and make a difference – not just with donors but with the development professionals who are our clients, inspiring and guiding them; helping them, in turn, to inspire and guide the institutional leaders and volunteers whose support is crucial.

To increase your storytelling’s effectiveness, keep a few basics in mind:

Craft a story structure – a beginning, a middle, an end – that creates a satisfying arc or conveys a lesson. Avoid triteness, oversimplifying or over-sentimentalizing … but remember that people value stories that offer wisdom, hope or insight.

Convey what was at stake for your story’s hero(es): What would have been lost by giving in to timidity, inaction or the status quo? What was gained by seizing an opportunity with vision and boldness?

Remember that what’s obvious to you might be a revelation to others. I once wrote a profile of a fetal interventionist at a children’s hospital – a surgeon who corrects defects in utero so babies can be born healthier. I recounted his most recent surgery, involving a woman pregnant with twins, one of whom was hogging more than its share of blood and nutrients. The doctor inserted his instruments through a small tube and began cauterizing some of the greedy twin’s placental blood supply. Suddenly, halfway through the high-stakes procedure, the cauterizing laser crashed. Coolly he rebooted the laser, finished the procedure, withdrew the instruments, and stitched up the opening. He had to do it all – and did do it all – in less than five minutes, because additional time raises the risks. When he read my draft, he said, “You make it sound so dramatic!” Indeed.

Keep it short! People might be willing to stick with a murder mystery for 90,000 words, but most folks’ attention span – especially if you’re asking for their money or their time – is mighty short. Less is almost always more. Ernest Hemingway supposedly once told a story in just six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The attribution to Hemingway is likely apocryphal, but that six-word story is evocative and memorable.

As a lifelong storyteller, I encourage you to look for opportunities, openings, and ways to tell more stories: to harness storytelling in order to illustrate or underscore key messages, to put human faces on campaign goals, to enlist feelings, hopes and dreams in the service of worthy causes.

Bestselling novelist Jon Jefferson is a Senior Writer & Strategist for Marts & Lundy Communications.