Telling stories with faces

April 14th, 2016

For the past few months I’ve been working on a book oriented towards people in nonprofit marketing. There’s a huge potential for those in the nonprofit industry to learn more about the nuts and bolts of marketing: common business principles aren’t often put to enough use in the world of nonprofits, and it would be a smart move for a lot of entities to consider integrating more sustainable practices in their operations.

Increasing engagement is essential to an organization’s growth, and it’s not always a very tangible way that can be easily assigned to metrics. But there’s one truth that can be executed through marketing: engagement comes through identification, transparency and trust.

People must identify with the organization. That means associating a nonprofit with faces and personal stories. It gives an otherwise faceless entity a personal edge that it might not otherwise have. They must see humanity and levity in the way you approach your communication: staying positive in your message is essential. It communicates the ability for change to actually happen. They need to see examples of change that you’ve produced, and they need to see a variety of people interacting with and donating to a cause.

If you take anything away from this to apply towards your organization, it needs to be this simple message: tell stories with faces.

There is nothing that resonates more with humans than someone else’s face, and leveraging that power is crucial to success in marketing. Think of some of the most iconic photographs and images in existence, and how they strike your memory. Think of photographer Steve McCurry’s Afghan girl’s eyes from the famous National Geographic cover, or the Gerber baby (did you know the Gerber baby was Cary Grant?) or the Wendy’s girl. That’s why spokesmen are so important to a brand’s success, if they wish to cultivate an aura of familiarity and intimacy.

Keep this in mind when implementing your marketing strategies. And take it to an extreme level of story and emotion. When you’re producing a television spot, for example, don’t merely film a cheap stand-up actor spouting scripted information. That will do nothing positive for your message, and if anything actually harm it. You want to find a real, live, breathing example of the work you’ve done and introduce that emotion to your viewer: you aren’t selling a product like an infomercial might, you’re selling an emotion.

When hiring a photographer to document a program to feature in your annual report, or newsletter, look for a photographer who is journalistic as opposed to merely artsy. Along with the faces that you need to show, it is essential that a strong story accompanies it. After a few years freelancing as a nonprofit photographer, I learned it the hard way. You don’t want merely a wedding photographer who is skilled at making things look attractive: you want someone who can both make things beautiful and tell an amazing story, with an arc, and with actions. You want your viewer’s eyes to follow the process of what happens in the everyday process of your organization’s programs. Education, learning, support, care, aid, whatever that might be, it needs to reflect in the visuals you produce.

When copywriting, you can use this rule too. Use stories in your writing, and use emotions, and descriptive language, and include real examples from real people. Turn your boring, nondescript website about page into a lively page from the actual life of your organization.

Humans tell and listen to stories. It’s one of the most fundamental aspects of humanity: everyone is either recounting or making up stories for their peers to listen to.

We all know that person who is always telling stories, but just isn’t good at telling them. Perhaps they’re too detailed, so they weigh down the important parts with irrelevant descriptions and context, missing the whole reason for telling the story. Or they’re not detailed enough, and they tell you only what happened without important details that might make the story funnier or more believable.

Here’s the deal: almost any story can be told well. Think about your favorite stand-up comedian. In most cases, the stories comedians tell aren’t anything special. They’re just average people like the rest of us, and average things happen to them. They just know how to tell the story really, really well, including the right details that make the story funny, and excluding the irrelevant details that would only weigh down the important parts.

Your story can be told well, too. It’s just a matter of learning to tell it in the right way.