March 3, 2021 TVG Staff

Storytelling for Nonprofits: The Science Behind Storytelling, Part 1

I heard pounding on the outside door of my office. I looked outside to see a man shivering in the pouring rain. I opened the door to let him in. Water pooled on the floor – it was obvious he was soaked to the skin and had been in the rain all night. He looked at me and said, “I can’t do this anymore.”

Did I get your attention? I could have started out by saying, “Joe came by our organization in need of help.” The different beginnings evoke quite different reactions and what you recall about the story.

Did you know that messages delivered as stories can be up to 22 times more memorable than just stating the facts? And, if you’re a nonprofit, you need to be using storytelling in your communications and fundraising efforts. In this series on storytelling for nonprofits, we are going to talk about how you can use stories to connect your donors and other key stakeholders to your mission.

This week we are diving into the science behind storytelling.

Let’s start with the brain. When you listen to someone reciting statistics or reading through a presentation, two areas of your brain are activated: Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. These parts of our brains are there to help us process the information we hear into meaning, but nothing more. However, when we listen to a story, the language processing parts of the brain activate, and up to seven other regions in the brain! This includes the motor cortex, sensory cortex and frontal cortex.

Stories involve not just our intellect, but our emotions and senses as well. Have you ever felt your heart racing during an intense scene in a movie, or get goosebumps listening to music? When we hear a story that involves our emotions and senses, the brain releases dopamine. This dopamine enables us to remember what we just heard more accurately. Given what we know about how different areas of our brains “light up” when hearing a story, it makes sense that messages presented to our audiences are best told as stories. Remember the two different statements presented at the beginning of this story? One version evoked emotion, whereas the other did not. It makes a difference!

Still not convinced? Researchers Rob Walker and Joshua Glen did an experiment to test whether or not the use of storytelling impacts value. Together, they listed items that they had purchased for no more than $1.50 each on one of the online sales platforms. However, when they listed the items, instead of writing a run-of-the-mill item description, they wrote short stories about the history and background of each item. Collectively, these items were resold for almost $8,000!

Now that we see the importance of storytelling and its effectiveness, we need to learn what goes into a compelling story. Come back and join us for part two of our Storytelling for Nonprofits series as we dig into how to create stories that are memorable, effective and add value to your organization.


By Bailie Moore, Senior Account Executive at The Vandiver Group in St. Louis, Missouri


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