The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 22

Nonprofit Storytelling the Hollywood Way (part 1 of 3), with Boris Kievsky

In this Episode:

What does it take for a nonprofit to tell a great story? In this episode we’ll start at the beginning: 16 fundamental questions to ask yourself about your organization, your goals and your characters before you start crafting a story.

We know that great stories are the most effective way to connect with others, take them on a journey and inspire them to action. A nonprofit has potentially hundreds of stories to tell. Hollywood tells thousands every year. No two are identical, but they all have fundamental elements in common. In this series on Hollywood Storytelling Tips for Nonprofits, we’ll focus on those elements and how they can inspire your stories and take your storytelling to new levels.

Listen to this Episode

[00:00:00.880] – Intro Video
Welcome to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, a weekly live video broadcast, and podcast. Where we’ll be helping nonprofit leaders and innovators create more heroes for their cause and a better word for all of us. Da-Ding!

[00:00:16.100] – Boris
Hi, everybody. Welcome to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, I’m Boris Kievsky, the host of the show. I am the self-described Chief Storyteller and Nerd for Good at dotOrgStrategy. Most weeks I have guests on to talk about the various things that they’re seeing out in the world of nonprofit in terms of marketing, communications and fundraising, ways that organizations can improve their reach and their impact, activate more heroes for their cause, as we love to say on this show.

[00:00:44.270] – Boris
Today, the episode is going to be a little bit different. I don’t have a guest on this week. Instead, what I’d like to do is talk to you a little bit about what I focus on and the Hollywood storytelling formula, and how that could be applied for your nonprofit’s communications in order to really hone in on the exact audiences that you want to reach, get them to resonate with your messaging, and then hopefully take the actions you need to make the world a better place, making them a hero along the way.

[00:01:15.880] – Boris
I want to start with one section, which is laying out the plan for your story. So, every story that you’re going to tell, before you ever tell it, you should already have many of the questions answered before you even put one word down on a screen or record something into the camera. And today we’re going to talk about what those early foundational aspects are that you should know before you get going.

[00:01:46.490] – Boris
The first one is really knowing your audience. Now, every client I’ve ever had, whether for-profit or nonprofit, I always ask them, who is your ideal avatar, your ideal audience? And every single one of them without fail says, oh, my offering, whether it’s my product or my service, it really can be applied to everyone. Everyone can benefit from it, whether they’re eight years old or a hundred and eight years old.

[00:02:15.170] – Boris
And that may be true, but not all of them will be able to take the actions you need them to take. In fact, not all of them may even be capable, like an eight year old, of actually signing up for something or enrolling in something. And an 80 year old might not have the ability to really navigate their way around a computer—because I do focus on digital—in order to even access your content. That’s just the broad scope of it. But really, no two people on this planet are identical, not even identical twins. And no two groups of people can really understand each other as well without a lot of experience with each other, a lot of contact with each other. Right?

[00:03:00.800] – Boris
In fact, that’s some of the issues that we have in the world today is people don’t necessarily even speak the same language, even though they might be neighbors. And I don’t mean language as in English versus some other actual language. I mean contextual language. I mean frame of references that they have to which they could resonate. I can’t talk to my teenagers the same way I could talk to my fiancée. I can’t talk to my parents the same way that I could talk to my grandmother. Right?

[00:03:29.540] – Boris
Everyone has different frames of reference, different vocabulary that they use for certain things. I’m always learning new vocabulary from my teenagers. So you really have to know your audience before you can even start trying to communicate with them.

[00:03:44.660] – Boris
And then, once you do know who they are, you do have to speak their language. You have to try your best. Even though my teenagers will sometimes laugh at me for trying to use terms that they use, if they don’t see that it’s their stepdad who’s actually trying to use those terms… if they just see some content on a website that somebody is saying or on social media, then they won’t necessarily have the same reaction they do when they laugh at me, but—or cringe sometimes.

[00:04:12.440] – Boris
But my point is, if you can’t use the same terminology that they’re used to, if I say certain things that they don’t really understand, because that’s not how kids talk today, they’re going to disconnect. Similarly, if I try to use the language of today’s teenagers to talk with people, my generation, Gen X, they’re going to think either I’m trying too hard or they’re not going to understand it, like I sometimes don’t understand the ways that the kids speak today. So you have to speak the language of the people to whom you are trying to connect—with whom you’re trying to connect.

[00:04:48.070] – Boris
The next thing that I encourage everyone to know before you even start to tell your story is to understand what the takeaway is. In other words, every story takes someone through a journey by the end of which they should be different than they were when they started. That difference isn’t part of the takeaway. It could be if you’re talking about fables, right. Aesop’s Fables or whatever they might be, it’s the moral of the story. But it could also be the practical tools that they can now incorporate into their lives, into their own world. So, for example, every time that I do a podcast or every time that I do a presentation or work with a client on any given session, by the end, I want them to have some takeaways that they can, well, take with them on their journey onwards.

[00:05:36.580] – Boris
So always know your takeaways. What do you want people to experience and how do you want them to feel at the end? What do you want them to think? Or what practical tools do you want them to have in their quiver or their toolbox, whatever you want to call it, whichever metaphor you prefer.

[00:05:55.790] – Boris
Next, you really need to consider your own motivation. In other words, why are you telling this story? So we talked about the takeaways and maybe you could do this before you even think about the takeaways. But you as an organization have goals. They’re part of your mission, I hope. With each story you tell, you have a motivation to maybe capture the attention of a particular kind of audience or to get them to take a certain action or to get them to feel a certain way, perhaps, or to contribute to your cause in one way or another.

[00:06:28.810] – Boris
So before you even start, as lots of actors like to say on sentence, become cliche when they’re talking to a director, what’s my motivation? How do I interpret what I’m trying to get at? Because that’s going to really impact my performance. I can say the same line 100 different ways, but if I know what’s driving me, if I know what my goals are with this, why I need to say it in this moment, then I’m more likely to deliver it in a way that’s going to connect with the material better. And hopefully have the impact that I want—we call them tactics all the time in acting—have the impact that I want on my audience.

[00:07:09.570] – Boris
And then know your objective. So your motivation is why you’re telling something to this person, your objective is what you want them to do at the end of it. Oftentimes it’s going to come in the form of a call to action, which I’ll talk about in another section of this series. But in this case, I just want you to think about what is it that you want them to do by the time they’re done consuming this story, whether it’s in audio format and video or online, whether it’s social media or on your website or anywhere in between, what is it that you want them to do when they’re done?

[00:07:47.290] – Boris
And then there’s your super objective, which you also have to know. So your super objective may oftentimes just be your mission. It is overall the change that you want to make in the world. It’s everything that guides you. It’s your guiding light, if you will. There’s so many metaphors for this concept because it’s so prevalent in society.

[00:08:08.570] – Boris
In a play or in a movie, there might be lots of different scenes. And these—each scene tells its own story or part of a story in one way or another. But each character throughout the movie or throughout the play has what’s called a super-objective because in each scene to have an objective, something they want to do, but that objective has to somehow be in line with the super-objective. Because you don’t want to waste any time in a story going off track. OK, so your super objective is what’s your ultimate goal? For this avatar, for your series of stories, for your overall storytelling online or in any other format that you tell your stories.

[00:08:55.160] – Boris
And then consider the context. Now, I spoke a little bit earlier about how everyone has a different context. Everyone has their own personal experiences, their own histories, whether you grew up in the suburbs or you grew up in a big city, whether you grew up in the Midwest or the Northeast, whether you are in high school or in college or a successful professional with 30 years of experience, you have different context. Even talking about the same exact thing.

[00:09:24.640] – Boris
We could talk politics to everybody, but we have to be careful in all ways and we have to consider what context are they in and what’s going to resonate with them. So context is not just your experience, but also what’s happening in the world around you right now. If it’s politics that often changes from day to day and it also changes from area to area. Right? What resonates with someone today might actually alienate them tomorrow. Some of the same tools, some of the same terminology that we use one day might actually in a few years or sometimes seemingly overnight, have a different meaning to it. And we can’t talk to people the same way over time that we did a few years ago. So you have to consider your context and the audience’s context, specifically, how are they receiving this message at this time?

[00:10:20.640] – Boris
And then you want to know what makes it interesting. So there are lots and lots of stories out in the world and there is new stories being told every single day. But what is it about your story that right now, to this audience, is going to make it interesting? It’s going to hook their attention, hopefully, and keep it all the way through the story? They’re going to be able to connect to it for some reason or other. They’re going to be intrigued by it. What is it about this story that’s going to make it interesting to this audience?

[00:10:58.170] – Boris
And then what makes it relevant so interesting is about peaking curiosity, relevancy is about really connecting on an emotional level or on some sort of level where I need this information right now to improve my world, which might be as narrow as my life or my day, it could be as broad as improving my entire community. So what’s relevant about this story? And hopefully that’s connected to your mission and the lives of your audience at the same time.

[00:11:36.020] – Boris
So now that we’ve laid out the plan for our story, we figured out the types of people we want to be talking to, what’s going to make this interesting to them, what effects we’re going to have on them? Now, let’s talk about who these people really are, OK? Who are the characters in your story?

[00:11:56.180] – Boris
The first and perhaps most important one is your hero. So who is the hero of this particular story, this particular chapter of the story? However you want to look at it, you want to have a specific avatar in mind for this particular story that you’re telling. Again, as I said earlier, everyone is not going to resonate to the same pieces of content in the same ways. So in this particular case, who is the hero for this chapter that’s going to help you make the world a better place? And to be honest, it has to be that you’re going to help them make the world a better place at the same time, there needs to be some sort of affinity for your mission already by this time, if you want them to take the next step in the hero’s journey.

[00:12:45.380] – Boris
So, at any given time, you might have different heroes that you want to speak to. You might have your donors, you might have your volunteers, you might have your beneficiaries, your board, whomever it might be, but you can’t speak to all of them at the same time. In the same way, it’s OK to have different pieces of content targeting different people, really structured for and styled for different people that you want to be talking to. So with this story, who is your hero?

[00:13:19.620] – Boris
Similarly with this story, who is your storyteller? Now, most stories that I’ve seen by nonprofits and by a lot of for profits, to be fair, seem to be coming from this ominous third voice, this disconnected party. And that’s OK, but honestly, what was the last time you really connected to a company rather than to a human being? If a company like Nike spends enough money to try to get their campaign out, to “Just Do It.” It might be inspirational, but the ones that are most inspirational are the ones where you see a person on the TV screen or whatever screen you’re consuming it on, whom you can somehow identify with. Maybe it’s someone you aspire to be, or maybe it’s someone who you already see as a colleague or an equal doing the thing that you want to do.

[00:14:10.460] – Boris
It has a very powerful effect. So. It’s often helpful to identify yourself as the storyteller or whomever is writing the story as the storyteller so that it’s not just some random, ambiguous thing talking to me, but it’s actually a human, telling me about the experience. Now, this could sometimes be your hero, but it doesn’t always have to be. So a hero may be telling their own story in the form of, say, a testimonial or an article that they’ve written about themselves and their experience with the organization… making the world a better place, of course. But you might have someone who is interviewing your hero or you might have someone who is just talking about the hero. They have a particular point of view. They have a frame of reference as well. And if you can, it’s great to identify them so that I understand who’s telling me this story. And I could take it from there.

[00:15:11.290] – Boris
The next character that you want to identify as clearly as possible is your villain. Now, not every time will your villain be a human being. It might be a politician if you’re into that sort of work. But it might just be a situation out in the world. Your villains could be time. It could be about global warming and time is running out. There could be apathy that not enough people are interested and caring about something. It could be actual malicious intent, at least the way that you see it perceived by someone else out there or a group out there.

[00:15:52.200] – Boris
The clearer you can name your villain, the more likely I’m going to be able to respond and see whether or not I think that that’s a villain as well. The bigger your villain is, the more people it’s going to draw together, right? There’s an expression me against my brother, my brother and I against my cousins, my cousins and I against the world. I think it’s I may be misquoting it, but I believe it’s an Arabic expression.

[00:16:16.950] – Boris
And what that means is the greater the enemy, the more people it will unite. Unfortunately, this is a tactic that a lot of politicians do use and it tends to split people. But if used well, it’s not about dividing people. It’s about bringing them together around a great cause and a way to save the world.

[00:16:38.300] – Boris
Next, you want to give your hero a cape. What is the Cape, what is the Mjolnir’s hammer, if you’re into Thor or Iron Man’s suit or Spider-Man’s Web shooters… what is the item or the tool or even the knowledge, the skill that you’re giving your potential hero that they didn’t have before?

[00:17:00.370] – Boris
In a way, this is one of the benefits of your programing. I talk a lot in my work about the features and benefits of your programing and how to get those across, because people want a transformation in their lives. They don’t want to give you money. They want to make the world a better place, their world a better place, something that they care about. So what is it that you do that’s going to empower them more than they could, perhaps on their own in a better way that they could on their own? What is it that you allow them to do that, they can’t do without you as easily, as quickly.

[00:17:38.740] – Boris
Then you want to know what is your heroes kryptonite? So, switching a little bit here between Marvel and DC Universe. I hope you guys will forgive me, but Superman was the most powerful humanoid or whatever you want to call them, since he’s not from Earth in the world, in the world of DC, comic books in general and of course, in the Earth that they were talking about the Superman lived in and it became boring.

[00:18:04.190] – Boris
It became too easy to predict that Superman’s going to win because he has no weaknesses. And so the creators of Superman came up with kryptonite. It is this item, this meteorite, this rock from Krypton that when Superman is exposed to it, makes him lose his powers like he would when he was home before his planet blew up. So what is the kryptonite that your hero is facing?

[00:18:33.570] – Boris
What is it that right now is keeping them from becoming a hero? What is the fear that they have about stepping up and taking action, which oftentimes is what holds us back from becoming heroes in the world? Is it that they’re lacking some bit of information? Is it that they’re lacking some accessibility access to something or is it that they’re just afraid?

[00:18:55.320] – Boris
Once you know what their kryptonite is, then you can help them overcome that kryptonite. You can overcome their objections, you could overcome their fears in order to get them to step up and be the hero that they do really desperately want to be if they can just get past this. So know what their kryptonite is.

[00:19:14.110] – Boris
The next thing you want to do is give them a guide. Now, in the world of the hero’s journey. Every hero gets these calls to action and they reject those calls to action over and over again. Eventually, they take one up. We’re going to talk about calls to action, another section, but most of the time they can’t do it on their own. Very few of us could do anything really on our own.

[00:19:39.210] – Boris
We need the world around us. We need the people around us, our support team. Right? It could be our family. It could be our coworkers. It could be whomever we rely on in order to be able to do the things that we do. On the hero’s journey, the hero will often meet a guide. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker had two very prominent guides. He had Ben Kenobi, Obi Wan and he had Yoda. Each of them in different movies, gave him some sort of instruction, gave him some sort of empowerment, made him a more capable hero out in the world.

[00:20:18.380] – Boris
So Luke wanted to be a hero before he ever met Obi Wan, but he didn’t know how to do it. He didn’t have the ability to stand up against the forces of evil in his universe. He meets Obi Wan Kenobi and Obi Wan tells him there is a way you can do it and I can help get you there.

[00:20:37.910] – Boris
In another movie, he becomes Yoda, who needs to take him to the next level. So who is the guide that’s going to help your hero become the person that they want to be? Be as successful as you both want them to be. Then you want to introduce your supporting characters. So in Star Wars, there’s a big team around Luke Skywalker. In Harry Potter there is Hermione and Ron and Neville and all of the others who rally together and help Harry achieve the goal of defeating Voldemort. I’m not superstitious and do say his name.

[00:21:23.430] – Boris
So, who are the supporting characters that will help your hero in the face of adversity that have maybe done this before, that have in one way or another decided that they want to go on this journey together? Right? There is the proverb, the African proverb of if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. Who is it that’s going to join me if I’m the hero on this journey and make sure that I can succeed?

[00:21:50.650] – Boris
Those are the characters that need to be in every possible story. Now, you can’t always identify each one of them. Clearly that’s OK. But as much as you can think about whom these characters are and how you’re going to include them, weave them in to your story framework in order to capture their attention, encourage them to actually take the actions, make them feel and believe like they can succeed and whom or what they might need to overcome in order to do so.

[00:22:24.300] – Boris
Those are all of the things that I encourage you to think about before you even start writing your story. We’re going to keep this short and we’re going to make this a series that you guys can come back to over time if you do want all of these tips. And then there are 46 of them that I’ve assembled into an ebook, Check out the show notes for this page and you can download the whole thing so that you could reference it any time you want.

[00:22:46.410] – Boris
If there’s any way that I can help you with your storytelling, these are all of the questions that I help an organization go through these and all of the others that are in this ebook in order to figure out their Hollywood storytelling formula. Once you figure out the ways to tell your story and what your overarching story is, then it’s so much easier to be able to generate your content in a way that’s going to find—really target the audience that is going to resonate with it and is then going to be able to take the actions that they want and that you want to create a better world together.

[00:23:21.940] – Boris
So thank you for tuning in. This is just part one of the series on Hollywood storytelling tips for nonprofits. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please make sure to subscribe share this. And more than anything, I’d really love right now a review. This is your call to action. I’m asking you if you enjoy this type of content, help more people discover it by sharing your thoughts on Apple podcasts, on YouTube, on Google podcasts, on Spotify…

[00:23:50.150] – Boris
Wherever you consume this type of content, that’s where people who are like you. And we’re going to talk about this in another episode. People who are like you are probably in the same places consuming the content in similar ways. And so you sharing your information, your preferences and your interests and your appreciation for things like the show is going to help more people discover it there as well. Thank you so much for everything you do to make the world a better place. I’m Boris Kievsky and I will see you next time on the Nonprofit Hero Factory.

[00:24:22.270] – Outro video
Thank you all for watching and listening to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, we hope this episode has given you some ideas and strategies for creating more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Please be sure to subscribe to this show on YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform and let us know what you think, by leaving a review.

Concepts and Takeaways:

  • Before you endeavor to tell a story, you need to know the answers to several questions. (1:15)
  • You can’t effectively communicate with your audience if you don’t know exactly who they are. (3:00)
  • Every story takes someone through a journey. At the end of that journey your goal is to impart the audience with takeaways that make them a different person than when they started. (4:48)
  • Your organization should have goals which are part of your mission. Which of these goals will this story advance? (6:28)
  • Considering the context in which your story is being received. (8:55)
  • The hero of your story may be the person reading it or the person it’s about, but it has to be clear. (12:45)
  • Identify your villain. It’s not always a person, it could also be a situation in the world. The clearer you can name your villain, the more likely your audience will agree and want to join your effort. (15:52)
  • What is the superpower your nonprofit gives its heroes to make it easier for them to take on the problems in their world? (16:38)
  • What’s your hero’s Kryptonite? What’s holding them back from becoming the hero they secretly want to be? (17:38) 
  • How will you be the guide or guru that helps the hero on their journey? (19:14)

Action Steps: What Now?

  • Start implementing!

About this week’s guest

Boris Kievsky

Boris Kievsky

Chief Storyteller and Nerd for Good at dotOrgStrategy

Boris is an entrepreneur, recovering filmmaker, and relapsed geek. As the the Chief Storyteller and Nerd for Good at dotOrgStrategy, Boris helps nonprofits harness the power of great stories amplified through the right technology to reach the right audiences, create meaningful connections, and activate the inner hero in each of them.

Connect with Boris Kievsky