Finding Your Story


As a small business owner or nonprofit, there are many times when harnessing the power of storytelling can be incredibly effective. Maybe you’re trying to compel your community to donate to a fundraiser, or perhaps you want to share the incredible success of your business over the past few years. For many businesses and organizations, the guiding light of their story is a set of data. If you’ve ever attended a presentation or class on effective storytelling, you know compelling narratives show rather than tell. But how do you “show” your story when you’re trying to convey the numbers? This roadmap to finding your story will guide you to a captivating narrative that doesn’t just tell your audience about your data but truly engages them.

Step 1: Define your objective.

Why does your story need to reach your audience?

From raising brand recognition to recruiting volunteers, storytelling is a powerful tool. But before you can tell your story, you need to figure out why you’re telling it. 

Step 2: Define your data. What data points do you have?

Data is all around us. Your social media followers and engagement are points of data. Your daily steps are points of data. Your property’s ROI is a point of data. The number of volunteers you trained for an upcoming event is a point of data. Defining the data that will most effectively help you tell your story is key. 

For instance, if you’re trying to tell your audience about the volume of donations a local food bank collected, it may be useful to break down donation items by type and quantity. It also may be helpful to include the number of volunteers who collected donations, and the number of donors. Don’t include data that doesn’t directly apply to the particular story you’re trying to communicate.

Step 3: Humanize your data.

Where are the people in the numbers?

Audiences connect best to stories that center around a person. In a study on storytelling for nonprofits, University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic set out to find the point at which an audience’s empathy wanes when they’re asked to identify with a group of people. Incredibly, he found that empathy drops significantly the moment someone is asked to identify and empathize with more than one person. Using this information, you should strive to center your story around a single person so that your viewer can easily relate to them.

Continuing the food bank example from step 2, you could center your story around a recipient of some of the donations. What brought them to the food bank? How are they benefiting from the donations? Alternatively, you could approach the story from the angle of the director of the food bank. What does their day look like as they rally volunteers? How did they come to work for the organization, and what impact do they see it having on the community? Your data points will be useful when guiding the overall narrative, but capturing the people behind the numbers is what will truly drive your message home.

Step 4: Bring it all together. It’s time to show, not tell.

The way in which you will convey your story is dependent upon the resources you have access to. Fortunately, there are many outlets for storytelling. One of the most effective forms of storytelling is video, especially when it is shared on social media. At MFM, we often use an iPhone to capture video, and a $50 lapel mic (compatible with a headphone jack!) to capture audio. While we typically edit our videos in Adobe Premiere, we have also used free and inexpensive video editing tools like Canva and Movavi. 

If creating a video isn’t an option, a well-written blog or social media post (with a narrative bent) accompanied by captivating photos can also be quite compelling. For example, take before/after photos as a form of visual storytelling. Whether it’s a building before and after a mural was installed, or an empty room that gets stuffed to the gills with donations for a food drive, showing the results of your efforts always hits hard.

No matter the medium you choose to tell your story through, remember to place a single person at the center of your narrative and enrich your audience’s empathy with compelling data points. Above all, remember that your data should always be the context of your story, not the content.

We recently employed all of these storytelling tactics to convey the impact of COVID-19 on small businesses in Washington DC, and the ways in which District Bridges and their Main Streets provided assistance throughout the pandemic. Watch the video below to see how we communicated the impact that Logan Circle Main Street had on local businesses Trade and Number9.

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