Spitfire Strategies

Don’t Forget the Punchline

Have you ever sat down with a friend who is so excited to tell you a joke she forgets the punchline?

Sometimes nonprofits and foundations are like that friend, eager to explain the remarkable causes they’re fighting for, but never quite making it to the punchline – whether it’s driving home their results or encouraging others to take action.  

A personal story is one of the most effective ways to shed light on an issue in a meaningful way. Stories have the potential to engage your audience, expose a tangible reality connected to a specific social issue and compel people to take action.   

Millions were captivated by the story of James Robertson, the man from Detroit who walked 21 miles every day, in addition to a short bus ride, to get to his $10.55-per-hour factory job in the suburbs. He inspired thousands of donations, raising over $350,000, plus a new car from a local dealership.  

Robertson represents a plight, but his story does not include the message of what he wants or needs. The larger context of poor public transportation in Detroit, unlivable wages in industrialized suburbs, and endemic rates of un- and underemployment, among other issues plaguing a post-bankruptcy Detroit, was noticeably absent.

These overarching issues are complex and daunting, but how can we begin to make a difference if the authors of Robertson’s story don’t even attempt to expose them?

At Spitfire, we recognize the potential power of stories to create an emotional connection with target audiences and increase the credibility of an issue. Two years ago, we worked with a coalition of partners to educate and activate the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community around the need for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship.

During the 2013 holiday season, Spitfire developed and circulated e-cards featuring compelling stories of LGBT immigrants and their struggles with family separation, and asking people to support immigration reform. The Out4Citizenship website encouraged individuals to share the e-cards with their friends and family and sign a petition urging Congress to pass immigration reform legislation.

Over 1 million impressions on Twitter and thousands of shares and likes on Facebook helped spread these stories during the holiday season when they were most likely to have an impact. The cards took people from education to action, making the case for why immigration reform directly affected LGBT individuals and what audiences could do to help.  

Storytelling, when done strategically, can inspire and activate audiences. In his blog post, Paul VanDeCarr, managing director of Working Narratives, provides a quick guide for excellent storytelling. He writes, “We must link personal narratives to political challenges; provide audiences with ways to take action; treat stories as one dimension of a larger effort to create change; and engage people who may be new to the cause or who disagree with us.”

Consider how VanDeCarr’s words relate to Robertson’s powerful story – with a sound strategy, Robertson’s story could spark change on a larger scale throughout the city of Detroit. Follow these guidelines to ensure the power of your message – your punchline – doesn’t get lost.  

“This is a truly transformative program and there is no question that it is preparing leaders to be courageous communicators.”

- Colleen Bailey, Executive Director, The National Steinbeck Center

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