What is a Story and How Do I Find One?

How do we define a story, and how do we find them in the course of our work?

An easy way to think of a story is by using the CAR method.

C – You face a CHALLENGE.
A – You take ACTION to overcome the challenge.
R – There is a RESULT or RESOLUTION after taking action

Of course “you” could literally be you, or a client, a beneficiary or an organization. And as the CAR method suggests, a story doesn’t have to be long—three sentences can tell a complete story. Also, the challenge doesn’t have to be of epic Lord of the Rings proportions and neither does the action. The idea is to make an emotional connection with the reader or viewer. Research shows our brains love this connection aspect of storytelling. And people remember stories better than data.

A simple story is better than a complicated one.

People will remember a short, simple narrative. Don’t feel like you have to tell a story with tons of facts and numbers and many characters with interweaving storylines à la “Downton Abbey.” Keeping your story simple also means avoiding nonprofit jargon. Especially when your audience is outside the nonprofit world, the language you use should be language that anyone will understand. Be especially careful of acronyms. True, it’s easier to say something like “PMTCT” than to write out “prevention of mother to child transmission” of HIV. But most people working outside the nonprofit sector will not remember what PMTCT stands for.

But let’s back up a bit. How do you find a good story in the first place?

The best place to start is by being genuinely curious. As we wrote in another post, every person, every organisation has a story to tell. Ask people questions and actively listen to their answers. If this is scary for you, try to think of it as doing the person a favor: many people enjoy talking about themselves and feel validated when storytelling. This doesn’t have to be a one-hour conversation. As an example, listen to this audio story about a teenager in Khayelitsha hit by a car. You can also listen to this engaging, short conversation—a story—between a dad and his two young daughters, one of whom cut the other’s hair.

You know you’ve found a good story when you remember it, when you want to repeat it to other people and when you retell the story and people respond to it with more than an, “Oh. Interesting.”

Laura Elizabeth Pohl is a photographer and filmmaker who frequently works with international NGOs. You can see her work at www.laurapohl.com.