Going back to Aristotle, drama has been described in rising action, climax, and falling action (or, in his words, protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe). Even now, when a movie is good, even great, for a while (*cough*cough*Spectre*cough*cough), but doesn’t have a satisfying ending, we call it a third act problem.
The German playwright Gustav Freytag formalized this in Freytag’s pyramid for a five-act structure:
I was skeptical of how much this could have an impact today. After all, as we said with the donor pyramid, all pyramids are lies.
But research backs this up. Keith Quesenbery, a researcher at Johns Hopkins, looked at 108 Super Bowl commercials and found that people were drawn to the ones that had a five-act narrative arc like a Shakespearian play. In fact, from this, he was able to predict the most effective 2014 Super Bowl ad in ratings and, apparently, in sales.
What does this tell us about how we should structure our nonprofit stories? With this type of narrative, clearly. Good stories like this release oxytocin in our donors’ brains and oxytocin is related to increased giving.
If the pyramid doesn’t speak to you, perhaps Wall-E or Woody or Lightning McQueen will. Former Pixar storyteller Emma Coats tweeted out (speaking of, her feed is a wealth of storytelling ideas) story rules for Pixar films. #4 was:
Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
Think of how this fits a tradition nonprofit story:
Once upon a time there was Janice. Every day, Janice would pick up her kids from school. She’d ask them how their days were. Joan said “fine” every day and little Jake would talk a mile a minute until they got home.
But then one day, Janice found a lump in the shower. She forgot to ask her kids how their day was, so preoccupied was she with this discovery. So she went to her doctor, who gave her the news. She’d caught it early.
She decided to fight. Her whole family decided to fight. And fight she did.
It’s five years later now. She still picks her kids up from school. But today, she’s going to celebrate — five years cancer-free. She’ll be walking to end all cancer. Will you?
This is not a bad story. Granted, it lacks a certain what you might call… quality — details and action verbs and things that will create a fleshed out narrative. You can picture it being an appeal letter or email. And it’s a strong narrative.
So I encourage this type of five-act structure as you build out your campaigns.
But that’s not the end of this story. Here’s the M. Night Shyamalan twist ending. (Hopefully early Shyamalan.)
Who is the hero of this story?
The person you are talking to — the potential donor — enters the story in the last two words of that appeal. Two words.
What if you took that same narrative structure and made the donor the hero, or at least a parallel hero?
Three years ago, every day, you would go to the mailbox and see a phone bill or a Sharper Image catalog you would never order anything from.
One day, you got a letter. It asked you to save a life. And you, being a kind and generous person made a gift, to see what type of an impact you could have.
Because of that, because of you, Janice knew how to perform a self-examination. Because of that, because of you, Janice was able to get the care she needed. And now, she’s cancer-free.
And it’s not just Janice. Because of your support over the past seven years, there’s been research that will help other survivors survive.
Together, I know we’ll keep saving lives and helping people. Until that great day when your support takes down all cancer, now and forever.
Which do you think will raise more? I’d say they’d be about even as they stand; we need to get some of that emotion from the first piece into this one. But it’s a philosophical shift we can make to engage better.