Story Gardens

Whether you’re a writer, a blogger, a trainer, a facilitator, a coach, a speaker or a fundraiser, you need a story garden.

These are stories that illustrate and illuminate important concepts you want to share with your audience. These are stories they will be drawn to, understand and remember.

Like all gardens, they don’t come out fully formed. Gardens require care, cultivation, time and patience.

We begin by finding a place and a time to plant the seeds.

Most of the time, for most people, it doesn’t work to set aside big chunks of time to come up with fully-formed, engaging and useful stories. The pressure is too great, and the habit unfamiliar. High expectations and low output create frustration, so we quit.

Instead, take the pressure off and begin with a commitment to awareness, observation and capture.

Awareness of the concepts you’re carrying around that are looking for stories.

Observation of small moments—in conversations, books, memories, articles—that might become bigger stories.

And capture, so you can hang on to those moments quickly and easily, before they vanish. This might be a notebook, an email address you set up so you can send yourself ideas, the audio recording feature on your phone.

My capture process often involves just a headline and a few words. I include the moment I noticed, and a few words (max 1-3 sentences) about what it might become. I write down details about the moment that sparked the idea, so that these details, and the thoughts surrounding them, can find their way back to me.

Then you need a “going back” process: dedicated, regular time to turn those snapshots into somewhat-developed stories. The process is up to you, but dedicated, regular time plus deadlines will help a lot.

And then you need time to practice telling these stories. The sooner and more often the better.

For example, recently some members of Acumen’s Fellows team who facilitate seminars started holding hour-long Story Garden meetings. They sit around a jar filled with slips of paper, each with a core teaching point from an upcoming seminar. One team member at a time pulls out a slip and then tells a 60-second personal story to illustrate that concept. They’d give it a go, get feedback, and move on to the next person.

You could easily imagine doing the same thing with your fundraising team: pick 10 key selling points or examples about your nonprofit or social sector organization, get 5 fundraisers in the room and start picking pieces of paper out of a jar and telling your stories. Take and give feedback. Repeat.

A number of years ago I noticed that the best communicators I know speak in stories—all day long. What I’ve realized since then is that process of story capture, development, practice, refinement, selecting and discarding is both iterative and self-reinforcing. Once you start down the path and see that stories land with your audience, you’ll realize that this is something that you, too, can do. Then, one day, you’ll get to a point when you can hardly remember talking any other way.

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