Storytelling has been an essential component of the human experience since before the written word. It is a critical tool in conveying meaning and importance, and there is a wealth of scientific research to back up its effectiveness and power.

Juanita Wheeler from Full & Frank presented a one-day masterclass on 'The Science of Storytelling' at the 2015 QCOSS conference. This video provides a few short highlights of the day.

The masterclass was widely acclaimed, and due to popular demand, Juanita will be back to present on 'Branding for Nonprofits' at the 2016 QCOSS Conference on 7-8 September


QCOSS: Queensland Council of Social Service

The Science of Storytelling: Juanita Wheeler, Full & Frank, QCOSS Conference 2016

So we're going to start talking about persuasion. Sometimes when I talk to non-profits, and governments and charities, but mostly non-profits, they think that persuasion is a dirty word. They think that marketing is a dirty word, public relations is a dirty word, it's all bad, they're all things to do with the commercial and for-profit world.

Couple of things I think need to be said about that. First of all, the for-profit world do it because it works. They use tools because they work. Now those tools are going to get used out there in the world, we have a choice whether we're just going to let that be for the making of money or whether we would also like to use those highly effective tools for the purpose of doing good.

PR, marketing, persuasion, these are tools. A spanner is a tool. You can use that spanner to repair a sink or you can use it to club someone over the head in a dark alley. It doesn't make the spanner good or evil.

There are lots of persuasion strategies. And when I talk about persuasion, I'm talking about trying to get somebody to care about something that we regard as incredibly important, that we think that they should act on or value. That's what persuasion is, to try and get you to come closer to where we would like you to be. In the sea of stimulus, of coke ads, jeans ads, reality TV ads, buy this car, and not to mention all the other charitable ads that we might want to make our way through.

Lots of different persuasion strategies, I'm going to talk to you about some that I think are most applicable for non-profits, that are going to be most effective and be implemented with the best degree of sensitivity.

So, acknowledging resistance. This is absolutely a critical persuasion strategy for non-profit organisations. A lot of them will do the opposite. Will try to pretend that the reasons not to give, or the reasons not to support gay marriage, or the reasons not to do whatever, don't exist. You just be silent on them as though if we don't acknowledge them somehow they'll disappear.

Effect is again, emotions, so it's measuring their emotions, be very mindful, if you want to have empathy with somebody, you've got to not just think about how your day's going, where are they coming from, how are they feeling, is this going to be really challenging for them to be here, having this conversation with me? Have I actually, without wanting it necessarily, am I in the power situation in this discussion? In which case I might actually try to make myself a little bit smaller. If you know, coming into this that they may be feeling nervous, they may feel like there's disproportionate power balance here and they're on the losing side, do things to try and be mindful of that.

Let them know when you say thing, when you do things with non-verbals to let them know they're in the position of power. And that can be as simple as, when they come in, let them have the chair that faces the door. So they can see what's coming in, and that's generally regarded, particularly in negotiations, as the seat of power. In fact if I want to negotiate and win with somebody, secret tip, and I want them to feel relaxed, I will sit them in the seat of power, knowing that's not going to affect me at all but it's going to make them feel more relaxed.

So we've moved from talking about persuasion - we talked at the beginning about neuroscience, the reasons why this works, why storytelling is not a fad, why this is the most effective way you're going to get your message, whatever that is, across to human brains. And then we talked about persuasion, again remember it's a spanner, not good or evil, it's a tool, and the ways in which we can use persuasion and some of the most effective strategies. We talked about engaging empathy, we talked about cognitive versus affective empathy and the important differences, and we talked about being mindful of where you fall, your messages fall, on the pity-empathy spectrum.

Now we're actually getting into the how you do it, tactical, when you start sitting down to write stories. You need to write them in a three act structure. It's the easiest way. If you want to try and do something really fancy-schmansy and be wonderful and fall outside that, you can give it a whirl, but if you want to succeed and be able to get it done, and do it well, jump in with the three act structure. It reflects how the human brain works. How we want to receive information. How we want to process it. So why fight it? Why make your job any harder than it needs to be? The brain wants to receive it that way to get on board, I'll give it to you that way.

Here is how this is going to help you. First of all, if you're already a good writer, if you're already a good writer this is really going to help. So if your natural writing skill, maybe you write quite well and you're quite articulate, but you just haven't had the structure in which to put it in to work. But I can tell you, if you're not a good writer, this is not magically going to teach you how to gain a new command of the English language. It's not going to happen.

There are some really awesome things that are potentially going to happen though. First of all, you should be able to spot a good story. You should be able to speak to all of your staff and your teams about how they can spot a good story. You say, this is what I need. And if they're not comms staff or such, you can talk about the laundry detergent version of this, and say what I am looking for, all the time, please keep your eye out whether you're working, whether you're talking to donors, whether you're talking to people on the front line, whatever it is, please keep your eye out for stories that involve here is the situation before, here's what we did that we can take legitimate claim to as being involved with making this change, and here's what happened afterwards.

And once you've had that conversation you'd be amazed, where you were thinking before oh my gosh I hate content, where do you find content to be able to do a social media post today, my life is awful - suddenly you find people coming forward and saying, hey I think this might be a story.

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