What Everyone Gets Wrong About Storytelling in Fundraising

First, the surge in storytelling.
Five or ten years ago, it seemed like everyone in fundraising suddenly started talking about storytelling. Books were written, conferences were launched, and webinars were delivered.

Tons of vendors serving nonprofits began to write blog posts instructing fundraisers to learn how to tell better stories. This included fundraising consultants, software providers, and so on (never mind whether they knew what they were talking about).

It happened so fast. Do you remember that?

“Wait just a minute!” I thought to myself.
When the burst of activity began, I wondered, “Why all the fuss?”

Like much of what happened (and continues to happen) in the sector, I was baffled. I found myself scratching my head thinking, “Are you kidding? You’re just now realizing that stories inspire and motivate?”

Something wasn’t right.
I think the storytelling surge felt uncomfortable to me at the time because I was always taught that listening was more effective than telling.

I can still hear the voice of one of my early mentors ringing in my ears. Over 30 years ago, I worked for a small ad agency as a salesperson. My job was to bring in new business. My boss was the owner of the firm, and he’d remind me over and over, “Telling is not selling.”

He’d follow by stating that listening is the key to influence. It’s only when we ask questions and listen attentively that we can position ourselves as counselors who can help a prospect decide what’s right for them.

When we ask questions, we gain an opportunity to understand someone’s needs. That builds trust and encourages collaboration. It shows that we sincerely care about them and their interests.

Then, through listening, the best salespeople use the information they collected to customize a solution so people see that there’s a fit. Then they move toward encouraging a transaction in exchange for the customized solution that provides the best value for them.

I learned this by reading SPIN Selling over and over again.
Around 1992, a popular book called SPIN Selling backed this assertion. The author, Neil Rackham, meticulously studied more than 35,000 sales calls over 12 years and found most of the myths sales people followed were flat out wrong.

My boss was right. Telling is not selling!

Thanks to Rackham’s scientific approach, questions were proven to be the keys to successful inspiration and motivation—not stories and storytelling.

Stories support the process, but they can’t be the process.
Rackham taught me to focus on investigation and listening instead of ‘telling’ because he found it to be, by far, the most crucial work to be done. His research proved a clear statistical association between the use of questions and results.

Through those 35,000 sales calls, he was able to determine that the most successful salespeople asked more questions. Consequently, the deals that involved more questions on the part of the salesperson were much more likely to close.

“There’s no doubt about it, questions persuade more powerfully than any form of verbal behavior,” he wrote.

Furthermore, he added, “If the investigation is handled well, then all subsequent phases of the process come much easier.”

Unlike the storytelling surge, this made complete sense to me.
Through listening, salespeople (and fundraisers) find ways to provide value. After all, people want value in exchange for their money. That’s why telling doesn’t work and listening and investigating does.

But if asking questions and listening is what really motivates and inspires action, why was everyone in fundraising talking about storytelling? You might not like my answer to that question.

I’ll cover that in my next post. Look for it in the next couple of days.


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