Home Legacy Futures logo
Home Legacy Futures logo

It’s no secret that storytelling is a powerful tool for conveying concepts and helping people to understand and get on board with important causes.

But have you ever considered how powerful storytelling could be within your own organisation; how it could help educate peers, trustees and senior leaders on the importance of legacies and why short-term thinking cannot apply with legacy marketing?

Dramatising the Post Office scandal

Before we delve further into how you could go about this, consider the recent Post Office scandal. The issue began almost 25 years ago, and in the past decade has been covered in over 350 press articles, and broadcast on several factual TV news programmes including The One Show and Panorama.

Despite High Court rulings in the sub-postmasters favour and the establishment of a public enquiry and compensation fund by the government, there were still hundreds of sub-postmasters waiting for their convictions to be overturned.

But everything changed when ITV dramatised the events in ‘Mr Bates Vs the Post Office’ which came out on New Year’s Day. Showing in story form how real lives and families were affected by the injustices brought home the extent of the impact. Almost 10m people watched the whole of the four-part series, causing mass public interest and increased calls for compensation and accountability for the victims.

Just 10 days after the first episode aired, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stood in parliament to announce that all Post Office scandal victims would have their convictions overturned under a new law.

So how did this dramatisation achieve such heightened attention and empathy when carefully researched, professionally written news reports on major channels could not?

The answer is in the brain

Scientific studies led by American neuroscientist Dr Paul Zak have shown that on hearing stories, people’s brain chemistry and therefore behaviour are altered. A well-told and well-structured story can increase the amount of cortisol and oxytocin the brain produces – the chemicals that cause people to pay attention and feel empathy, and make them more willing to take action (such as donate to or advocate for a cause).

In the case of Mr Bates vs The Post Office, the viewer was for the first time able to see the real people at the heart of the scandal (represented by actors). They saw it from the individuals’ perspective, witnessed their emotions through their words and expressions, and were able to put themselves in the position of the protagonists.

Good stories are character driven. They hone in on the challenges the characters face and how they respond to them, the journey they go on, and how it all ends. In other words — the elements of the story arc.

The story arc

The story, or narrative, arc was developed by novelist and playwright Gustav Freytag. It serves as a representation of the order in which traditional stories are generally told and which five key elements they possess.

Freytags Pyramid

In the case of Mr Bates vs The Post Office, the stages of the story which correlate to the points on Freytag’s story arc could be:

Exposition: showing how the characters go about their daily and family lives before the problem with the Post Office IT system occurs

Inciting incident: the moment they become aware there’s a problem and they could be implicated

Rising action: the impact of this problem on their lives and how they react to it

Climax: the most exciting part of the story that we’ve all been waiting for — the court case and the outcome, the quashing of criminal convictions

Falling action: the fallout from the climax; how the characters pick up the pieces and move on

Resolution: where the characters are now in the dramatic present. How the experience has changed them

So now we know why stories work so well, let’s revisit how legacy fundraisers can apply the theory to help them capture attention and gain support internally.

Story types

Many academics believe there are only 7 archetypal story themes. These are:

  • Rags to riches — protagonist starts off poor (in money, love, knowledge, etc) and ends up rich, e.g. Cinderella
  • Overcoming the monster – the underdog is victorious. Can be a physical or metaphorical ‘monster’, e.g. David and Goliath
  • Voyage and return — the hero goes on an adventure and returns a changed person, e.g. Alice in Wonderland
  • Rebirth — stories of reinvention and renewal, e.g. A Christmas Carol
  • Comedy — light-hearted with a happy ending, e.g. Mrs Doubtfire
  • Tragedy — the protagonist is a villain whose suffering is deserved and celebrated by the audience, e.g. Hamlet
  • Quest — the hero undertakes a mission with many temptations and dangers along the way, e.g. Indiana Jones

Why do you need to tell a story?

Looking at these famous examples, it might be difficult to figure out how you can develop your own story and how it fits in to one of these story types. Take a look at this example:

Scenario: legacy fundraising team seeks an increased marketing budget to support them in increasing pledge numbers.

Audience: The decision makers are the Head of Fundraising and CEO.

Context: The legacy team has previously put forward their argument for increased budget, by laying out statistics and forecasts, but so far no increases have been agreed.

Creating your narrative: Illustrating your request in story form is a creative way of helping your audience better understand why you need the increased budget, what you would do with it and the impact it could have on the organisation. If told well, it should make them sit up and pay attention (remember the effect of increased cortisol on the brain?).

Creating your story

Start by deciding what kind of story you could create. E.g. if your organisation is the main character, you could have them embark on a quest. It might be an epic quest, because we know legacy fundraising initiatives are never short term! During the adventure, the character comes across several tests and hurdles, which they work hard to overcome until they reach the ultimate moment — the story climax — where they either succeed or fail, and emerge the other side a changed character.

Alternatively, your story could tell of a charity which receives a generous bequest and as a result their fortunes change. They then go on a big adventure to find out what they could do to increase bequests and discover how this makes an enormous difference to people’s lives.

Bring it to life

Telling the story might be enough, but what could you do to make it really sing? How about visuals, props, different people playing different characters? What kind of platform will you tell it on? And when is the best time to share it — probably not just after the CEO has already signed off a raft of budgets!

Showing real character

You may consider switching from fiction to real-life at the end of your story by showing some actual people whom your organisation has helped through past legacy income. Even those within your organisation might need reminding from time to time how meaningful gifts in wills can be for the very people/animals you exist to serve.

Storytelling allows you to get creative, change behaviours and achieve the otherwise unachievable. Start telling your story and you may find it’s the most effective way to a happy ending.