How To (and not to) Create Emotion and Drive Action With Stories

by Marcy Heim on August 28, 2017

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Stories told for good can raise millions. I’m a great storyteller. Sharing stories for 23 years about our UW-Madison faculty, research and students connected my donors to the results of their giving.  Givers felt uplifted by their giving experience.

But what happens when our stories so manipulate the emotions of the listener that their lives are haunted, hopeless or forever changed?  Or, they feel anger, disgust, or hate towards other people based on your story – a story strategically set up to elicit that action and it creates divides between people? Do we say, “bravo?” Where is the line drawn and who draws it?

Let me give you an example John Trybus shared.  Using virtual and augmented reality headsets, he said, is a new trend in storytelling.  According to John, prospective givers to Planned Parenthood put on a headset that puts them into a story of a young girl contemplating an abortion walking through heckling crowds. He also shared another example, where YOU are a cow given human characteristics and the truck is coming for the slaughterhouse.

Is this the future of our “honorable and noble” profession?

Does the lust for desired action (getting money, shutting down farms, getting our way) justify the means?  Is this part of the Donor Bill of Rights? Do we want children to see this?

And here’s the biggy for me. Does this foster more understanding, compassion, enlightenment, and unity? Does wealth or stardom provide different access or let you “off-the-hook” for some of the very practices you want the “common man” to take? Do our stories inspire actions we didn’t intend out of the emotional upheaval we created?

Now Tammy Zonker was just down the hall at AFP Fundraising Day Wisconsin with her session on the 5 Donor Love Languages.  It was a wonderful session on how to creatively, authentically and consistently shower our donors – especially our largest investors – with experiences that cement a positive, caring relationship between them and our organizations.  First off, donors deserve to enjoy their giving. And, the lifetime value of a continuous giver is significant. Beyond this, it is uplifting for all.

In the middle room of the conference was Penelope Burk – THE researcher who spent 47 years conducting sophisticated research to provide real data on how donors, fundraisers and leadership think and feel. I am a big fan because her research consistently supports what I say to be true, “based on my experience.” Thank you, Penelope for the documentation!

Perhaps Penelope would consider a research project to see if people want to be frightened, horrified, sickened, angered, and/or disgusted into giving. Or, would they rather see the positive results our good work can do to alleviate pain, increase understanding and empathy, discourage judgement and encourage appreciation and acceptance?

Now I am sure all the negative raises money.  Perhaps you have your comment ready to share about the success of your negative, scary, sad or violent campaign. Here’s what I know: There is a lot wrong in the world. People don’t agree on what is wrong or the best way to fix it.  We have the power to move people to action – peaceful and violent.

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Later this week, we’ll be driving our last child, David, to Berklee College of Music in Boston!  What will his future hold? Remember how YOU feel about anything is just that – how YOU feel, your perspective given your experiences and knowledge.  That doesn’t make it true or false, or right or wrong.

Please take some time to continuously reflect on these questions

  • Does your work indeed promote a better life for all?
  • Is it true to your values?

I challenge you to behave everyday in a way that fosters joy, deepens understanding, and embraces those on the opposite side of your beliefs.

Invest in Joy!

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