Do we real­ly need anoth­er book on storytelling?

Written by
Charlie Hulme
& Rob Woods
& Joe Jenkins
January 15, 2015

Charlie Hulme reviews Ken Burnett's latest book Storytelling can change the world and invites additional comment from author and fundraising trainer Rob Woods and Joe Jenkins, director of fundraising, communications & activism at Friends of the Earth.

Do we really need another book on storytelling? Let's face it, you can't go to a conference, read a blog or hire an agency or consultant these days without someone passing off something they've read as their own piercing insight into the power of storytelling. We're all telling stories and the world isn't changing, not if you judge it on decades of nigh on non-existent growth in our sector.

So is storytelling a load of old rubbish or are we just rubbish at telling stories?

As the name of Frank C Dickerson's PhD analysis 'The way we write is all wrong' would suggest it's the latter. He studied 880 charitable organisations, analysing over 1.5 million words of copy across channels and concluded:

'Fund-raising texts sounded cold and detached like doctoral dissertations rather than warm and friendly like personal conversations. Rather than gaining reader attention with emotionally rich human-interest stories, these texts contained less narrative than academic prose. They contained even less narrative than official documents!"

Ouch! We should ask for our money back.

Ken Burnett rightly says, 'we have the best stories in the world and the best of reasons for telling them'. Yet Dickerson's study reveals that rather than opening hearts, minds and wallets with stories of tragedy and triumph our discourse is, '…focused more on transferring information than creating interpersonal involvement.'

So yes, we badly need a serious book on the art and craft of storytelling. Thank god it's been written by one of the very few people in our sector who's actually qualified to write it.

Ken Burnett is a master storyteller. And he doesn't just talk the talk. His stories have generated untold income for charities of all types and sizes around the world. When he says he going to share how he does it you need to pay attention.

Within the pages of his new book you'll learn everything that's wrong with the way we approach storytelling and practical lessons on how to put it right. Immediately. None of us can afford to wait!

This book is a must read, and not just for individuals but for entire organisations. For unless the entire organisation understands and embraces the power of storytelling, their individual storyteller's stories will have no power.

I say this from experience. I was creative director of a major agency for years. It would be quicker to say which charities I haven't written for. Yet I can count on one hand the briefs I received worth the paper they were written on. Rather I was inundated with a combination of fluffy trivia and useless information. On the one hand I was asked to 'surprise and delight' donors, on the other I was given annual reports of such mind numbing tedium that, to paraphrase Churchill, they defended themselves against ever being read by their very length. If we're going to use so very many words we really should try and say something.

And then of course there's the copy sign-off process. Ours is the only sector in the world where the phrase 'I'm not an expert but…' carries weight. No one would get on an airplane if the person flying it said 'I'm not a pilot but…' We wouldn't allow ourselves to be operated on by someone who said 'I'm not a surgeon but…' Yet time and again the most powerful, emotive copy is emasculated by hordes of people, each with their own stake in the copy, who say 'I'm not a writer but…' And so what started out as a plea from the heart ends up as a strain on the brain.

This is a fixable problem. And Ken's book fixes it. Of course it is right that the creative process, like any other, has a checks and balances process. And of course everyone who has a stake in a piece of copy should be involved in its creation. But they shouldn't confuse the ability to spell with the ability to write.

Our sector generates billions of words each year. Yet no matter what story we tell or how we tell it nothing changes. Year in year out our bottom line remains predictably, depressingly the same. We'll never change the world unless we change the way we tell our stories. Ken's book will show you how.

Storytelling can change the world. It's the only thing that ever has. Think of the pivotal moments in history that are encapsulated in a story. Think of the sayings of the Buddha or the parables of Jesus. Think of the oratory of Lincoln or Churchill. Think of the story of Rosa Parks that lit the tinder of the civil rights movement. Think of your own life story so far…

As you've probably gathered by now this isn't a standard book review. Given the 'cold and detached' nature of our storytelling we'd be much better advised to buy Ken's book and let it review us. Within its pages the world-changing storyteller of tomorrow will learn the four pillars that prop up and propel the most powerful stories.

To do both the subject of storytelling and the book itself justice, over coming weeks each section will be reviewed in depth by four world-changing fundraisers. Bethan Holloway will tell us 'Why we tell stories', Rory Green will look at how we go about 'Making the difference', Rob Woods will look at the art of 'Brilliant and emotional storytelling' and Joe Jenkins will examine how we can tell 'Stories that will stick'. Rob's and Joe's contributions are being posted on SOFII now, the others will appear soon.

Storytelling can change the world. But it isn't doing so at the moment. Buy and read this book and you'll change that.

© Charlie Hulme 2015

Emotional fundraising – the essential ingredient

Review of chapters 9 – 11 of Storytelling can change the world, by Rob Woods

Rob Woods (@woods_rob) is an author and fundraising trainer who has helped more than 5000 fundraisers, trustees and directors through his award-winning courses and coaching. For more information, see

Thank goodness, a fundraising book that is both entertaining and practical. Too many are dry and overly theoretical, so Ken Burnett's latest book is a welcome oasis in the desert.

Chapters 9 – 11 tackle the idea of emotion in storytelling from several different angles, including why emotion is so essential to fundraising; which bits of the brain are fundamental to the triggering of emotion; dozens of easily-made mistakes and how to avoid them and much more.

The ideas are delivered in a variety of ways, including personal stories from Ken's career and instructive examples from charity campaigns around the world. There are snippets of advice and quotes that breathed new energy into things I thought I already knew, but which in truth I probably needed to be reminded about.

I especially liked this belter from Elmore Leonard:

'Adjectives are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood out of words.'

The section about the workings of the brain included several ideas that were new to me, including which part of the brain alerts us to anything that STANDS OUT. Apparently it is the amygdala. Do you know what your hippocampus does? Like the rest of this section, understanding just a little of how our brains work helped me to more urgently seek out certain ingredients in stories that will help the donor to connect to the truth I want to convey.

There are also plenty of broader thinking strategies that can help in a number of situations. I particularly liked the NLP technique of chunking up or down. To find how to do this in practice I'd urge you to get the book. But to whet your appetite, Ken's business partner Alan Clayton, himself no mean persuader, prizes this technique so highly that he calls it 'the magic super power'.

The book provides two compelling examples of the power in action: how it helped the London 2012 pitch team to cruise past the favourites, Paris, to win the vote to host the Olympics. And how the RSPB used it to transform their message from being a charity that appeals to people who like watching birds, to a charity for people who care about preserving the countryside and its wildlife for future generations.

I remember being baffled by the phoney, over-the-top gratitude that was expressed in many of the letters sent from one charity where I once worked. So I especially liked Ken's reminder that though it's important to thank properly, people don't like insincerity, even if it seems flattering and grateful. He once received a letter which thanked him for his 'tireless dedication…' when he had shown no such thing.

There are also great examples of ways to ensure the donor (as well as the beneficiaries) are properly considered when making decisions – apparently ActionAid used to set up a spare place at board meetings to represent the perspective of the absent donor. There is also sensible encouragement to make use of your office environment as a source of inspiration. What could you put beside your desk, or on the walls or ceiling, to inspire you at both a conscious and subconscious level?

You'd think this should not be so hard. But don't bet on it. I remember that even this assignment was messed up in one large children's charity I know, where the communications department (average age 34) had created what they thought of as cool posters in the style of teenager's urban art, but which looked no more authentic than William Hague in a baseball cap.

Here are five of my favourite bits of advice from these three chapters to anyone who seeks to do justice to the emotional power of their stories:

  • It's better to be real than clever
  • It is all too easy to write in charity-speak, so beware this danger and fight it tooth and nail. One practical solution is to appoint a Tone Checker.
  • People are interested in themselves. So the words 'you' and 'your' are more persuasive than 'we' and 'our'.
  • Write what you mean. There's a feisty quote about this from Mark Twain about Jane Austen's prose and a shin-bone that expressed a feeling I recognised immediately. (I can't do it justice here, it's in chapter 11.)
  • If it sounds like writing, re-write it.

On my training courses two of the most popular modules are How To Use Stories to Influence and Writing Persuasively. This book will certainly help anyone who wants to improve either of those skills. But it is also an entertaining read that will help you raise more money in all sorts of ways. I have added it to my list of must reads for fundraisers. If you work for a charity, I recommend you get ahead of the game and get yourself a copy.

© Rob Woods 2015

The changing-the-world business

Review of chapter 12, Stories that will stick, from Storytelling can change the world by Ken Burnett, by Joe Jenkins

I'm in the changing-the-world business. Here at Friends of the Earth, to change the world we work with two things: people and ideas. We know we won't change the world without both. In understanding this, and offering a transformational way to combine them, Ken Burnett's new book couldn't be more relevant.

If you're in the changing-the-world business (and frankly if you're not, what the hell are you doing with your life?) then it's relevant to you too.

I'd recommend the whole book. But the final section – stories that will stick – is where the key points all come together. It's where Burnett lays down the techniques and principles that really work. It's where the responsibilities and opportunities of the storyteller are powerfully confirmed. And it's also where Ken intimates that if we're really going to change the world – not just tweak it at the edges – then great storytelling won't just be desirable, but essential.

We live in an ephemeral age – stories swirl around us, fly past us, compete for our attention, an onslaught of images, messages, ideas, calls to action. How do we make our story not only stand out – the first part of the challenge – but more importantly then stick thereafter? While individual actions help, it's movements that are necessary to secure our visions of a better world.

Well firstly, we need to always inspire people with our stories. Too often, we risk the opposite outcome – our clumsy messages, poorly targeted communications and bland jargon serve to irritate and annoy. Which means connecting emotionally and personally with people, shifting from broadcast to genuine conversation. And, from there, building partnerships (not transactional relationships), which feel mutually beneficial, not a one-way street.

Burnett explores a number of key ideas that help stories stick, including the power of habit and belief. We're all creatures of habit, an insight exploited by commercial marketers for years. The trick for those wishing to achieve positive social change is to make 'making a difference' a habit too. Ken suggests the only reason we're not doing that already, is our inability to tell stories better. Yet we can't just tell any story – we will inspire people when we tell the truth, well; when people believe in our stories and action feels inevitable.

Earlier in the book, Burnett recommends we cut out key phrases that keep us true to our storyteller ambitions and post them on the wall as a constant reminder. There are loads of sentences in this book that I'm tempted to stick up on my office walls, but perhaps the most useful would be the simple list of storyteller responsibilities and opportunities in this final section. I won't repeat all 12 here (you'll have to read the book! but three stood out for me:

  • Make sure transformational storytelling runs like a rich thread right through your organisation. It's not a technique, it's an approach to life.
  • Promote the truth, told well. Avoid peddling the corporate whitewash that so many companies put out. Readers don't want an airbrushed, antiseptic version of reality, they want real, honest, gritty meaning with no punches pulled and no holds barred.
  • Build your stories on strong, clear moral foundations. Make your stories the glue that binds people to your cause and the grease that eases their engagement and willing participation.

In other words, if you want your storytelling to make a difference, it needs to be instinctive, authentic and true to your cause. How sad, that so much of the communication – from truly great causes – would typically fail these tests.

Over and over again, throughout this section and the book as a whole, the power of transformational storytelling is laid before us. Almost too much, this may perhaps be the one weakness of the book – page after page is dedicated to convincing the reader that storytelling matters. Maybe this is necessary, and there are legions of unconvinced communicators out there, who will pick up this book but still need to be sold. For those like me who are already there, we need less of the why and more of the how. The good news is that Ken does then give us plenty of that too.

This section of the book finally concludes with a simple aspiration: for us to be life changers, not junk marketers. As I said at the beginning of this review, that's what gets me out of bed in the morning. To pull one last quote from Ken, in doing so we should 'aim to learn from the best' when creating stories that enable change to happen. Ken Burnett is one of the best, his book is full of great insights, tips and of course stories that will help us all. I recommend you take some time out to read every page, then return to changing the world with a far greater hope of success.

© Joe Jenkins 2015

Copies of Storytelling can change the world are available from The White Lion Press (, http:// and

About the author: Charlie Hulme

Charlie Hulme is managing director of DonorVoice. He helps charities uncover what, of all the things they do, improves the strength of relationships  and what is harmful. Partners see a massive improvement in performance, value and retention.

Voted top speaker at the Institute of Fundraising’s National Convention in 2013, he writes frequently for SOFII, 101fundraising, the Institute of Fundraising and many others.

About the author: Rob Woods

Rob Woods is an award-winning trainer who has spent more than 14 years in fundraising, searching for ways to raise more money, more easily. He started out as a major gift fundraiser at the NSPCC. As an independent trainer he has helped more than 4000 fundraisers. He is a tutor for the IOF Academy. His clients include Oxford University, Oxfam, Tate and UNICEF UK. @woods_rob

About the author: Joe Jenkins

Joe Jenkins currently leads the vision for engagement at Friends of the Earth, bringing together all the ways people get involved across all channels.Previously Joe has led fundraising strategy at RNIB, and worked with a diverse range of large NGOs through the telemarketing agency Pell & Bales.

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