Story is the basis of human connection. Design accordingly.

Mark VanderKlipp teaches Better Stories by Design.

Mark VanderKlipp teaches Better Stories by Design.

Gerald and his wife, both retired educators, have built a vision for a STEM summer camp that allows high school-aged kids to study invasive species in local waterways. They need a way to solicit prospective donors and adult mentors to make this a reality. How do they craft a story that will capture imaginations and enlist participation?

The answer is, of course, to design a compelling story.

In late 2017, the NorthSky Nonprofit Network asked Connect_CX partner Mark VanderKlipp to build a workshop about storytelling for their professional development series. Since our tagline is ”Better Stories by Design,“ this was our opportunity to not only research and present, but also learn from others as they developed creative approaches to story design.

This has evolved into a series of workshops and presentations throughout Michigan.

Nothing was ever designed that didn’t start with a story: a product, a society, a movement. And the best stories, the ones we tell over and over again, contain a basic structure that makes them “sticky” - they interrupt, surprise, convict and spur to action.
Storytelling is an art, for sure - but like any other artistic endeavor, it takes a process and good work to begin developing stories. The goal is to create common landmarks around an issue or idea that help to influence behavior. 
NorthSky Professional Development Series Invitation


Mark references a number of resources in the workshop curriculum, including TED talks. Here's a quick peek into some of the workshop content. 

Design thinking puts the audience at the center of any story. When writing to inspire, educate or entertain, think in terms of the brain chemistry you are working to elicit in your audience. In order to set the stage for the discussion, Mark tells three stories about himself:

  • One to elicit endorphins (laughter)
  • One for oxytocin, (empathy) and
  • One for dopamine (cliff-hanger).

These three chemicals comprise the “Angel's Cocktail” for the storyteller: if at certain points in your story you can elicit all three, so much the better! The workshop participants feel, in a visceral way, how those three chemicals move them to pay attention to the stories being told.

If, however, you are designing a story to enlist support for your nonprofit, as Gerald and his wife were, you may be reaching out to people at the wrong time, when their brain chemistry has them experiencing the “Devil's Cocktail": adrenaline and cortisone. This means that they'll be unreceptive and maybe flat-out hostile to your message [You know how this works, right? When someone sends you junk mail or a text that you just can't pay attention to right now?].

Learn more about The Magical Science of Storytelling by David JP Phillips.

Participants apply the process in small groups, preparing one of them to tell their story.

Participants apply the process in small groups, preparing one of them to tell their story.

Counteracting the chemicals that lead to rejection is the key to designing a compelling narrative. The second part of the workshop centers on thinking through the essential elements of a story as you develop it. 

Stories are inevitable. But they're not predictable. What follows are guidelines, not rules for storytelling:

  • Storytelling is joke telling. It's about knowing your punch line, your ending; knowing that everything you're saying, from the first line to the last, is leading to a singular goal.
  • Make your audience a promise that the story is leading somewhere and will be worth their time.
  • Make your audience care. There isn't anyone you can't learn to love after you've heard their story.
  • All characters have a spine, an unconscious itch they can't scratch. These may lead the characters to make less-than-optimal choices [think Michael Corleone in the Godfather series, whose spine is seeking his father's approval].
  • Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty. Your audience wants to 'work for their meal,' they just don't want to know that they're working!
  • A well-organized absence of information draws us in. The elements you apply, and the order in which you apply them, is the key to a well-designed story.

In this TED talk, Pixar alumnus Andrew Stanton gives us The Clues to a Great Story. [Fair warning: the session starts out with a bawdy joke!]

A workshop participant receives applause after telling her own story.

From birth, you've been telling stories, undoubtedly with varying levels of success. But effective storytelling is all about developing confidence and writing your stories down. Understand first that you don't BECOME a great storyteller: you ARE a great storyteller! If you take time to write them down, you'll notice you have your best stories at the ready. Index them: which stories make people laugh? Feel empathy? Which ones have that amazing cliff-hanger at the end?

The workshop is designed to help storytellers choose their topic, adopt an appropriate point of view, and focus on the details that make the story worthy of attention. Each of these requires a thoughtfully designed process. 

Check our events page to see when the next workshop is scheduled. Hope to see you there!