- Allowing the story owner to feel safe and in control is key to sharing an ethical trauma-informed story.
- Using the StoryBrand method is extremely effective when using trauma-informed marketing strategies for nonprofits
- AI can be useful in helping repurpose stories, but it won’t tell the story.
People connect with other people, not organizations. That’s why Maria Bryan, founder of Maria Bryan Creative, helps nonprofits tell ethical stories about real people who have undergone trauma. She focuses on personalized consent, allowing people to share their story in whatever way they feel most comfortable. This helps the story owner to feel in control and safe when sharing their trauma with others.
We feel like if we don’t talk about our nonprofit enough that people aren’t going to understand how important we are and how important it is to donate to us. But people are getting it through telling your story. You just have to make sure that you’re getting through how your organization is unique and innovative while talking about the solution.
Maria uses the StoryBrand method to show how the story owner is the hero and the nonprofit is the wise sage that nudges them in the right direction. But ultimately, the story owner has the agency to do this themselves as they work to heal. The nonprofit is simply guiding them by humanizing the process
If you work at an organization — nonprofit or otherwise — that helps people in difficult situations, this is an interesting conversation about how to effectively, empathetically, and ethically tell those stories.
Todd Nienkerk: Welcome to The Future of Content. Howdy everyone, I’m your host, Todd Nierkerk. Today we talk with Maria Bryan, founder of Maria Bryan Creative. She focuses on marketing for nonprofits, helping nonprofits tell their stories and the messaging around that. But what’s really interesting about her perspective is that she focuses on trauma-informed marketing. And how to tell stories effectively and ethically that involve trauma. So when you are a nonprofit and you want to share proof that your organization or your methodology or your program is effective, you of course want to talk to the beneficiaries, the recipients of that assistance. But. There’s a way that you can do that really well, and there are ways that you can do that really poorly. And a lot of this is stuff I hadn’t really previously thought about in depth. And so it was really fascinating to hear her methodology for finding the right kinds of stories to tell, and how to structure interviews, and how to navigate issues of consent in that interview process with beneficiaries. Making sure that they have agency and control over their story and how their story is told, which is something that I think we generally don’t really give a lot of thought to. There might be some common sense that we put into asking people questions about difficult things that have happened to them, but it’s really interesting to hear about a more structured approach that can yield better stories overall — not just ethical stories, but better stories. So if you work at an organization, whether it’s a nonprofit, or a school, or a corporation or publisher, that helps people in difficult situations or people that are dealing with issues like homelessness, or hunger, or poverty, or violence, or abuse, this is a really, really interesting conversation about how to effectively tell those stories
Todd Nienkerk: So I suppose it’s safe to say, at the most basic level, you help nonprofits tell their stories. Is that more or less accurate?
Maria Bryan: Yes. So, it’s important to me that nonprofits are centering story in their fundraising, in their advocacy, when they’re trying to fill their programs — wherever their audience is. The key to get people to act, I think, is a centering story. I guess I should say that another big part of my work is that nonprofits aren’t the only characters of these stories. So that’s part of what I do, too, is supporting nonprofits in how to position themselves in this story strongly, but still make sure we’re giving agency to the people they serve
Todd Nienkerk: When you say the key is centering stories, what exactly do you mean by that?
Maria Bryan: That means, that’s so easy. My background is in journalism. And I promise you, I feel like one out of 10 nonprofit marketers have a journalism background and started out in journalism. And so this is one of those things I learned when I was in journalism. It’s really easy to get caught in the numbers. So, you know, the numbers of the problem, or even quantitatively, this is the numbers of our program. This is what we do. The facts, right? The facts and statistics of what we do. The facts and statistics of the problems and the issues and how we solve it. And that doesn’t move hearts and minds. It doesn’t change behavior necessarily. For one thing, what we know about statistics, is that if they’re large enough, people disassociate from it. They don’t feel like they have anything to do, really, with that number. So that’s the beauty of stories, is taking these stats, taking descriptions of programs and information, and making it so edible and so powerful and relatable and human. And we can do that. There’s a combination of both. We want to tell a story, whether that’s in an appeal for fundraising or trying to get people to fill our programs. Once you have built that connection through story, that’s when you can kind of bring in the numbers. Just to build the authority and trust. I feel like you can’t really do one without the other — both are important. But we so easily gravitate towards the numbers, because that might be just more accessible. So I really help nonprofits to slow down the process of creating content so they’re bringing in stories and they’re bringing in stories in a way that’s ethical
Todd Nienkerk: The idea about numbers — large numbers causing people to dissociate from the problem. It feels like some national tragedies in our lifetimes — things like 9/11, coronavirus. Sometimes those numbers just seem — like with coronavirus, for example, if you compare it to 9/11, I’m probably going to get the numbers wrong, but I believe it’s 2-, 3,000 people died on 9/11. Coronavirus, in the millions. And that’s just within the U.S., right? Yet, somehow, that number, even though it’s orders of magnitude larger, feels like it’s just not even a thing. It’s just like, “Oh, 2 million people. 3 million people.” Because we just can’t even understand the scale of that. Where do you think — at what point in numbers do you feel like we sort of lose our grip on what that means? Is it in the thousands? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? When does it stop making sense to us?
Maria Bryan: You know, I wish I could source this, but I was even just reading something yesterday that we have a stronger reaction to a murder than a mass murder, because of just that. It’s just so hard. We actually have a stronger emotional reaction when we’re talking smaller numbers. So context is important. So if you know thousands of people died in New York City, knowing how many of those people worked in the building is going to help you wrap your mind around it. Comparing how many people died during the pandemic to maybe other wars or other kinds of big historical atrocities helps. But then I bring it back to the story. When you’re taking about one family whose father or grandfather was in a retirement home and had this really devastating experience with Covid, or you’re talking about a woman who was a nurse, and all that she experienced. Those are the stories that will cause you to feel more emotionally involved and attached. And then you hear the numbers and you’re like, “Wow, this is big.” And from a nonprofit fundraising perspective, we’re not just telling stories. We’re not journalists. We’re telling stories because we want people to act. And so the numbers help to motivate that action. You know, “This happened to this family.” It doesn’t have to be negative, too. We can talk about the positive, wonderful things that have happened. “We’ve served this many people, and your support will help us serve even more.” Or “This is a problem that affects thousands of people in our community.” After I’ve told you the story about one family in the community and their experience, you’re more likely to act when you learn how large this problem is. The context of that problem
Todd Nienkerk: I’m reminded of criticisms of argument, where people rely on anecdotes to stand in place of a whole, or of a more fully fleshed-out argument or something like that. But, on the other hand, what you’re saying is that an anecdote — a story about something small and manageable — that feels local or relevant or isolated can then be used to illustrate the true scale of something, rather than trying to minify it, right?
Maria Bryan: Right. I love that you bring that up. Because the stories you’re telling are the exception to the rule. And that’s where ethics comes in. We serve 10 people a week, but only one family actually gained anything from it. If we just tell the stories of those that gain from it, we’re not really being very truthful. So, yes, you can find someone that’s had any kind of experience to back up anything you want to say. You’re actually getting me thinking about that in ethics. When it comes to storytelling, of course, we want to tell the best story. Of course we’re looking for those heroes and we’re looking for those success stories. But in building trust — again, that’s why numbers are important. When you’re saying, “95% of the students we serve go on to college or are fully employed,” then it’s not like you just so happened to help that one student
Todd Nienkerk: Right. You mentioned ethics. And I’m reminded of the unique perspective that you market your services toward, which is trauma-informed, ethical-driven marketing and interviewing around these anecdotes and stories that you tell. I don’t think I’ve come across anybody who works in the marketing, storytelling, messaging space that specifically highlights the need to tell stories. But to do so from a place of understanding trauma and how to navigate that. How did you arrive at that specialty?
Maria Bryan: I have to thank a few pioneers in the world of journalism, which is separate from nonprofit marketing. There’s been a lot more resources and education on how to interview people in a way that doesn’t retraumatize them, and also self-care for journalists. A lot of the research that I use to educate nonprofit marketers comes from what’s out there for and from journalists. And the pioneers of the nonprofit space, I would say, would be those championing ethical storytelling in the nonprofit space, which isn’t new. We’ve been talking about this for the past ten to 15 years. How can we talk about our beneficiaries, our clients, in a way that dignifies, respects, and honors them? So where I kind of bring things in from both worlds is, typically speaking, nonprofits exist because people are in tremendous pain and we’re solving these kinds of problems for them. And because of that, they’re experiencing trauma — it may be the most traumatic time of their life when they come to our door. Now, our role as fundraisers and marketers — and I’m so glad we started out by talking about the importance of — we tell these stories in order to fill our programs, in order to get people to partner with us, in order to gain financial support. So there is this gap. How do we approach people and our services and have them tell their stories in a way that doesn’t trigger trauma or retraumatize them. So that’s where I come in. It’s with this understanding that we need to not be the heroes, and we don’t want our donors to be the heroes. We really need to give more agency to what I call our story owners. Anyone who is sharing their story, I call them story owners. So that’s what I do. And I’ll tell you how I came to this. I have been training and teaching nonprofit marketers and fundraisers across the globe — mostly virtually, but also in person. It wasn’t too long ago. It was last November that I was teaching nonprofit storytelling and one of the students in the class said, “You know, this is a really great storytelling framework, but how does trauma-informed practices work into your story framework?” She worked for an LGBTQ center that serves unhoused youth. And I absolutely didn’t have an answer for her. I did the best I could intuitively to answer her. But I, at the time, didn’t have resources. So I started looking for answers for the next person who might have this question, and wasn’t finding anything. I mean, there just wasn’t anything that I could find specifically on trauma-informed nonprofit marketing. Now, Marilyn Murray is one person that I want to shout out. She has written some things on this that was really helpful to me. And I was able to find some resources in the journalism world. But really specifically, the role of nonprofit marketers and what we need to do to tell a story — the policies, procedures, the lens, the mindset — all those things — there is just so little there. And it really was a 180 for me. I kind of backed away from the Marketing 101 and the Storytelling 101, and I thought I really need to find these resources and put them in a place that’s really easy for people to use and implement. I felt a real urgency around it as well. And so I got my certification in trauma and resiliency with FSU and with anyone who wants to learn something where there is few resources. I’ve just been reading as many things as I can, and have gone into this world of trauma-informed spaces holding space. Really the social work scene. In any nonprofit, especially those who are doing direct services, there’s probably someone who is trauma-informed and trained, but they’re program staff and doing direct services. So it’s, again, including those people and having conversations with those people
Todd Nienkerk: What does it look like to create a trauma-informed marketing plan or messaging plan? At a practical level, what does that mean for the nonprofit who wants to conduct interviews, tell stories, and use that content for their marketing?
Maria Bryan: That’s a really good question, and the good news is it’s really practical. It’s not philosophical. It’s things we can actually do. One of the first things is to actually get buy-in from leadership. It’s not something that a marketing staff can do in a silo. So letting leadership know this is something we’re prioritizing or want to prioritize, and we’re going to start to write some policies and procedures. we’re going to mix up our workflow, and that starts with something that I tell marketers all the time: The very first thing you want to do is slow down the storytelling process. So if you’re in the habit of producing two to three client stories a month, it’s not leaving enough room for trauma-informed practices. So just setting those expectations with leadership, or just producing two to three stories per year, that’s our goal. And they’re going to be really well thought-out. They, they’re going to be really wonderful and beautiful, and we can repurpose them all year round. But we really want to do our due dilligence, so we’re just focusing on two to three stories this year
Todd Nienkerk: So that’s a major shift
Maria Bryan: Oh, it’s a huge shift
Todd Nienkerk: Yeah. So first of all, I wonder why? Why the huge shift in volume, and what does that afford you in the end?
Maria Bryan: So let me tell about maybe what a process from beginning to end might look like — a trauma-informed story-gathering process. It starts with knowing what you need the story for. So, we have a gala coming up; we need to create a video. We know in the next six months that we need a video. We need someone to come to be interviewed. The very first thing you’re doing is contacting program staff. And you’re not asking for a current client. You want a client who has completed the program, and what I call in storytelling, has that transformation arc. That means the beginning, middle, and end has been completed; they have gone through this challenge or their problem, and a transformation has taken place. That has already greatly reduced the number of people who you can tell their story, because you’re not telling the story of a current client. You’re telling the story of an alumni who’s a success story that is still in touch with the organization
Todd Nienkerk: So from one perspective, one of the reasons why it reduces that volume is it actually just reduces the pool of stories
Maria Bryan: First thing’s first, it reduces the pool. We’re not going to people in the midst of the most painful, tragic, traumatic experience of their life and asking us to sit down and talk to us about the program. And I cannot tell you — and I say this with empathy and grace and kindness — how many nonprofits do this. It’s just low-hanging fruit. They ask for whoever is in the program that can sit down and talk with them. And not only does it not tell a good story — it doesn’t have a beginning, middle, and end — you’re telling the beginning and the middle. What are you doing? One, it’s a bad story. It’s not a well-done story. Two, you’re asking the donor to come in and save them. You’re inviting the donor to be the hero and the rescuer. Now if you have someone who has completed this transformation arc, they have agency over their own story. They have succeeded. And then what you’re asking donors and supporters to do is to just support the organization. So they can have a role in helping people transform their lives. And we’re at step one, Todd. Step one is finding someone, and involving program staff, who is ready and willing to tell their story. Now, not everyone who has been in your program wants to tell their story. So even with this small pool, you have to find someone who doesn’t feel obligated. Who is enthusiastically excited to share their story. Now, when it comes to very traumatic stories, people who have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, hunger, homelessness — for some people, telling the story is part of their healing process. But that’s the other good news: There are going to be other people that are thrilled to tell their story. But don’t assume that people want to tell their story. And that’s again why getting program staff is so important, because they will know and they will be the best advocates for current and past clients on who is ready and willing and excited to share their story. Once you find that person, step two is getting enthusiastic consent. So that means you’re fully explaining, “This is why we want to interview you. This is how your story is going to show up. It might be in our social media. It’s going to be in a letter coming up. Maybe it’s a video that will be in our website.” But you have to have this conversation — this very, very clear conversation. So many program staff are like, “No, they signed something before they even joined our program, so they’re good.” Right? It’s got to be a culturally appropriate conversation, a language-appropriate conversation. This person really needs to understand. I wanted to shout out ethicalstorytelling.com. It’s a really wonderful website with one of the most trauma-informed media consent forms that I have ever seen that gives a lot control and agency to the story owner. Letting them know where this story might show up, and letting them know, hey, you might change your mind when you see it out there, and that’s okay[ad break]
Todd Nienkerk: The Ethical Storytelling site has a consent form
Maria Bryan: Yes. Ethicalstorytelling.com
Todd Nienkerk: Yes, and what, it never would have occurred to me that you need something as like tactical as a well-thought-out consent form or policy to be part of this whole process. What is it in this consent form and policy that makes it especially ethical or more geared towards trauma-informed storytelling and interviewing?
Maria Bryan: Because it shows where the story might show up and you are able to check off where you feel comfortable. I feel comfortable with audio, text, but not video. You have that choice. Also, you have a choice on how long that story is out in the wild. Forever? A year? A month? You make that choice. Now, one thing I should say about trauma-informed, anything, really comes down to two things. People feeling in control and safe, because those are two things that they lacked when they were experiencing trauma. So, wherever you can make people feel in control and safe. Everything that I’m talking about is going to be one, or the other, or both. So if someone has control on how their story’s going to show up and how long it’s going to show up. They also can choose if they want their full name or they don’t want their name at all, if they want it to be anonymous. Or maybe they are willing to share their story, but there’s this really great way to get around, you know, when we talk about HIPAA or highly, highly vulnerable clients and beneficiaries. Some organizations create composite stories. So they will maybe gather five stories and then they’ll kind of compose one story and they’ll kind of make up a name. And I think that is, some might think that’s not truthful, but really it’s quite ethical. Because you’re not sharing really vulnerable and intimate information
Todd Nienkerk: That reminds me of the technique in converting, you know, “inspired by true events” stories into something like a movie where they say, you know, “inspired by true events,” or whatever. And there’s this one character who is actually a composite of like two or three or 10 different people in this person’s life. But for narrative expediency and economy, right, they have to sort of boil all of these different perspectives and characteristics and all of that into just one character just to kind of get the point across, right?
Maria Bryan: Exactly, exactly. And so this is used quite commonly, actually, in nonprofit marketing and storytelling
Todd Nienkerk: Interesting. I had no idea that was used outside of an entertainment framework.=
Maria Bryan: Oh yes, yes. Think about it, if you are in a domestic violence shelter, how dangerous it could be for someone to share your information
Todd Nienkerk: Right
Maria Bryan: So —
Todd Nienkerk: Or any details that would be revealing
Maria Bryan: Right, right. Also, if you’re telling the stories of children that are served, there are fortunately lots of laws against what we can share about children, even with their permission. So even with their permission and their caregiver’s permission in some highly vulnerable situations, you know, you will be creating completely anonymous or composite stories
Todd Nienkerk: Right. So what, once you have enthusiastic consent from the, the subject of the interview or the story, what’s the next step then in a trauma-informed process?
Maria Bryan: That is the logistics for the interview. So this story owner should be given agency over where it is. So maybe they’re comfortable being in their home. Maybe they’re comfortable at your nonprofit. Maybe they want to be in a public setting. So something that you’re maybe on Zoom or digitally, online, or even on the phone. They should be able to choose even who interviews. So maybe they want someone that speaks their language or looks a little bit more like them, has more of their lived experience. That doesn’t mean you have to go find someone, but maybe there’s someone on your staff that represents them a little bit more where they feel more comfortable. So again, maybe a woman who has experienced domestic violence doesn’t want a man interviewing her about this really traumatic experience. So there’s a few logistics that you want to give them control over. Maybe they just want some family or friends in the room. Something else that’s key, and again, this might not be the case for all organizations, but if you know you’re telling a story that might involve trauma, you might want to get contact information from a family or friend that can come get them or support them if they have a retraumatization during the interview. Also, you might want to put together some resources if they have a retraumatization. You are not a therapist. And if there are additional services, like maybe affordable support services, therapy group services, whatever it may be, even having a few pamphlets, you know, ready to go for this interview. So setting up the logistics
Todd Nienkerk: How do you identify that re-traumatization is happening or has happened?
Maria Bryan: Okay. Love that question. This is really important. So I can go into the interview process, which is next. So once you have, you know, decided on the place that they feel comfortable with and you start interviewing, one thing that happens during a re-traumatization or during trauma, because your body is, you know, your adrenaline might be going up or might be going down. Your blood pressure might be going up or might be going down. One thing that happens is someone who is very articulate may suddenly be very inarticulate. They suddenly might not be able to remember details, have a hard time getting their sentences in like a correct order. If you see someone going again from being very articulate to not articulate, they might be going through re-traumatization. Their body might have a reaction. They might start shaking or rocking back and forth. Or they might have a strong emotional reaction. So crying is something that you would expect from people telling their story. But if they are having a hard time composing themselves, this is a good time to completely end the conversation and allow them to process before. And that isn’t like a, “let’s take a water break.” That’s a, “let’s stop this interview.” So those are some things to look for and also, you know, and this is something, look, there’s no actual guidelines. It’s not black and white. Something that I tell nonprofit storytellers often is this is something that you’re just going to learn as you go, unfortunately. You’re gonna start recognizing when it’s time to slow down the interview or stop the interview. And the same goes with videographers and with journalists. One, a few things that therapists do that you can do during the interview process to reduce this is to start and end with a grounding question. So when you’re experiencing trauma, you’re remembering something, you’re going to a dark place, so you want to bring them into the moment in a positive way. That means starting the conversation not with, “So tell me what was happening before you came to our nonprofit.” Which is the most logical first question to ask. That’s the beginning of the story. But instead saying, “How are you doing today? What’s going on with you? What are you doing this summer?” Just something very light to get the conversation going. And then go ahead and get to the questions at the end when I might. And of course, you want to get to the transformation. So by the end, you want to be bringing in the transformation and the hope and how excited they are for the future. And so you can end with grounding questions like, what is the best part of your life right now? And even after they’ve told their stories, just to say, “So, what’s going on after this interview? What are you doing for the rest of today? Or do you have any cool plans for the weekend?” Like something that can, again, just ground them, bring them back to the present moment. Now, when I used to do interviews — and I will say I was doing client interviews twice a month — and I set aside 20 minutes for each interview. It was like the least trauma-informed process. And I didn’t, and that’s the difference between, you know, we’ve had some technical difficulties, Todd. You knew enough to give plenty of time for things that come up. And it’s that same mindset. We’re not just gonna put in 20 minutes, even though that’s how long it might take to get through these questions. We’re gonna build in an hour, so there’s time to ease into the conversation. There’s time to take breaks and there’s time for them to come back to the current day. And just those grounding kinds of things. So that’s what can happen during an interview process just to make sure that you are giving them agency and some of the trauma-informed interview questions and processes that you can do
Todd Nienkerk: So you’re you were doing, did you say two of these a week? Originally?
Maria Bryan: Two a month. And that’s not two interviews a month. That’s two stories a month. And so after the interview, you’re writing the story and then publishing the story. And I was doing two of those a month. I mean, this is so problematic, because there’s the whole process of finding someone, there’s the interview process, and then the writing process is equally as important. as an interview process. And this is why. The easiest thing to do is to write it and publish it. But if you give the client time to read the story, it goes back to giving them agency. Maybe they’ve told you things that now they see it in print, they’re not comfortable with you sharing. It’s also really important to give program staff. Like I said, they’re the biggest advocates and they’re the ones that are going to say, “Hey, you wrote this and it’s really not in their voice.” Or, “You wrote this and like even though they told you this, I don’t think it’s going to serve them to share this information.” So this could be another two, three weeks of review. After you’ve written the story. So that’s why something goes from being a week-and-a-half, two weeks, to maybe a month or more
Todd Nienkerk: The reason why I highlighted you saying two interviews a month is comparing that to your advice of you should expect to do two or three of these a year
Maria Bryan: Right
Todd Nienkerk: What comes to mind to me is you as the interviewer, having to research, prepare for, conduct these interviews about traumatic stories, and then have to listen to them over and over again in production and tu
hem into different kinds of content repurposed in different formats. What effect does that have on you as the interviewer, having to immerse yourself in these traumatic stories, not just repeatedly, but many stories. So it struck me as to a month seems like a lot to have to process just as a person — processing difficult stories. But more broadly speaking, when you work in this space, and you have to tell these kinds of difficult stories, what do you do as an interviewer to to stay healthy?
Maria Bryan: Right, so stories are highly susceptible to secondary trauma, so I’m so grateful that you’re bringing this up. And you’re absolutely right. One thing to do is to make sure you’re not being exposed to several stories a month. So that’s the first thing that just comes down to like a workflow. We’re not going to tell all these stories. And, you know, again, the program staff, they are experiencing these things day in and day out. But you as an interviewer might be getting even more details than the program staff is, because you’re asking those questions, right? So yeah, that’s the first thing to do. There are other self-care things that you can do. When you talk about grounding questions, there’s grounding exercises or things you can do before and after the interview. So that might be simply just doing some breathing exercises, mindfulness exercises. These might sound very woo-woo, but they’re just a matter of taking a minute to calm your mind, to be in the present, and to set your intention. I’m not going to think about what’s happened before this. I’m here to focus on this interview. And after particularly difficult story, a difficult interview, you can do the same to release that interview for that day, and, and this is one thing, that is that a cultural level, what I think is that when a nonprofit marketer sets aside time to do a typical interview. They should be able to take the rest of the day off. That’s what I think. I think they should be able to go home, take a walk, and even if you can’t quite do that, if you can, you know? At least an hour in your day to do something that’s totally different and not work-related. Something else you can do is you have a choice on when you do these interviews. So maybe Mondays are a good day because you have more energy from the weekend, or Fridays may be a good day because you have the coming weekend. Know what days you have the most energy. I know for myself that I —Typically, we’ll have back-to-back calls on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so that I can get actual work done on Mondays and Wednesdays, and I tend to keep things light on Fridays. So if you know that writing an interview is going to take a lot of emotional energy, then maybe decide what day of the week you’re going to do and don’t write the story right afterwards. Maybe give yourself a day for when you have a little bit more energy. And see a therapist. Make sure you’re investing in a therapist that will help you. And if you don’t have access to that, you can also just talk to a trusted colleague. Take some time to maybe a boss or a friend or just someone that you work with and say, hey, can I just download this conversation I had and talk to you about that, just to get that extra support
Todd Nienkerk: And, of course, yet another excuse to work with a therapist, right? And any excuse you can come up with, like, everybody should anyway
Maria Bryan: Absolutely
Todd Nienkerk: I do. I mean, everybody should. You mentioned repurposing the stories. What are some effective ways that you have found to repurpose stories like these?
Maria Bryan: Right, right. So, let’s say that you are, the big story you’re creating is a video. Let’s say it’s like a five-minute video for the gala. You can still create a blog post out of that. You can use parts of that story and make it into an email series that you share over the course of a few months. Not everyone in your audience was at that gala. So even if you just share that video again in a different context. Everyone’s going to see that video. So you’re either resharing the same exact story in the same form a few different times. No one’s gonna hold it against you. It’ll likely be the first time they’re seeing it, even if you feel like you’re showing it over and over again. Or create it into something else, something that’s maybe bite-sized for social media, a little bit longer, maybe for again for email. Maybe you are using it as part of a training that you’re doing. There’s so many different ways that you can use this story in different ways. You know, we often feel that once an audience member has seen a story that’s bad. We can’t use it again. But we forget how small — how few eyes get on our posts, for example, on Facebook organically, like the number of people that are seeing it. If you post the same thing every week for a month, you still probably have people seeing it for the first time at the very end of the month. So don’t overestimate how many times people are seeing something because you’ve shared it on several different platforms
Todd Nienkerk: Plus, hearing stories multiple times isn’t necessarily a detriment. It’s not necessarily annoying, if anything, it’s sort of reinforcing. And if you’ve already seen it, you could just skip it, right?
Maria Bryan: Right, right, right. And I love that point. It’s like we all have a good story. We all watch that one movie over and over again that just like we love and it’s nostalgic
Todd Nienkerk: Sure. Yeah
Maria Bryan: So, you know, yeah, seeing or reading or listening to the same story again, if anything will bring joy to someone because they’ve experienced already and they might be just thrilled to experience it again
Todd Nienkerk: Yeah, I mean, that’s why we all, you know, maybe I’m the only one, but, you know, maintain some kind of a favorites playlist of stuff on YouTube or whatever, because it’s like you can come back to it. You know, you want to share it with other people. So what are some common mistakes that you see nonprofits make when it comes to storytelling? Trauma-informed or otherwise?
Maria Bryan: The big ones are, they’re producing too many stories. And they’re not sharing that full transformation that’s taking place
Todd Nienkerk: The beginning, middle, and end. Talking with beneficiaries who have been through the program
Maria Bryan: Yeah. And I guess I’ll go a little bit more into what the story owner be the lead character of the story. So we very naturally want to introduce our nonprofit and our clients and our beneficiaries, the people that we serve, our characters in our story. But if we make our client or beneficiary, even the donor, even a staff, whoever the story is about, and we make them the central, the lead character. And the nonprofit is just kind of holding their hand — and humanize that, you know? Like, talk about the actual staff that’s come in, and one of my favorite questions to ask during an interview is what was it like the very first day that you came to our organization? Do you remember that? Or is there a particular staff person that you just had a really great experience with? So we’re humanizing our nonprofit now and we’re about the people of our organization, not our nonprofit. If we can, we feel like if we don’t talk about our nonprofit enough that people aren’t going to understand how important we are and how important it is to donate to us, but people are getting it through telling your story. You just have to make sure that you’re getting through how your organization is unique and innovative while talking about the solution. That’s the thing about storytelling too, is that while there is a beginning, middle, and end, you actually have quite a bit of flexibility in the middle. So the middle might be, you know, we’re talking about the story, and this is where we talked about in the beginning of our conversation, Todd, where you bring in the numbers. You know, just like Mary, thousands of people in this community have also faced this or that. We serve hundreds of people a year through this program. This is, you know, this is why this program is so crucial. And we think that Mary — and this is where you’re talking about the innovation. Why do you see the solution differently? Why do you see the problem even differently? You could talk a little bit about that and then end the story with their transformation and what their life looks like today and what their future looks like. You have that flexibility to — it’s not necessarily a movie. And you see that like in documentaries, where people will bring in the context. You have to bring in the bigger context. And the context is where you bring in your nonprofit
Todd Nienkerk: I believe this is the StoryBrand method, right?
Maria Bryan: You got me. Guilty
Todd Nienkerk: You work in this industry, you read that book at some point. But it is so key. I know there’s a lot to like the StoryBrand method, but the core tenants are that, well, the core tenant period is that you have to make the client or the beneficiary in this case. Or the customer, they are the hero, and you as the product or service or nonprofit or school or whatever you are, you are just simply like a wise and sage that they meet along the way who just nudges them in the right direction, but ultimately, they have the agency to do this themselves. They are bettering themselves. You’re, you know, you’re not bettering them. And yes, that kind of storytelling works really well in marketing and it is really interesting to consider the nonprofit angle of that method because there’s not really like two players. It’s not company and customer. There are really like three. There, there’s the beneficiary, there’s the nonprofit, and then there’s the funders or the donors that are making that work. Possibly because there is no transaction happening at the beneficiary nonprofit level, like a customer in a company, right. So it puts an interesting spin on that
Maria Bryan: Yes. Yes, and it’s complicated. And we try to use StoryBrand all the time. And I’m obviously a big believer in StoryBrand. I use it for my business. I teach the general framework. But you’re right, it’s not quite as transactional as business is. And also, Donald Miller uses the word “hero.” And we’re really protective of not using the word “hero” when it comes to donors, right? “Character” and “lead character” instead of “hero.” And it is tricky. It’s not easy, but I’m really glad you bring it up because. If you deep down are rolling your eyes a little bit about ethical and trauma-informed storytelling, there’s just like one more person that can’t, that’s just making my job a little bit more difficult. Well, part of it is ethical and trauma-informed, but it’s also telling a good story. It just comes down to telling a good, better story that will compel people to act. It’s both. Like, what I teach is both. It’s both, really, there’s a lot of evidence behind what happens when you make someone — you reflect a story to them, that something that they can empathize with
Todd Nienkerk: Right
Maria Bryan: Either something that they could experience themselves or it could be their uncle or neighbor or whatever. I mean, it’s not just “do this to be a better person,” but it’s how you can tell a better story
Todd Nienkerk: And it’s a better story if there are many, many reasons why it tells a better story. But, but one that I think is, is worth repeating is that when you find somebody who has been through the entire arc, the transformative arc, that they have experienced the beginning, middle and end of working with this nonprofit and having come out the other side, you know, a better person or in a better situation or whatever the case is. That when you get them at that point, they are more enthusiastic, that there is actual data and evidence and not hopefulness. And that, as you mentioned earlier, if you catch somebody in the middle of that arc, where they’re in the midst of being helped, you are in fact doing that thing that we, maybe they still do this on TV, but it’s the, you know, they show pictures of starving children and children covered in flies, and things like that. And they say, “Oh, for the price of a cup of coffee a day…” I mean, it’s that, I don’t think is effective anymore because they did that for so long, that was the strategy used was to sort of shame people into like, I mean, the manipulation of saying “for the price of a cup of coffee a day,” what you’re actually telling somebody is that you’re taking food away from children because you went out and bought a cup of coffee, right, which is just so not the case. And then finally, there’s this idea that when you catch somebody in the middle of this transformational arc, they’re in the middle of doing this work with this organization, that they are in fact obligated to tell that story because that’s the transaction, right? Like you are now asking for this to become a transactional relationship by saying, “You could do is really sit down and, you know, tell us a sad story to get, you know, more people —”
Maria Bryan: So that’s Sally Struthers, I believe. The blonde woman who used to stand on piles of garbage with children with flies around them. Here’s the unfortunate thing, those were highly successful campaigns. And it’s the oldest marketing tactic in the book to find a pain point and to twist the knife and then make that ask. But we can still tell stories in a way that doesn’t do that and be effective. And if you’ll hear me, it brings me actually, when you talked about how the shame and manipulation in it is, you know, we’ve talked about what I call the story owners, people telling, sharing their story, and the storytellers, the ones who are crafting and publishing these stories. But then there’s also the audience. And audiences are also vulnerable to trauma when they are reading and consuming stories. First and foremost, if someone is attracted to your organization, it’s likely because of their own lived traumas and painful experiences. And I always bring up St. Jude’s as an example. St. Jude’s is a hospital that provides care for children living with cancer. So If your child survived cancer or you’re an adult who survived childhood cancer, you’re more likely to donate to a hospital like St. Jude, right?
Todd Nienkerk: Right
Maria Bryan: And there is so much opportunity within St. Jude’s stories to evoke emotion that’s going to be very traumatizing for someone who’s lived through that experience. If you’re watching a video and you’re hearing the beeping of machines and you’re seeing children all bandaged up and with their hair falling out. I mean, it’s like absolutely triggering, absolutely retraumatizing. Now I bring up St. Jude’s because I actually use them as case studies all the time of an organization I’m an entity that used to create content like that and now really focused on transformation on hope-Instead of digging in to the pain so whatever your cause is know that you’re not just introducing this issue your you’re asking people to support you who’ve likely already experienced this. So when you’re telling stories, you don’t have to get into the gore, get into the details, evoke negative feelings. Because that, one, re-triggers, it also has this sense of manipulation and shame that you’re trying to conjure up. So going back to control and safety, that’s something that you want to offer to audiences as well. That means telling the story that you’re establishing the pain. There’s no getting around it, but the majority of the story is about the transformation and the hope and giving that person agency over that transformation. You can do that. Look at a nonprofit story and see where the transformation takes place. Do they go on and on about how difficult it was before they joined the organization and then the very last few sentences and now they’re living their best life? Because you can really shorten that and then talk about the transformation. And it’s really, it’s still going to conjure emotion, but it’s going to be again, of transformation, awe, and hope. And these are the feelings that we want our audience to feel. Also, we need to make sure that we’re giving our audience agency and control and safety over their wallets. So that’s having — allowing for natural urgency. Don’t fake urgency. Don’t say, you know, “Give now, or this person’s going to go hungry.” Exactly what you said, that f”or a cup of, you know, the price of a cup of coffee,” so like you choose a cup of coffee or this child. I mean, that’s such a fake urgency. It’s such an untruth. So instead you can like really let people choose, you know, you tell the story and you, you let people choose and don’t bring in an urgency unless it’s really, truly the case
Todd Nienkerk: Where do you see this kind of storytelling heading, or maybe changing, with new technologies or content consumption habits and methodologies?
Maria Bryan: I think that fortunately we are streamlining processes. Because so much of trauma-informed storytelling is the boring process and workflow. So there are more and more technology and affordable technology in place that makes these processes and workflows easier and easier. So I think one thing is that people are going to start taking advantage of these things. It’s just going to make the storytelling process a little bit easier and give space for it to be done right. I’m a big believer in AI for writing and grammar, but they’re not going to tell you a story. So that’s still, you know, and they’re great. And I really am not, you know — I really, truly use it often. And I think it’s a really great junior writer and aide and will be helpful. especially for repurposing. And if you have that story and you’re like, I don’t know how to repurpose it, ask ChatGPT to help you repurpose the story. They’ll help you. They’ll help you create a few social media posts. But it’s not going to take away from the storytelling process. I also think about, you know, back when I worked in-house, and did interviews, even the technology like Zoom to meet online, that gives such a safe platform for people to tell their stories where, you know, 10 years ago it felt like you could talk on a phone. But you couldn’t quite, you know, have a successful, you know, you don’t really get the heart of the story on the phone, but maybe on Zoom, you know, we get a little closer. I want to shout out a really wonderful trauma-informed platform called MemoryFox. This is a tool where you allow clients and beneficiaries to record and share these stories. So tools like that. And then on the nonprofit side, they catalog these stories in a way that’s really, really easy for nonprofits to use. So taking advantage of storytelling tools like that, where again, the beneficiaries have the agency to tell their story on their time in a way that they want to. There’s consent forms within that platform. And then it’s organized in a way that’s really easy for nonprofit marketers and fundraisers to use
Todd Nienkerk: Wow. Well, thank you so much, Maria, for your time today. This is super interesting. Like I said, I’d never come across anybody in this marketing, storytelling, messaging space that is so focused on issues related to trauma-informed storytelling, ethical interviewing, and how all of that can still drive value. Is there anything that you’d like our listeners to know, any websites or programs you have going on right now that you feel would be helpful if they want to learn more?
Maria Bryan: Right, so if you go to mariabryan.com, and my last name is B-R-Y-A-N, you can learn a little bit more about me. And one of my focuses right now is an in-depth, trauma-informed nonprofit storytelling training that I do for nonprofits. So if you’re listening to this, and it’s maybe a little overwhelming, and you want a little bit more support, I will sit down with your team, or if you’re in association, with your members, and have a little bit more one-on-one talk, and I have a little bit more resources that will make this process a little bit more supportive and easier to implement
Todd Nienkerk: Great. Well, thank you so much
Maria Bryan: Thank you, Todd.
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