One of the websites I read regularly for my job is The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which runs news about the world of not for profits: who’s getting grants, what new fundraising techniques are being deployed, who’s changing jobs. It’s not the most informative site I visit (for professional purposes that would be Philanthropy News Digest, and for general Being An Adult purposes, Fortune Magazine online) but it often has a slightly offbeat take on the activity of philanthropy which makes it intriguing. This summer it’s been running a series of articles about storytelling.
In my “day-job” industry, storytelling has a different and more specific definition than in the world of publishing, or indeed culture as a whole. Nonfiction storytelling employed by charitable organizations is extremely goal-oriented. Nobody is telling a story for fun at a charity; storytelling in this sense is a tool, in the same way it’s a tool for marketing agencies and political campaigns. That stories are fun is one reason they’re used, but pleasure is not the primary purpose of the not-for-profit storyteller.
Storytelling, from a charitable organization, toes the lines that divide journalism, performance, and marketing. Stories that are told to raise money often focus on individuals or small communities because we relate to those; nobody cares about a story that involves the entire city of Chicago having sort of crap trains. But if a single train derails, and if the news shows one wounded child from that single train, people are more likely to agitate for increased funding and safety precautions. (It behooves me to note here that Chicago’s trains may be sort of crap and I hate the new carriage design, but they’re pretty safe, in relative terms. I’m just saying.)
It can admittedly feel a little creepy, because frequently another word for “marketing” is “manipulation”. As a culture we have a pre-existing story about charities, which is that they are run by the noble, the self-sacrificing, the honest, good, and true. And it is true that most people who work for charitable organizations aren’t there because the money’s good, since it’s not. Our former managing vice president made six figures, true, but he could easily have been making eight in the for-profit sector, and I am employed at a specifically very wealthy institution.
Nobility and frankness does not generally attract much in the way of money, particularly money that doesn’t see a tangible return in the form of goods or direct services. So, like any other company, the solicitation that a charity does is based in part on manipulating you. With strong integrity and the highest of goals, perhaps, but nonetheless, manipulating you.
Storytellers do this. Most of us want to make a point of some kind; even those writing without a social agenda generally want to inspire a feeling in the reader. Often the degree of fame a writer achieves is based on their degree of skill in emotional manipulation. I’m a big fan of Stephen King, but he’s not the greatest prose craftsman of our generation — just one of the very best at manipulating us into fearing what’s under the bed.
In the realm of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the articles on storytelling have been open, if not direct, about techniques for manipulation, because they are blending narrative and marketing. Bearing this in mind, they have provided excellent tips for writers of fiction who are looking to polish their emotional manipulation skills. Next week I’m going to be featuring a series of quotes from these articles; some will be fairly basic, but I’m hoping all of them will be helpful for prospective writers or for readers who want to understand the books they read with more depth.
And remember — just because I’m manipulating you doesn’t mean it might not be a fun ride.