Resurrecting a Compelling Story From a Dry Field Report

By on Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Most nonprofit public relations pros have had this situation crop up – the program reports from the field come in loaded with dry meeting summaries, the occasional client testimonial excerpt, a myriad of statistics, and pages upon pages of words and commentary. Unfortunately, the accountability that is often required of grant-funded or entrenched programs, often produces very dull field reports.

As a communicator, your job is to sift through these reports, identify the newsworthy, life-changing stories in them, and somehow communicate them to a host of audiences. These are the raw material that will become annual reports, news releases, fundraising appeal letter examples, website copy, and much more. Being able to take what are often voluminous and dry field reports, and distill the valuable stories from them, can make a huge difference for your nonprofit agency.

If your organization’s clients, supporters, donors, the media, and the public understand the impact your agency is having on real people’s lives, you can leverage it to build new support, garner additional donations, and remind your supporters why their investment in your organization with time, funds and care, is so valuable. But extracting those beautiful stories can be no easy task. Here’s a few tips to help you cut thru the flotsam and extract the stories:

Identify the highlights first. If the reports  are printed out, get a cup of coffee, set your phone to voice mail, and try to get through the stack in one sitting. Use a highlighter to mark the things that stand out to you. Conversely, you can do this on your computer screen, by scrolling through electronic reports and keeping a running list of highlights that stand out to you.

Look for examples that show how your organization is making a difference in people’s lives every day. Client testimonials are often helpful for this. Look for themes like collaboration, multi-agency partnerships and innovative ideas. Look for numbers that are helpful and interesting, as well as workshops and programs that might be newsworthy. If photos are included, look through them, and hope for a few that can be used for illustrative purposes. If it gets too overwhelming, or you just have no time, stop when you think you have five good story ideas.

Pick out the five key story ideas that stand out the most to you, after reviewing the reports. Write them down on a piece of paper. What is compelling, interesting or newsworthy? Has one office dramatically increased the number of people helped? Has something innovative been done that offers a new model for others to consider?

Is there a grain of a story here in a number or offhand remark, that you should investigate further by contacting the program staff? Do you see trends that relate to other ongoing issues in society or bigger stories being reported now in the media? Are there statistics available that support a story idea? Is your organization making headway in addressing a key community issue or problem? Did you overcome a key obstacle or achieve a major success?

Flush out the five story ideas. In a spasm of efficiency, your mind may be tempted to immediately plot where these stories might be used. I tend to do this myself. The problem is that limits you. Resist the temptation to go there.

Ruminate on the stories. Where is the real heart of these stories? What aspects of these stories will touch people when they hear, see, or read it? Will hearing this pull on the heart, inspire action, provoke outrage? Is it in the numbers, the content, the people?

See if your story ideas can really work. Write next to each story idea a simple pitch line that frames the story with a news hook.

Perhaps you wrote for your story idea, “plans are moving forward to build a new vocational training center, the land and building permits are acquired, footers have been poured, and about half of the support for the building has been raised.”

What would the news hook here be?  “Hundreds to benefit from new vocational training center being built in one of Africa’s most notorious slums.”
Now go deep by analyzing each story idea in greater detail. Put each story idea on a separate piece of paper, or on a separate “page” in MS-word.

Comb thru the reports to find an example of a client who could benefit from this center being available. Let people see the possibility that exists for life change to happen through this center. Are there numbers that illustrate how desperately this is needed? The bricks and mortar are just tools to help people. Keep the focus on the people whose lives will be changed if this project can be realized. Find one person who can be used as an example.

“Jonas finished primary school at age 12 and he dreams of a life outside the slumh. Without a skilled trade, he faces a life of poverty living on a garbage pile in one of the world’s most notorious slums. He will have the same life of his parents and more than 250,000 people who live in squalor in the xyz slum – one of struggle and heartache.
Now relate his story to the project.

Being able to go to the vocational center and train to become a carpenter, will give Jonas the skills he needs to earn a decent living, help his family, and eventually in adulthood support a family. The new vocational center can give hope to 500 children like Jonas every year who are seeking a life outside the vicious circle of poverty

To give this even more heft, add a call to action that tells people how they can help, such as “You can help by….”

Test your story ideas on someone who does not work at your organization.  If you tell them the story idea, and they say, so what? or who cares? then you know it doesn’t work. More time needs to be spent on crafting the angle that shows the story is relevant, compelling and interesting.

Fill in the details. Later in the story, you might want to add the benefits the reader/viewer will get by participating or helping the project. E.g. A quote from a representative with a trade association that is sponsoring a training room in the vocational center that talks about how good it makes its members feel to support this project. Add statistics, basic information about the project, some key quotes (avoid cardboard sounding quotes from the CEO, say something interesting) and include a boilerplate statement about your organization – and you’ve got a crafted story.

To improve your story success rate in the future, work with the program staff to improve field  reporting, so local staff send in the details you need. Are there basic details, such as a client’s first name and age, that would make the testimonials useful for news purposes, that your field staff could provide, so you don’t have to doubleback and get the information later. Are there numbers you could ask for, consistently, from every field site, for particular programs? Could a section on upcoming events or plans be added, that gives you a heads up (so you can inform the media) about future programs? Don’t make reporting onerous, but do try to get what you need for organizational storytelling on the reports.

Public relations writing, by necessity, must often be brief and to the point. But it should be compelling and tell a story. Resources to help improve your story-telling capability:

  • Wylie’s Writing Tips – an enewsletter with great tips on writing craft that challenges you to go beyond the basic “grinding out of sausage” copy and helps you harnass language for your cause.
  • How to Create a Compelling PR Story – practical advice from a business perspective, that leans a bit toward pop-culture – but is useful.

Everyone wants to know what you think.

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