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Associations Use Storytelling to Build Stronger, Deeper Connections
The rise of the Internet, 24-hour television, smart phones and social media means that people today are consuming five times more information each day than they were in 1986. There is lots of information — and often noise — competing for the attention of the audience that your association is trying to engage.

Rob Biesenbach, a former nonprofit and association executive, is on a mission to cut through the clutter of dull, ordinary communications. He invites associations to use storytelling as a means to stand apart from the noise, build brand identity and win hearts and minds.

“Stories are about showing, not telling,” said Biesenbach, who now trains organizations to tell better stories so they can strengthen relationships, build credibility, motivate teams and lead effectively. “We can all connect with a good story. Stories are universal and they elicit a level of emotional response that facts and data can’t always deliver."

For board members who are adept at analyzing objective data (e.g., financial reports, budgets, operational metrics, membership assessments and other key performance indicators), the words “emotion” or “storytelling” could be quickly dismissed as “soft” or “subjective” strategies to hand off to the marketing team. Biesenbach begs to differ. While most organizations typically focus their communications on what the association wants an audience to know or do, stories help an audience establish how they feel about an organization.

“When you are talking about your organization’s vision or mission on its own, that may not always be motivating,” said Biesenbach, who presented his storytelling keynote address at SmithBucklin’s 2015 Executive Conference in February. “Many of these statements can be dry and lifeless, so it is hard for people to connect with them. But, when you’re talking about vision with a good story that shows who you serve, what you do for the world or what the world might look like without you…that resonates with people.”

After 15 years in the business world, Biesenbach began to appreciate the business value of storytelling while studying acting, improvisation and writing at Chicago’s famed Second City Training Center. There, Biesenbach said he discovered that in some ways business and acting are similar. Both require connecting with an audience and expressing ideas powerfully and often creatively.

According to Chip Health, author of the book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” people remember stories 63 percent of the time, while they retain data only 5 percent of the time. That is true because stories tap into emotion, put a face on issues, bring people together and ultimately humanize the topic.

To be clear, Biesenbach is not suggesting that associations discard their existing communications strategies. Instead, he is encouraging associations to communicate their strategic impact and value through the personal stories that involve members and other constituents.

In most associations, there are likely hundreds of compelling stories waiting to be told. They may result from activities that associations are already doing, such as member surveys, client testimonials, or annual trade shows or meetings. And contrary to popular opinion, you do not need to be a screenwriter or playwright to spot and craft a good story. Every good story has four simple elements:
  1. A character;
  2. A goal;
  3. A challenge or obstacle; and
  4. A resolution.
For example, the American Board of Certification for Gastroenterology Nurses (ABCGN) recently leveraged certified nurses to capture personal stories to connect with potential Certified Gastroenterology Registered Nurse (CGRN) candidates. In 2012, the ABCGN board commissioned a study to assess the perceived member value of its CGRN credential and certification exam. Survey data revealed that many ABCGN members were opting not to pursue certification, in part, because they were discouraged by the challenging exam. To counter this fact, the association launched a personal storytelling campaign called “Faces of CGRN.” Here is how their campaign aligns with Biesenbach’s story-building model:
  • The characters: Four nurses who were currently certified by ABCGN;
  • The goal: Encourage other nurses to take the exam;
  • The challenge: Overcoming fears and concerns related to the exam; and
  • The resolution: Exam registration increased, thanks in large part to the personal stories shared, along with a strong ABCGN curriculum, networking and mentoring resources, and study tips the association made available.
Exam registration increased 23 percent in the months after the campaign was launched. Additionally, other members reported that they better understood the value of certification and were more likely to pursue it.

“There is always a story to be found. You just may have to do a little digging,” Biesenbach said. “Most of the people I meet feel very proud of what their organizations are doing. There is a sense of passion, pride, conviction and purpose. Good storytelling connects that human element to the greater good (vision and mission) of what the organization does.”

For associations that are interested in incorporating storytelling into their ongoing communication strategies, Biesenbach offers these nine rules:
  1. Audience first. If you do not appeal to them or address their interests and concerns, you will never get your point across.
  2. Don’t let language get in the way. Get rid of association jargon and talk to them — one human to another.
  3. Stories rule. Use stories everywhere — at events and meetings, on your websites and in speeches, videos, case studies, white papers and marketing.
  4. Show, do not tell. Instead of empty claims about quality or service, show your awards, reviews, testimonials or rankings.
  5. Facts are called cold and hard for a reason. All the data in the world will not make your case if you have not given people a reason to care. To win their minds, you have to first grab their hearts.
  6. Shorter is better. Nobody ever said, “I wish that meeting/presentation/video had been longer. Cut, cut, cut, and when you think you’re done, cut some more.
  7. Have a point. Every communication should have a clear objective. It should drive people to act. Merely passing along information is a squandered opportunity.
  8. And stick to it. Beware of mission drift. Stay on message and get rid of anything that does not contribute to the objective.
  9. In this world, sloth kills. It pays to tighten the review circle, eliminate the bottlenecks and streamline the process. Accept the fact that nothing will ever be perfect or 100 percent up-to-date.
While the impact of storytelling is clear on stage and screen, it can also be a valuable strategic approach for associations. Humans were raised on stories and are hard-wired to both recall and respond to them. Stories can break down walls, build trust, win new members, align existing constituents, motivate teams and build brands. It is important for board members to review the communication style of their organizations and assess whether or not they are making the powerful connections that come naturally from effective storytelling.


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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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