How to Measure the Effectiveness of Stories


One of the elusive questions that often surfaces in discussions about storytelling is, “How do we know when the story that we’ve told has been effective?”

In fundraising and communications we are setting metrics and measuring them to establish the success of an initiative. This is done with good sense as metrics can help us develop and improve our work. But storytelling is a slightly different beast. Because storytelling is about making an emotional connection with the audience, it can be more difficult to measure the effectiveness of this.

Recently, I’ve been reading The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry (highly recommend this!). In the chapter where Henry talks about how stimuli affect our creative outputs, he shared the following insight:

“VISA International founder Dee Hock shares some thoughts on how row information is transformed by our minds into something useful. Hock argues that noise becomes data when it is grouped into a pattern, when you can identify a noticeable and memorable connection between bits of noise.”The Accidental Creative, pg 147

The Relentless Dilemma of Non-Profit Communications

I read this quote and re-read it several times. It reminded me of a common problem that non-profits face in communications, which is the art of sharing data and facts. The most effective presentation is through stories. But again, we come back to the dilemma of how to know whether or not our stories have had an impact on our audience.

Hock is suggesting that we make sense of data when we see a larger pattern. The larger pattern in turn forms a sort of story and that makes it memorable for us. This brought up a number of questions for me:

What if the patterns emerge across stories we tell? Would these patterns make our stories even more memorable? Could this be a measure of the overall effectiveness of non-profit storytelling?

I believe that patterns might be the foundation of a really interesting and strategic approach to storytelling.

Effectiveness is in the Bigger Story Arc. Patterns Make the Story Arc Cohesive

Here’s what I’d like to suggest: whether it’s over the course of a month long campaign or over the trajectory of your annual communications plan, the effectiveness of non-profit storytelling is best measured when taking this big picture view. When we look at the big picture, or the story arc over the long term, patterns can emerge through the stories we tell. It’s these patterns that will make our organization’s stories more effective in building relationships with our audience.

The best news is that patterns can be strategically developed and integrated into stories.

For example, let’s say your organization’s main message is to help donors understand that violence in the community is a systemic and cultural issue. It would be obvious to state that message over and over again in your communications. But what if instead, you weaved evidence of this into the stories you tell your donors? By helping them connect the dots and see the pattern, I think you can improve the effectiveness of your storytelling to the end that your donors begin to think of the problem as a more pressing issue.

That is the theory. I look forward to conducting a couple of case studies around this idea and sharing them on the blog this Fall. If your organization is interested in being a part of a case study, please head on over to the Contact form to send me a note.

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- Vanessa