February 27, 2018

Glynn Washington calls good storytelling a vicarious experience.

“If you’re doing it right,” he explains in an interview with Nieman Storyboard, “The person who’s listening to the story will feel the same highs and lows that you do… They feel proud when you do the good thing in the end. [They may even feel like] ‘I can do some things that I couldn’t do before.’”

As host and executive producer of Snap Judgment, Washington is a master at transporting listeners along what the show calls an “audio roller coaster.” He’ll discuss the power of narrative in fundraising at PMDMC18 as a keynote speaker.


Telling stories is great entertainment. But it’s also more than that. Washington comes from a family of “great tellers of tales.” Perhaps most influential was his upbringing as a member of a religious cult in Michigan. The reality-bending fiction that was cultivated by the end-of-days fundamentalist group felt entirely real to him.

“I grew up in a Biblical fantasy world,” he recalls. “I was scared of demons popping up behind walls sometimes. I thought that certain people could manifest powers and healings. All that stuff was true to me.” (Washington’s new 10-episode podcast, Heaven’s Gate, examines the religious cult whose members took their own lives in 1997.)

After coming of age and leaving the cult, Washington traveled several different professional paths, including work on international policy as the head of several nonprofits.

“We didn’t have any money,” Washington recalls. “So whenever I talked to some sort of policy maker the only currency I had was storytelling. My goal then was similar to my goal now: We could move someone to do something based upon the story that I tell. You have a few minutes with Mr. Biggity-Big, you better make it good. Even though they might be a big politician or whatever, they’re still people. And people respond to narrative.”

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Washington’s principles of good narrative are universally powerful. As fundraisers, we tell stories all the time about the value and impact of public media. Refining how we tell these stories can have a big effect on how well they connect with potential donors and sponsors. Here are three of Washington’s most insightful guidelines, as he described them to Nieman Storyboard.

Make it small, personal.

You have to know your own story, see your own narrative. One of the things that’s going on is that people really don’t see themselves as the center of their own story. They see themselves as being involved with someone else’s. People often don’t see themselves as central to their own narrative, that their choices have unique weight that could potentially resonate beyond themselves. One of the real keys to great storytelling is to forget all the bigness, all the largeness, all the desire to go huge, and to go as small and granular as you can, with a story that means something to you. Conversely, the more resonance it will have with the people who hear it… Narrative is designed to create empathy.

Believe what you’re talking about.

What’s happening right now, with this kind of renaissance of storytelling that’s going on around the country, is that people are tiring of the sort of leaden, deadening weight of CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) factories. They’re searching for something that means something to them, that can relate to them on a deeper level. Storytelling is stripped down — it’s raw. And how do you strip down and be raw? When you want to tell a really good story sometimes you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘First of all, can I get to this place myself?’

Don’t get distracted.

Comics have to continually reach for laugh lines, at least one every 30 seconds or so. Poets get to create a riot of mental images, the more the better. But as a storyteller, you have to be disciplined and laser-focused on the overall story arc. I can’t have you laughing if it doesn’t serve my larger narrative. I can’t have you thinking of various fantastic imagery if doesn’t serve my larger narrative. If an aspect of your piece does not serve your greater arc, it has to go. Even if it’s interesting. Even if it’s hilarious. Even if it’s heartbreaking. It has to be worked into the greater narrative, or it has to be cut with extreme prejudice. Every line of the story must be considered with the ending in mind. 

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