Rob Woods' Review of Chapters 9 – 11 of Story-Telling Can Change The World Emotional Fundraising – The Essential Ingredient

Rob Woods (@woods_rob) is an author and fundraising trainer who has helped more than 5000 fundraisers, trustees and Directors through his award-winning courses and coaching. For more information, see
Thank goodness, a fundraising book that is both entertaining and practical. Too many are dry and overly theoretical, so Ken Burnett’s latest book is a welcome oasis in the desert.
Chapters 9 – 11 tackle the idea of emotion in story-telling from several different angles, including why emotion is so essential to fundraising; which bits of the brain are fundamental to the triggering of emotion; dozens of easily-made mistakes and how to avoid them, and much more.
The ideas are delivered in a variety of ways, including personal stories from Ken’s career and instructive examples from charity campaigns around the world, as well as snippets of advice and quotes which breathed new energy into things I thought I already knew, but which in truth I probably needed to be reminded about.
I especially liked this belter from Elmore Leonard:
‘Adjectives are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood out of words.’
The section about the workings of the brain included several ideas that were new to me, including which part of the brain alerts us to anything that STANDS OUT. Apparently it is the amygdala. Like the rest of this section – do you know what you your hippocampus does? – understanding just a little of how our brains work helped me to more urgently seek out certain ingredients in stories that will help the donor to connect to the truth I want to convey.
There are also plenty of broader thinking strategies which can help in a number of situations. I particularly liked the NLP technique of chunking up or down. To find how to do this in practice, I’d urge you to get the book. But to whet your appetite, Ken’s business partner Alan Clayton, himself no mean persuader, prizes this technique so highly that he calls it The Magic Super Power.
The book provides two compelling examples of the power in action: how it helped the London 2012 pitch team to cruise past the favourites, Paris, to win the vote to host the Olympics; and how the RSPB used it to transform their message from being a charity that appeals to people who like watching birds, to a charity for people who care about preserving the countryside and its wildlife for future generations.
I remember being baffled by the phoney, over-the-top gratitude that was expressed in many of the letters sent from one charity where I once worked. So I especially liked Ken’s reminder that though it’s important to thank properly, people don’t like insincerity, even if it seems flattering and grateful. He once received a letter which thanked him for his ‘tireless dedication…’ when he had shown no such thing.
There are also great examples of ways to ensure the donor (as well as the beneficiaries) are properly considered when making decisions – apparently Action Aid used to set up a spare place at board meetings to represent the perspective of the absent donor. There is also sensible encouragement to make use of your office environment as a source of inspiration. What could you put by your desk or on the walls or ceiling, to inspire you at both a conscious and subconscious level?
You’d think this should not be so hard. But don’t bet on it. I remember that even this assignment was messed up in one large children’s charity I know, where the communications department (average age 34) had created what they thought of as cool posters in the style of teenager’s urban art, but which looked no more authentic than William Hague in a baseball cap.
Here are five of my favourite bits of advice from these four chapters to anyone who seeks to do justice to the emotional power of their stories:

  • It’s better to be real than clever
  • It is all too easy to write in charity-speak, so beware this danger and fight it tooth and nail. One practical solution is to appoint a Tone Checker.
  • People are interested in themselves. So the words ‘you’ and ‘your’ are more persuasive than ‘we’ and ‘our’.
  • Write what you mean. There’s a feisty quote about this from Mark Twain about Jane Austen’s prose and a shin-bone that expressed a feeling I recognised immediately. (I can’t do it justice here, it’s in Chapter 11.)
  • If it sounds like writing, re-write it.

On my training courses two of the most popular modules are How To Use Stories to Influence and Writing Persuasively. This book will certainly help anyone who wants to improve either of those skills. But it is also an entertaining read that will help you raise more money in all sorts of ways. I have added to my list of Must Reads for Fundraisers. If you work for a charity, I recommend you get ahead of the game and get yourself a copy.