Last year I was a judge for Volunteering Victoria’s State Awards. Volunteers make such an important contribution to our society, ranging from helping to fight fires to coordinating junior basketball competitions. These annual awards are a great way of recognising the best examples of volunteering programs in Victoria.
The award winners are chosen based on written submissions that show how each organisation is making a difference in employing and managing volunteers. Now if you’ve ever had the honour of judging an award involving written submissions, you’ll know there’s a lot of reading involved, and that after a while the words all start sounding the same. This is especially true if the writing is channelling management-speak, using vague terms like ‘triple bottom line’, ‘added value’ and ‘continuous improvement practices’. When you read submissions like this, ones that are vague or get bogged down in generalities, you find yourself quietly pleading with the writer to just tell you what they did and how that made a difference.
The gut response to questions of what was done and how it made a difference is to give a broad, all-inclusive answer. You might say something like, ‘We coordinated opportunities for experienced mothers to engage with and provide support to new mothers at their greatest times of need’. Well, this might be true, but the reader is still left wondering what that really means. They need a concrete example, a story.
The following story is based on my memory of one of the anecdotes in a Volunteering Victoria awards submission.
Nancy is in her mid-40s and has three children, aged 10, eight and six. She’s a volunteer at a community service that helps new mums who have recently arrived in Australia. One of the mums Nancy helps is Maria, who has a six-month-old daughter. One night, Maria calls Nancy, clearly distressed. Her daughter has been crying non-stop since that afternoon. Maria has fed and changed her, given her a warm bath, burped her and played with her, but nothing seems to work. Nancy listens carefully and then assures Maria she is doing all the right things. She tells Maria about what she did when her kids were that age. Maria starts to relax. Nancy tells Maria that if her daughter doesn’t stop crying soon, she should just pop down to the hospital and they will check her out. It will all be OK.
The submission then said this: ‘What Nancy does is repeated every week of the year by over 100 other volunteers. It helps our community stay healthy’.
When I read the story, I felt as if I was right there, listening to the conversation between the two women. I could feel Maria’s worry and at the same time sense Nancy’s calming voice. I immediately got what volunteers like Nancy were doing and how it was having an impact. That submission had three or four good stories like this. The organisation that sent it in ended up winning their category of the awards.
To craft a compelling submission to gain recognition for what you do, you first need to put your feelers out for real-life stories about how your people’s efforts are making a difference. The very best stories zero in on a single moment and help the reader really see and feel what’s happening. Talk to the people delivering the endeavour, the people at the coal face, and ask them questions like:
These are story-eliciting questions, designed to trigger an anecdote. They all point to a moment in time that will help someone recall a remarkable event.
When you find yourself making an emphatic point in a submission about how innovative or excellent your work is, follow it up with an example – a story – that shows what that actually looks like. And if it takes on a range of difference shapes, then tell a range of different stories to illustrate it.
But here’s a trap you must avoid. Don’t tell the reader you are telling them a story. For example, don’t have headings saying things like ‘Our story’ or ‘Client stories’. Don’t preface your story by saying, ‘And here is a story that illustrates how we are …’ People like listening to and reading stories, but they don’t like being told that’s what’s going on.
Instead, make your point and follow it with a story. Jump straight into the action, providing the least amount of background as possible. For example, when I introduced you to Nancy and Maria, I set things up by giving you a tiny picture of Nancy, then it was straight into the moment. By that point, you were picturing the action and filling in all the gaps about what Maria looked like, her age, even her nationality. The more a reader imagines for themselves, the more they own a story.
When it comes to awards for services provided, judges are constantly trying to work out what an organisation actually did, how they did it, and the impact it had. In writing a submission for such an award, you need to make your work memorable and meaningful to the judges. You need to bring your work to life. Including some well-placed stories can make all the difference.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:
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