I am not a master storyteller. Or an expert. Or, as my wife says, not even that good. But in my career in marketing and fundraising, I’ve sure learnt about story in terms of its importance to my work. And perhaps because I’m not a master, expert, great storyteller, I’ve had to research and learn in different ways. And one of the things I’ve found useful is to collect and understand some different story frameworks and formats to make it easier to create content in those moulds and stell stories. More on that below but first I want to highlight a bit of storytelling science.

Storytelling Science

Stories and storytelling are something we are fundamentally hard-wired for. This is something you may intuitively know or understand when you enjoy hearing someone tell a story or have the ability to retell someone else’s story as if it was your own but there are some physiological factors at play. Here’s an excerpt from a Science of Storytelling infographic from One Spot highlighting how storytelling affects the brain.

I’m not a scientist but here’s the main takeaway: our brains actively participate during storytelling.

We experience, in a small way, what the speaker is saying. We imagine ourselves in the story. We feel things. And this all makes stories, or content that has story structure, more memorable. And as a marketer and fundraiser, being memorable is a huge part of your job.

Using Story Frameworks and Formats

The Hero’s Journey, the Narrative Framework, and the Pixar Pitch (or framework – below) are all examples of what I call story frameworks. Very smart people have broken down elements of great stories in a way that you can take your content and sort of follow. In the case of the Hero’s Journey, it’s gone beyond a story framework, for me, and a model or philosophical belief around fundraising where donors are the hero’s, and you are the mentor just helping them along the way.

There are story formats as well like:

  • The genesis story (how you began)
  • The future story (what will happen if…)
  • The beneficiary story (who you are helping and how their life is changed)
  • The staff story (who’s behind the curtain making this happen?)
  • The supporter story (some like you is doing this!)

These story formats help uncover key parts of your value proposition perhaps without you knowing it. Your genesis story, for example, gets back to the root issue or problem your organization exists to solve. After many years, boards, rebrands, etc., that original problem can get lost or covered up, but your founding story can share your mission in a real way and one that is memorable for the listener.

Understanding story frameworks and formats can help reduce your stress, make it easier to tell stories, and allow you to focus on delivering content that your audience wants and can appreciate.

The Pixar Framework

One of my favourite frameworks I’ve come across is the Pixar framework. Dan Pink outlines it in his book To Sell Is Human where he kind of deconstructs some of Pixar’s secret sauce. What I like about it, is that it forces you to tell a story and follow the narrative framework without you necessarily knowing it. And as I hope you’ve heard and realized by now… stories are supremely powerful.

The format goes like this:

  • Once upon a time…
  • Every day…
  • One day…
  • Because of that…
  • Because of that…
  • Until finally…

In his book, Pink uses Finding Nemo as an example for the Pixar pitch framework (thanks 15minutemoviemethod.com):

  • Once upon a time, there was a widowed fish named Marlin who was extremely protective of his only son, Nemo.
  • Every day, Marlin warned Nemo of the ocean’s dangers and implored him not to swim far away.
  • One day in an act of defiance, Nemo ignores his father’s warnings and swims into the open water.
  • Because of that, he is captured by a diver and ends up as a pet in the fish tank of a dentist in Sydney.
  • Because of that, Marlin sets off on a journey to recover Nemo, enlisting the help of other sea creatures along the way.
  • Until finally Marlin and Nemo find each other, reunite, and learn that love depends on trust.

It’s surprisingly simple and pretty flexible. You can have the classic ‘hero’s journey’ in the beneficiary story:

  • Once upon a time, there was a woman in Rwanda, Florence, fighting to provide her children
  • Every day, she would wake up at the crack of dawn and work all day but never quite get ahead
  • One day, she saw a group of women with an Opportunity International loan officer under a tree and walked over to see what was going on
  • Because of that, she learned how a micro-loan could help her start her own milk distribution business in her neighbourhood
  • Because of that, she was able to employ other people, open two stores and earn more income with less work
  • Until finally, she had earned enough profit where she could provide a quality education for her son Johnson

Or have the donor/supporter as the ‘hero’:

  • Once upon a time, there were thousands of people living in the village of Yella, Ethiopia without access to clean water leading to preventable death and disease
  • Every day, women and children would walk for hours just to fetch usable, drinkable water, taking up valuable time away from work, for women, and school, for children
  • One day, Jenny decided to participate in the Abbotsford Run for Water and raise funds for the Run for Water Foundation
  • Because of that, Jenny raised $350 by inviting friends and family to donate to her page
  • Because of that, the Run for Water foundation was able to provide clean water to 10 villagers in Yella, Ethiopia from Jenny alone
  • Until finally, thanks to Jenny and others, the entire village of Yella has access to clean, drinkable, usable water letting women and children spend more time generating income and going to school

Another reason why I like the Pixar Framework is that it forces you to go beyond the solution, or output, and into impact. It doesn’t just end after one because of that but a second one and then an until finally. A lot of your nonprofit stories will end after the first because of that – either solution or not build enough tension – but this framework forces you to push beyond that.

As Dan Pink outlines, it can be a great way to pitch your organization in a short way that is meaningful. More than you mission or boring elevator speech. You can check out 5 more pitches for selling your organization (with an infographic) here.


Talking about and pitching your organization without a story structure can be tedious and boring – for who you are talking to. Knowing some Frameworks and Formats, hopefully, makes it easier for you to tap into the physiological aspects of storytelling that makes them memorable. And with the Pixar Framework, you can create quick, simple and powerful ‘stories’ anyone in the organization can use to engage the people they are talking to in your organization’s story and work.

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Join me for a free webinar on Storytelling: Science and Strategy covering ideas like the Pixar framework and more.

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