Story Jam with Leah Eustace - Nonprofit Storytelling Conference

Story Jam with Leah Eustace

Written by Sheena Greer


When I first met Leah Eustace for coffee a few years ago, I left that little coffee shop with one thought:

This is the kind of woman I’d like to drink a box of wine with while we solve all the problems ever.

Leah a wildly knowledgeable fundraiser (she has her ACFRE, people!), but this isn’t what most stands out about her. Between her keen wit and her giant heart, she has a way of bringing the kind of excitement to conversations that can’t help but leave you inspired. She is a thoughtful speaker and listener, the mix of which seems increasingly rare these days. She is also an avid learner, a characteristic I admire almost above all others. Even with her depth and breadth of knowledge and experience, she remains fiercely interested in the world around her. This makes her one of the best leaders in our field today.

You are absolutely going to love listening to and learning with Leah at the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference.

This Jam took place on Thursday, September 17th.

Baby Steps to Neuro-Stories

“The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.” – John le Carré

We know we need to tell stories. We know that stories raise money.

The proof is, as they say, in the pudding.

But for some reason we still aren’t sure if we should take a bite.

Somehow, thousands of years of emotional evidence isn’t enough. Somehow, our tendency to appreciate rationality above all else lends itself to an irrational disbelief in the power of story.

And yet when faced with the massive problems of our world, we continue to connect with the story of Baby Jessica stuck in the well, and we remain unable to comprehend statistics and rational arguments around world hunger, disease, poverty and catastrophe.

The detailed circumstances of the masses leave us in a state of paralysis.

But pull from the huddled and hungry masses one little girl whose tattered clothes and dirty face juxtapose just so with the glimmer still aflame in her eye, and we will stop in our tracks.

It works every time.

And there is nothing logical about it.

Though now, more than ever before, we have the science to back it up.

The fields of behavioural economics and neuromarketing have already deeply affected the way we tell stories. We are beginning to understand the science behind the emotion.

We can watch in a lab how certain parts of our brain light up when we hear news of Baby Jessica in the well, and how this is deeply attached to the ways we come to understand the world, make decisions, and take action.

It is incredibly fascinating, and certain to help convince the naysayers of stories, who would prefer to communicate your nonprofit’s mission through lists of facts, historical timelines, and charts.

Stories have always given us “the feels.” And beginning to understand the science behind it will help us tell better stories.

It’s no longer about “do we tell stories?” The answer must be yes. We have to. But we are starting to discover how to tell the best stories. What are the best stories? What makes them the best?

How do you hit the right note, for the right audience, at the right time?

And we can take baby steps to figure it out together.

If you are just starting, you now have the research to back up your wild and crazy idea to tell emotionally-compelling stories to your donors. You can show your CEO and board members lists of facts, figures, diagrams and even brain scans to prove it.

If you’re already telling stories, we can learn to tell them better. We can roll up our sleeves and get creative. We can try bold things and see where it takes us.

We don’t have all the answers yet.

We’re still learning.

But we know it works.

Deep breath. Baby steps. We’ll figure it out together.

PS – Leah’s fascination with what makes a great story has been honed over years of mixing science with gut feeling. Her continued excitement is two-pronged – in helping people move beyond the cat on the mat, and understanding why we’re so intrigued by the other cat’s mat.

More about our character, Leah

What is your personal mission statement?

  • New year, new me. My work life should satisfy me, my personal life should satisfy me. Sometimes I need to focus on myself to make it all happen.

What is your most marked characteristic?

  • I’ve got a huge heart. People at work laugh at me. I will burst into tears for every single cause!

Which living person do you most admire?

  • I could probably think of 30 people on any given day. They’re usually not famous. They are people who have overcome something and become stronger through their adversity.

What is your favorite journey?

  • Any journey that takes me somewhere I’ve never been before. That could be down the block or across the world, but I love learning and seeing something for the first time.

What is your greatest inspiration when writing?

  • The person on whose behalf I am writing. I do my best writing after I’ve spoken with the person I’m writing for. In that moment, it’s like I’m that person and feel their feelings.

Who is your favourite author?

  • I’ll read anything. I’ll read a phonebook. I’ve been known to read a phonebook. I’ve always really enjoyed Richard Wright & Nicholas Kristof.

Who are your favourite heroes/heroines in fiction?

  • I get really inspired by older people who don’t take any shit from anyone. I love seniors, I admire them deeply.

What are you looking forward to most at the NPStorytelling Conference?

  • It’s not going to be a bunch of talking heads. It’s going to be everyone working together to make fundraising and stories better. Every single participant.

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