What’s Your Why? Here’s How to Start Your Story

[Part 4 in a Series on Launching a Content Marketing Program]

Stories have the ability to connect people to an idea on an emotional level. Telling compelling stories helps our audience to feel what we feel. And when it comes to powerful stories, the nonprofit sector certainly corners the market.

Before crafting your success stories, let’s take a step back to look at the heart and soul of your nonprofit’s story in the context of a content marketing framework. Where do you begin?

My favorite definition of story is from marketer and storyteller Robert Rose. He contends a story is a well-crafted, entertaining, engaging, and convincing argument. A great story requires a great argument. An argument uncovers the truth of an idea.

Great stories argue their point so little is left for the audience to refute.  ~Robert Rose

When telling stories, it’s easy to fall into the habit of restating the facts. (First, this thing happened, and then that thing happened, and then we swooped in and saved the day so the worst thing possible didn’t happen.) A simple retelling of facts is the plot. And it’s boring.

The plot is what happened.
The story is why it happened.

To illustrate one plot of well-known stories, take a look at this fun graphic from Pleated-Jeans. If you strip away the character images and leave only the words, not nearly enough is left to move you to feel anything. It’s just a pile of facts.

While this graphic is an entertaining way to look at the hero’s journey storytelling formula, you’ll notice what’s missing is the why. It’s the argument that transforms a run-of-the-mill plot into a wonderful story. For example, here are arguments a few of these stories make:

Cinderella

The Argument: When faced with adverse circumstances, you can achieve success through perseverance and positive behavior.

Harry Potter

The Argument: Through pain, hardship, and kindness, you can go beyond limits and find where you truly belong.

Star Wars

The Argument: Putting faith into something greater than yourself is more powerful than you could possibly imagine.

I have been reading Simon Sinek’s bestselling book Start With Why. (His TED Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, is the third most popular TED Talk of all time.) Sinek explains why some organizations and leaders are able to inspire while others are not.

Sinek created the Golden Circle model. Most organizations spend time focusing on the outer ring of this model and work their way in (if they even get that far). They prioritize their what, such as products, services, programs. Starting on the inside ring to answer the why of what they do illuminates a greater truth: their story.

Sinek uses Apple as an example. He argues if Apple started on the outer ring, their story might go something like this:

“We make great computers. They’re user-friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use. Want to buy one?”

Of course, these facts are uninspiring. Instead, Apple starts with why. Sinek proposes this is more accurate of Apple:

“With everything we do, we aim to challenge the status quo. We aim to think differently. Our products are user-friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”

Ahh… we are attracted to the second one simply because Apple’s why is an argument not easily refuted. We connect to their idea… their story.

Now, for the fun part! To get to the heart of your organization’s story, you can ask why five times consecutively. The 5 Whys is a practice commonly used in Six Sigma and lean manufacturing to find the true answer to a problem.

It goes like this: You make a statement and then ask why five times. In every why question, you repeat the previous answer. Digging deeper reveals the truth.

If you want to get to the heart of your story, state what it is you do. Then keep asking why. I created the following Q & A’s based on a submersible well pump manufacturer I know that takes social responsibility seriously.

(I can’t wait for you to see what happens after you ask why 5 times!)


Question: What’s your story?

Initial Answer: We provide clean, safe drinking water to people in African countries via the installation of well pump systems.


Q:  Why is it important you provide clean, safe drinking water to countries in Africa via the installation of well pump systems?

A:  Because millions of people in Africa live without easily accessible clean water.


Q:  Why do hundreds of millions of people in Africa live without easily accessible clean water?

A:  Because most of them live in rural areas so they must spend hours every single day walking to collect clean water for their families.


Q:  Why do most of them live in rural areas and spend hours a day walking to collect clean water for their families?

A:  Because moving from their homes in rural areas is simply unaffordable.


Q:  Why is moving from their homes unaffordable?

A:  While easy access to clean water would mean so much to millions of Africans, they cannot save enough money to leave their livelihoods and extended families in pursuit of living closer to a clean water source.


Q:  Why does clean water mean so much to them?

A:  Because clean water means education, health, and income for them and their families. Clean water is essential for a good life.


Each time I asked why, my answer became more clear. The process forced me to think harder to find the truth.

Now, here’s the magic… Look what happens when I reverse the order of the answers. It becomes the beginning of a lovely story, starting with why!

Clean water is essential for a good life. Clean water means education, health, and income for families. While easy access to clean water would mean so much to millions of Africans, they cannot save enough money to leave their livelihoods and extended families in pursuit of living closer to a clean water source. Moving from their homes in rural areas is simply unaffordable. They continue to spend hours every single day walking to collect clean water for their families. Because millions of people in Africa live without easily accessible clean water, we provide clean and safe drinking water to people in African countries via the installation of submersible well pump systems.

Your specific answers may need editing (as does mine above), but the answers give you a solid draft from which to work. You can do the 5 Whys exercise for any problem you face or any concept in which you want to gain insight. For crafting stories, the 5 Whys help you identify the essence of your idea so you can effectively develop and tell a compelling story.


This was Part 4 in a series on Developing a Content Marketing Program.

Part 1 explains what content marketing is and why you should develop a content marketing program.

Part 2 drives home the need for a content marketing program by showing you 5 big mistakes you might be making with your content.

Part 3 gives you the tools you need to write your content marketing mission statement.

Part 4 describes how an argument transforms a pile of facts into an engaging story and how to find YOUR story.

Part 5 helps you develop audience personas to better enable you to resonate and engage with those people who need to hear your message.