Easy steps for telling your church’s story

Storytelling is an art, and with the right tools and a little guidance, you can be on your way to becoming a storytelling artist. Photo courtesy of Canva.
Storytelling is an art, and with the right tools and a little guidance, you can be on your way to becoming a storytelling artist. Photo courtesy of Canva.

By *Aaron Crisler

Storytelling is an art. Writing a story well is a bit like making a movie inside someone’s head — you want to paint the picture so well that the person reading it feels completely invested. 

Good storytelling influences the brain, too. In a study at Princeton University, scientists found that when you listen to or read a well-told story, part of your brain responds as if you were literally inside the story.

There’s bound to be some wonderful stories to tell about your church. Joe Iovino, director of Member Communications for UMC.org, and Crystal Caviness, senior content development specialist, know what it takes to tell a good story. So, we asked them for their best tips to help get you started.

Crystal Caviness Name Badge, Courtesy of Crystal Caviness 

Caviness describes herself as a fearless champion of stories for The United Methodist Church. With more than 12 million members globally, there are a lot of stories to tell of members who daily live out their faith, helping their neighbors and sharing the love of God.

“My desire is for those stories to be heard, not just within the church, but throughout the world. That’s how transformation takes place,” Caviness says.

Before you set pen to paper — or, rather, in today’s world, fingers to keyboard — you’ve got to know your audience. Iovino has identified his audience as the members, constituents and the curious of The United Methodist Church. For you, it may be potential volunteers, disengaged church members or even potential new church members.

Caviness says she wants to engage and empower the reader.

“Often, we share stories of how United Methodists strengthen their faith or how they express their faith and show God’s love in their communities. The best outcome would be for someone to read the story and say, 'I can do that, too.'”

Iovino finds that specificity has a broad appeal.

“There are lots of 'Garys and Shellys' and confirmation class students. Write to one of them, and your writing will make sense to all of them. Your message will be clearer and more focused,” he said. “Even those who are not part of that specific target but are adjacent will get it, too. When we try to write to everyone, we are writing to no one. When we write a clear, focused story that we are telling one person, there are lots of other people who will want to hear, who will catch on.”

Authenticity is a key component when connecting the reader to the story.

“Real people sharing honest thoughts about what they are experiencing is the way to connect,” Caviness says. “Sometimes life is hard, sometimes it’s messy. Being a Christian doesn’t make that untrue. At UMC.org, we strive to tell stories of real faith and how that faith and, often, the person’s United Methodist community, supports them even during struggles.”

When you start to choose your angle, think about the famous W's of your story: the who, what, when, where and why. Potentially the biggest of these is the why — why is this worth writing and why will someone read it? What makes your story unique, nuanced?

“For me, the questions to ask before I decide on an angle is, 'Why am I telling this story? Why is this going to appear on our website?' Find your why and you’ve got a story!" Iovino says. "Chances are if you find something super interesting, your audience will, too!”

Caviness says, “Start with a relatable, interesting and/or unique topic and talk about it in an honest and engaging way. That’s a solid start.

OK, so you know your audience, you know your angle and you’ve got your story. Now, you’ve got to get that audience to click the story and read it. This is where an attention-grabbing title is of utmost importance, especially if you are writing for the web.

Some research says you have only eight seconds to grab a person’s attention. So, the title of your article has to grab the reader’s attention and hold it.

“Your title needs to command attention, to pop,” Iovino says. “There are a ton of titles that will appear on our potential readers’ screens. We need our title to compel them to click on our story rather than all the others.”

For example, some of Iovino’s favorite titles are: “How sweet it is: United Methodists and bees,” “Jesus wept. So should we” and “Asbury, Ted Lasso and second thoughts.”

Iovino says, “All have good keywords, identify the angle and are short and catchy.”

Also, make your title as short as possible. When viewing the title of an article online, most mobile and desktop browsers will show only the first 50-60 characters of a title

All right, now it’s time for you to write that article! You’re well on your way. Remember to make a movie in the mind of your readers and draw them in.

Happy writing!

Want more inspiration? Here are a few more articles to read about writing:

*Aaron Crisler is a senior public relations specialist for United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.

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