For 10 years, this story’s had its hands around my throat. Lessons inside.
If you've ever wondered what the hell it means to "use storytelling in your marketing" ...
...this is the story that will bring the concept to vivid life, even though it's from the nonprofit sector.
I still get chills when I think about it--and that was over ten years ago. March of 2008.
I used to read this hippie magazine
I used to read this monthly magazine called The Sun. I affectionately called it my hippie magazine. They had interviews with people like Wendell Berry and Ani DiFranco and Reza Aslan on capital-letter ideas like Big Agriculture, Political Music, and Islam, to name a few.
There were pieces of fiction, memoirs, poems and photographs. These were definitely a mixed bag.
But there was a section called Readers Write that I was addicted to. Every month, readers would submit their personal stories as responses to a prompt.
No matter how much I disagreed with the interviewees, and groaned over yet another tepid and awkward memoir...I kept coming back for Readers Write.
A lot of prisoners read the hippie magazine, too
A monthly prompt for Readers Write might be “Smoking.” And then the little stories (2-3 paragraphs at most) would be from someone who couldn’t quit, or someone whose parents burned cigarettes on them.
It was raw and it was real. Several of these, over the years, made me cry at humanity’s cruelty. And then others were outrageously funny. Here's one that still makes me laugh my strangely loud and dorky laugh.
The submissions came from all over the United States. They all ended with either “First name / last initial / location” or the slightly ominous “Name withheld.”
And yes, quite a few Readers Write contributors were in prison. The only indication was their location citing the name of a specific prison. Usually their stories were about their childhoods. Nothing about prison.
It really was (and probably still is) a weird and beautiful little corner of that magazine. I wondered at the stories, and wondered about myself as someone taking voyeuristic pleasure in the stories. What did it say about me? Why could I never think of something to write, myself?
Then I read the letter that’s seared into the glistening tissues of my heart
The Sun is a nonprofit magazine that publishes no advertisements whatsoever. It survives on revenue from 1) subscriptions & sales and 2) donations.
Requests for financial donations were included every month. My eyes glazed right over them. But in March of 2008, the request came in the form of a lengthy letter from the magazine’s founder, Sy Safransky.
Because it didn't look like a donation request, it looked like another article, he tricked me right into reading it. (I made some formatting changes to show you the important parts).
One Friday afternoon last summer, 80,000 newly printed copies of The Sun were sitting on our printing company’s loading dock in rural Wisconsin, waiting to be picked up and mailed. Nearly a thousand miles away, at our editorial office in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, we were tying up loose ends before the weekend. Then the phone rang...
AHHHH I know where this is going, I thought. Someone fucked up the printing! Even though I’ve spent 13+ years in communications and marketing, it doesn’t matter. I still freak out every time I send an email newsletter, or worse, sign off on a print publication. I was FEELING this. This was one of my marketing nightmares.
...It was someone calling on behalf of an inmate at a maximum-security prison who’d submitted a piece about prison gangs for our Readers Write section. We’d accepted his work and, though he’d given us permission to edit his writing, had sent him the final version for review weeks earlier. But mail travels slowly through the prison system, and it hadn’t reached him until now. Unaware that the upcoming issue had already gone to press, the inmate had discovered a glaring mistake, one that he wanted us to correct: We’d neglected to sign his piece “Name Withheld.” In the cover letter sent with his submission, he’d asked us to preserve his anonymity because he feared reprisal from gang leaders. Somehow we’d overlooked his request and printed his name — 80,000 times.
“OH MY GOD!” I sat up straight in bed, tears coming to my eyes.
Consequences and possible repercussions cascaded through my head.
How long would it take to fix & reprint..?
How much would that even COST...?
WHAT HAPPENED TO THIS PRISONER? WAS HE ALIVE & SAFE?
My (apparently hippie) eyes welled up as I read how Sy and his team grappled with what to do. They were staring down a very expensive fix. And they didn’t have the (comparatively) vast financial reserves of more popular, for-profit publications.
Would it really be that bad for the prisoner if they didn’t fix it? Could they fix 80,000 copies by hand? Or would they have to revise and reprint 80,000 new copies of the issue?
To further complicate the matter, Sy had looked the prisoner up online, trying to quickly gauge how much danger he might be in--and instead Sy learned that the prisoner had brutalized others and was in fact on death row for murder. Was it even worth it to protect someone who had little care for human life?
We were running out of options. We would have to mail the magazines without correcting our error — or reprint the entire issue. As we sat pondering our next step, I gazed out the window and recalled the chilling stories I’d heard about prison violence. Then I looked at the faces of the people around me in our clean, comfortable, air-conditioned office, where the threat to anyone’s well-being seemed remote. “Let’s imagine,” I said, “that one of us were in that prison and facing the same risk.” As soon as I’d uttered the words, I knew that there was no need to imagine: this inmate was one of us — another flawed and complicated human being, deserving of compassion. He was no saint — he was on death row, after all — but maybe saints don’t need our mercy as much as sinners do.
The only ethical choice was to reprint all 80,000 issues. So we did.
Sy went on to explain how it was because of the financial support of readers likeme, they were able to afford this fix. In fact our financial support had saved the magazine from bankruptcy many times.
Now our financial support was saving a person’s life.The magazine was a hero--but so was I, because I had made it possible.
But this was the part that made me get out my wallet
On the day the reprinted issues were mailed [...] I thought about how one inmate had sat in his six-by-eight windowless box, writing about prison gangs because, as he’d explained in his cover letter, he’d wanted some young person to read it and think twice about harming a stranger. There are people who will say I shouldn’t have lost any sleep over this man, that suffering was his just reward. But depriving someone of his freedom is one thing; denying his basic humanity is another. The inmate had written that he cherishes The Sun because it makes him feel “more alive.”
I thought about the issue reaching his cell. I imagined him flipping through the magazine, looking for his piece in Readers Write. Unsure if his message had reached us in time. Wondering if strangers like us even cared. Holding his breath as he turned the page.
I'm tearing up again, rereading this story. I'll explain.
Why this story is so effective--and how you can apply it to your own marketing
Your feelings about prisoners aside--you can feel the power of this story. It's the story of a single man who needed saving, and the journey of the hero (The Sun staff) to save him. Your emotions rising and falling alongside the journey.
Storytelling is a key strategy nonprofits use in soliciting donations. But in my extensive experience of receiving many many many calls, emails, letters, and the guilt-inducing freebie, from nonprofits asking for donations and support--I find that most stop telling the story right when they should be seeing it through.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Glück talked about this at a reading of her work Averno: Poems. How she was learning, at the age of 65ish, to “extend the line” for each line of her poem. To push it out until there’s nothing else to say.
Sy could very easily have chosen not to “extend the line” of his story. He could have ended it with “you saved this guy’s life, please give us more money.”
Where would that have left us emotionally?
We would have congratulated ourselves on having made that possible.
We would have felt like heroes!
But the problem was resolved. We're already heroes. So why would we give more money?
Instead, Sy did this:
Revealed that the prisoner was trying to redeem himself
Quoted the prisoner directly about why The Sun matters to him
Brought us right into the prisoner’s cell, right into his fear as he opens the magazine and looks for his fate.
Sy says he imagined the prisoner holding his breath. What could be more intimate and personal than a person’s breathing when you’re in the close quarters of a prison cell?
What would it feel like to be there when the prisoner finds out he’s safe?
The #1 thing I want you to bring into your marketing storytelling
Extend the line.
Are you sure you’re not stopping too soon? Keep writing the story.
As you do, think about how your customer is feeling at every point of the piece.
What feeling can you leave them with that will inspire them to act?
Because you absolutely want to inspire them to take action. “FYI” is not enough of a reason to put fingers to keyboard nor eyeballs to screen. We’re all busy people. We don’t have time to read FYI so don't waste your time writing it.
Don’t resolve the story so thoroughly that there’s nothing left for your customer to do.
Instead, invite them into the cell. Make them listen to the prisoner’s breathing.
Make them feel like they still need to prove to a stranger that they care.
You can read the full text of the letter (and subscribe / donate to The Sun) here.
If you want to help keep people who are incarcerated safe in a more direct way, consider making a donation to Just Detention International. Just Detention International is a health and human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.
Title is a hat-tip to Junot Diaz.
Image purchased from stocksy.com.