Parables have a way of getting around our defenses, short-circuiting our stereotypes, and making us think in new ways. In this episode, we’re looking at the role of parables in Jesus’ ministry, and how you can use stories to break through walls in your nonprofit’s messaging.
Parables are not morality tales, they’re not explanations, and they’re not any of the essential stories I typically teach on for nonprofit storytelling and fundraising. I usually recommend that you’re crystal clear on what you’re saying. Yet in the parables we see Jesus circling around, telling stories that make his audience work to get the message.
A parable keeps the message at a distance. It slows down comprehension. It blocks automatic prejudice, prejudicial reactions. It dismantles stereotypes. A parable comes up on the listener, obliquely, on the slant.
Eugene Peterson, Tell it Slant
Peterson calls the parable “a pebble in your shoe,” which I love. Because when you have a pebble in your shoe, the only thing you can think about is that pebble in your shoe. A parable will do that. This is a story that stays with you and makes you think.
Peterson quotes John Dominic Crossan, who says, “The parable is an earthquake opening up the ground at your feet.” Hmmm. So it’s a pebble in your shoe and an earthquake opening up the ground at your feet? I assure you, it is.
Why we need parables
Cognitive bias is an error in thinking that affects our decision-making. One form of cognitive bias is confirmation bias–we process new information in a way that is really heavily influenced by our existing beliefs, and our expectations of how things work in the world. If the new information doesn’t agree with our existing beliefs, we tend to distrust it. We’ll even make up stories to explain the new information away, even risking great harm to ourselves and to others.
Both the pebble in your shoe, and the ground opening up at our feet get our attention and force us to look at things a little bit differently. We can’t ignore either. We have to deal with them. A parable has the power to confront our bias with truth, to challenge our assumptions, without arguing or preaching at us.
Check out Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13, and his answer to the disciples when they ask why he tells so many stories.
A parable is a little story package that helps to overcome this bias, and the defenses we build up. Stories, like a pebble in the shoe, irritate the conscience so that we have to either consider the new information, or harden our hearts against it.
Jesus taught according to the readiness of the soil, or the readiness of the listener’s heart. In the case of these parables, he hid the meaning within a story so that the good soil could receive it, and the bad soil remained barren, fitting with Isaiah’s prophecy “Though seeing they do not see, though hearing they do not hear or understand.”
As a leader, you sometimes have to deliver hard messages. Sometimes, people come to you because they want to be involved in what you do, but they have certain ideas about your work or about the issue that are not true and are not helpful. Or perhaps there is a great deal of misunderstanding around the issues or stereotypes about the populations you work with, or assumptions about the work you do. How can you help people see something in a new way without lecturing them? How can you help them reconsider long-held, entrenched ideas?
Carefully-crafted stories can help you meet people where they are and nudge them into a new understanding. By carefully opening up seams in the ground, and placing pebbles in shoes, you can prompt the thoughtful consideration your cause deserves.
Here’s my challenge to you today–to identify an area in your work where stories can begin to overcome myths.
Brainstorm. Make a list of misconceptions, bad information, political twists, outdated approaches, prejudices, myths, and stereotypes that show up around the work you do.
Now write out the ways those things affect the people you serve or the work you do.
Think about the stories you could tell to nudge people toward a better understanding of the issues and the work that you do. Write these down.
Make connections. Which stories address which myths?
Carefully consider when, where, and how you can share these stories.
Being a guest on podcasts is a great way to share your message, yet it’s not something I see a lot of ministry leaders doing. Here’s your guide to being a great podcast guest.
There are over 2 million podcasts, and over 60% of all US consumers listen to podcasts. People listen in their homes, in the car, while they’re out taking a walk or exercising, and at work. Podcasts are everywhere. In the previous episode, I interviewed Eric Nevins, founder of the Christian Podcasters Association. Eric shared how podcasts are an effective way to get your message out to more people.
Look at the advantages podcasts have:
Podcasts tend to have a loyal following
As a guest, you “borrow” the host’s credibility with their audience
Builds your reputation as an authority
Exposes you to new audiences
You can generally guest from anywhere in the world
Podcasts are evergreen – that show stays out there. Someone may listen the day it comes out – others weeks, months, and even years later.
Here are my tips for being a great podcast guest.
I get emails all the time from agencies and individuals trying to guest on Life and Mission, but I’ve never accepted an unsolicited pitch. What? Because these people have obviously NOT listened to this podcast. I mean, when have you heard me talk about crypto? Please don’t be like that.
Most podcasts have a process, either through an application, or some other channel. Check the podcast website. If you reach out by email, do so only after listening to two or three episodes, and only after identifying how you can serve that audience. The point of this article isn’t to teach you how to pitch yourself–that’s a whole thing in itself! Let’s just say don’t be a jerk. Don’t make assumptions, and show up with a heart to serve (not sell).
Now, let’s get you ready to be a great guest:
Follow the host’s process. Do what they ask you to do. Be ready to provide headshots, a short bio or introduction, and even a few suggested questions.
Listen to at least two or three episodes. Get to know how the show goes, their style, and the types of questions they typically ask.
Find out (listen & ask) if there are questions the host asks every guest so you can prepare your answer.
Practice what you’ll talk about, and tell stories!! Practice telling your key stories (ones that will resonate with this audience) without taking rabbit trails or rambling.
Get a microphone and learn how to use it. You can get a decent mic for about $100 (I use the ATR2100x) (affiliate link)
Use earphones or earbuds to prevent echo on the recording.
Don’t use a shared WiFi (coffee shop, etc.) if possible. Wired connections are more reliable than Wifi. Plan ahead.
Dress professionally. Be prepared to be on video.
Make sure your background isn’t distracting (visually, and audibly)
Watch your lighting (don’t sit with a window in the background, etc.)
Turn off your phone, or silence it and turn off notifications.
Be on time, ready, with your tech tested – EVERY TIME
Pay attention to cues from the host
Speak with confidence.
Match the tone of the show (another reason to listen).
Stay engaged with the conversation.
Show up to serve the audience and the host.
If you have a CTA or a gift/offer, ask before recording if you can share it (usually at the end). It’s really nice to offer something specifically for that audience.
Don’t continually refer to your offer or hint at giving/support for your cause.
Thank the host. You may send a card or even a small gift of appreciation afterwards.
Promote the podcast in your channels (social media, email, etc.).
If you do these things, you’ll be well on your way as a podcast guest. As you become known as someone who is easy to work with and who serves the audience, chances are podcast hosts will be willing to refer you to others.
Sometimes things don’t turn out the way we planned. When that happens, use the opportunity to invite donors to have a closer look at the important work you do.
We love a good transformation story: someone was hurting. Things were all wrong. Then your donors stepped up and your organization did life-changing work. Those stories are powerful and effective, and we love to tell them.
But what if things didn’t turn out so well?
How do we tell a story when it’s just the beginning of a long process of change?
How do we tell stories when we don’t know the ending?
I believe some of our internal conflict over these stories is our fear of giving donors a not-so-perfect picture of our mission. On the one hand, we’re seen as the experts. But really, there are so many factors beyond our control. We cannot fix it all.
I’m not talking about taking responsibility when we mess up (more on that another time). I’m thinking about those interventions where we did our best, and it seemed like things were okay. We saw change. We may have shared a story from a beneficiary who made a radical turnaround because of our work. But a few months later, they were right back in that unhealthy situation. Do you tell that story?
You probably don’t want to (or need to) highlight that person’s personal setbacks. But there are stories you can tell around the experience:
Explain the process of change your beneficiaries go through.
Focus on one aspect of the change process and help supporters understand why it’s such a hurdle.
Share a story about the setting that causes difficulties in the change process.
Feature something in your work that deals specifically with one of those hurdles.
This works for unfinished stories, too. For complicated stories, and for slow change. Use setbacks and the unknown to invite your donors to draw close. You’ll be glad you did.
I can see why people might be hesitant to allow strangers into their space. We are conditioned to look at people who are not like us as either scary or exotic. Since childhood, most of us have been warned of “stranger danger”.
The ad features a family of shaggy “monsters” enjoying their vacation. It starts where many of us are when it comes to inviting strangers to stay in our homes–it’s a little scary. But then we see a delightful series of scenes: enjoying a beautiful view with a cuppa tea, a family hike, collecting shells, taking selfies, cooking, playing games…
These are simple things we enjoy with our own families.
The shaggy monsters clean up after themselves, straighten a picture on the wall, and leave a thank you note. As they close the door, we finally see them as they really are–a human family, just like us.
Kevin Morby’s song, Beautiful Strangers, provides a relaxed musical backdrop. Not a word is spoken. It’s a beautifully orchestrated story with an important message:
Strangers aren’t that strange. We have more in common than not.
The stories we tell can build bridges
Unfortunately, in our attempts to elicit emotion (or donations), we often emphasize our differences rather than our shared humanity. When we do this, we miss opportunities to present a realistic and nuanced view of the problems we solve. At worst, we reinforce stereotypes and even exploit the people we are called to serve.
Every story gives us a chance to choose. Do we set up a “them and us” narrative, or will we do the work to offer another perspective?