Tell better stories: 5 lessons from IntraHealth

A couple of weeks ago, we attended NCTech4Good, a conference that helps nonprofits use technology to advance their mission. One of our favorite sessions, perhaps not surprisingly, was about storytelling.

“Adventuring in Story-Gathering” was led by Margarite Nathe and Carol Bales from IntraHealth International, a global health organization that empowers health workers all over the world. (Talk about powerful storytelling opportunities.)

carol bales and margarite nathe
Carol Bales and Margarite Nathe

Storytelling is definitely in their wheelhouse. Margarite writes and edits feature stories, news items, blog posts, and other materials. Carol’s work focuses on writing, photography, social media, and multimedia production.

They walked us through the story-gathering process from start to finish. I’ve summarized some of my favorite points here, but I’d recommend heading over to the session page and downloading the slides from the full presentation, which was packed with high-value tips.

#1: Invest in professional photography — you won’t regret it.

Sure, you can take pictures with your iPad. You can buy relevant, nice-looking stock images too. But hiring a professional photographer is money well spent, Margarite and Carol said.

Authentic, evocative images help tell the story of your nonprofit in a way that resonates with your community. You’ll get a lot of mileage out of those beautiful photos — think annual reports and other collateral, newsletters, event signage, social media, and even local photography exhibits.

The same idea applies to video. Hiring a professional crew for half a day will give your communications team a library of rich, versatile video to chose from for years.

#2 Need a freelancer? Look at local journalists.

If you’re searching for a freelancer to help you tell your organization’s stories, look no further than the local newspaper. Find journalists whose work you admire, Margarite and Carol suggested, and reach out to them. They’re likely to care about social justice issues and be open to freelancing.

This is fantastic advice. Journalists value objectivity, consistency, and fact-based storytelling. At the same time, they understand the importance of a good lead (see #4) and the elements of a compelling story. Most are trained formally and have experience working closely with an editor.

Find a few journalists you trust, and let them do their thing.

#3 Create a good experience for your interviewee.

Interviewing slide

Here’s something we may not consider when we’re knee-deep in the storytelling process: How does my interviewee feel before, during, and after the interview? What questions does he have?

Your interviewee could be feeling nervous or anxious. She may be wondering, “Where is this going to be published?”

Creating a good experience for your interviewee requires empathy and planning, and it’s something Margarite and Carol address throughout their presentation. Tips include:

  • Make sure interviewees know that multimedia takes time to set up and execute.
  • Send them an interview kit with questions you’ll ask, the goal of the story, where it will be published, and any other relevant information.
  • Put them at ease at the beginning of the interview — avoid jumping right in.
  • Consider buying a mini photo printer, which will allow you to print out a photo of your subject onsite. It’s a nice way to thank interviewees for their time, particularly in places where cameras are scarce.

#4: Don’t neglect the lead.

Craft your opening with care and intention. It’s likely the first thing people will read, so you want to open strong.

Margarite and Carol offer a few recommendations:

  • Tell a story or anecdote.
  • Ask a provocative question.
  • Convey an interesting, surprising, or little-known statistic.

The IntraHealth team practices what they preach. Here’s how they open a few recent stories:

  • “Squinting in the hot northern Namibian sun, a man smartly dressed in a nurse’s uniform greets us with a warm smile.” (Read more)
  • “Can you imagine walking into a hospital room, pregnant and scared, and seeing broken medical monitors, stained beds, and sticks being used as IV poles?” (Read more)
  • “Almost half of children under five in India are moderately or severely malnourished.” (Read more)

(This principle applies to video too, of course. Visual Narrative has a blog post about this with several examples.)

#5: Identify outlets that care about the same things you do

Group of women from a slide in the presentation

You can reach a wider audience by pitching to media outlets that cover the same types of stories as your organization. For example, in IntraHealth’s world, Humanosphere, USAID, and Devex are a few sites that cover global health and development.

Do your research to identify the sites and publications relevant to your world. Read up on their guidelines and procedures, and follow them. Be available to talk and responsive to their inquiries.

Again, these are just a few highlights from their talk. Download the complete presentation to get:

  • Story-gathering supplies
  • Interview tips
  • A sample shot list
  • Smart writing tips

Thanks to Margarite and Carol for sharing their expertise!

Photos in slides by Trevor Snapp and Morgana Wingard for IntraHealth International.


Open Eye Creative is a small video production company with a huge vision: to use the power of story to strengthen and propel organizations that are changing the world. Read more.