I want to share an epiphany with you – one that’s only taken me about 30 years to figure out. And, as with most epiphanies. this one is dead simple.

Great communications is a simple, two-step process:

  1. Tell great stories.
  2. Listen hard.

That’s it. That’s ALL it is. That’s my tip.

Now, let me share the rationale behind the two-step with five simple thoughts:

1) Communication is an EXCHANGE between people. It’s give and take. It’s how we get closer to each other. It’s how we like and love each other. The big mistake I see fundraisers – and communications people – make constantly is that they talk all the time, but don’t bother to listen.

2) The jury is in. The brain research is conclusive. Nothing – absolutely nothing – imparts information from one person to another more powerfully than STORYTELLING. My Good Works colleagues and I are passionate – make that obsessed – with great storytelling. Why? Because it works – and because when we do it well, our clients make a lot of money.

3) In my experience, many if not most failed relationships have one thing in common. One or both partners in the relationship feel that the other isn’t LISTENING to them anymore. When we feel listened to, we feel valued. We feel like we belong. We feel like we matter. Why would your donors be any different? What do you think your donors would do if they thought you really wanted to hear what they have to say? You know the answer to that one as well as I do.

4) The key to telling a great philanthropic story is to realize first that your charity is never the hero. The HERO role belongs to the DONOR. In a great story, you have a hero, a quest, a mentor (that’s your charity!), a villain, a lesson, a moral and a resolution. The “hero’s quest” format was first identified by American mythologist Joseph Campbell – and it applies to great stories from Homer’s Odyssey to The Wizard of Oz to Lord of the Rings. For a great summary, check out this video.

5) In my experience, the key to being a terrific listener is to ask great QUESTIONS. Once you’ve asked a penetrating question, just be quiet and pay close attention. Great questions usually get down to the ‘why’ (as opposed to the ‘what’ and ‘how’). You don’t have to be in a one-on-one conversation to do this. You can ask great questions to a database of 50,000 donors if you’re literate in market research methods. Even if you’re not, it doesn’t take that much to get up the learning curve and start having better conversations with your donors.

So there you have it.

Tell great stories.

Ask great questions.

Then, close your pie-hole and listen carefully.

You might just be amazed at what can happen next.

This article originally appeared at Hilborn: the leading provider of information to Canada’s nonprofit sector.