The wonderful Andy Goodman recently wrote about the Golden Theme. It captures the idea that the best stories are the ones in which we see ourselves: “It is our ability to imagine ourselves in a story’s circumstances that makes stories work.”

Andy explained in Free Range Thinking how this works:

Consider, for example, the story of a homeless person we’ll call Ted. When we first meet Ted, he is on the street, unemployed and in poor health, both physically and mentally. Through the diligent work of a nonprofit agency, Ted will be placed in permanent supportive housing where he will find not only a roof over his head, but an array of services that will ultimately help him break the cycle of homelessness.

Now consider a different version of this story, one in which we meet a stock room clerk named Ted. He is shy, almost painfully so, but he’s diligent about his work and is well liked even if he mostly keeps to himself, voraciously reading comic books during lunch and breaks. When the recession hits, Ted is laid off, can’t find another job despite submitting dozens of applications, and eventually can’t afford his tiny apartment. Faced with the numerous challenges of surviving on the street, Ted’s shyness reveals itself to be a deeper emotional problem and he spirals downward.

As in the first version, Ted will ultimately connect with a nonprofit agency that will help him turn his life around, so both stories will arrive at the same happy ending. But the stories begin differently, and it is a crucial difference when you consider the Golden Theme. The first version introduces a homeless person, leading with the characteristics that make Ted different from the audience. The second version introduces a person who is shy, a hard worker, loves comics, and is persistent. In short, he is a person like us, and the fact that he eventually becomes homeless is all the more compelling because we can identify with him.

The reason the Golden Theme is so important is illustrated by my recent posts on the psychology of giving. The more we relate to a person in need, the more likely we are to help.

Here’s a 30-second video that does what Andy advocates so very well:

Community Housing Partnership shows the story of homelessness in such a relatable way. This is nonprofit marketing gold - because it illustrates the Golden Theme.