Boris Kievsjy discusses storytelling

Episode aired October 21, 2021: Storytelling

Boris Kievsky of dotOrg Strategy knows all about storytelling. That’s what happens when you work in Hollywood. He’s taken that experience and is using it to help nonprofits tell their story. In this episode Boris discusses 

  • Who is the hero in a story
  • How stories help us connect to others
  • Using “the Hollywood Way” to tell nonprofit stories
  • Telling stories across multiple channels and
  • What HAS to be present with every piece of content you produce.     

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a nonprofit marketing, communications and storytelling expert, Boris Kievsky. Boris, how you doing today?

Boris: I’m doing great. I’m really happy to be here and excited to talk about all the things that we want to talk about today.

Ephraim: Excellent. It’s great to have you here. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Boris is an entrepreneur, recovering filmmaker and relaxed geek. As the chief storyteller and nerd for good at dot Org Strategy, a nonprofit digital strategy agency, Boris helps nonprofits harness the power of great stories, amplified through the right technology, to reach the right audiences, create meaningful connections and activate the inner hero in each of them. Boris began programming computers and working with online networks at age 10, falling in love with the power of tech to  both communicate and create communities. In college he switched focus to theater and film which taught him the power of storytelling to move hearts and change minds. In 2010 Boris retired from playing the occasional Russian bad guy on TV to focus on making a difference in the world. Since then, he’s had the privilege of working with dozens of nonprofits and teaching hundreds more how to create more heroes through digital media, marketing and fundraising.

Stories Need A Hero

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss storytelling and heroes. Let’s dive right in. Boris, how do you define the hero in a story and why do nonprofit stories need a hero?

Boris: That is the perfect question to start with. So the hero of any story is the one who is usually leading the story in one way or another. He or she is the pivotal character, they are the pivotal character and importantly they are transformed throughout the journey and help transform the world around them for the better. That’s what a hero is and every story needs a hero, regardless of whether it’s a nonprofit story, a Hollywood film or something that one of my kids is telling me around the dinner table. Oftentimes, in their case, the hero is themselves or one of their friends.

But if there’s no central character or group of central characters to model the story around, we kind of get lost in all the different details or the different directions that it might go in and we can’t follow a single narrative. So every nonprofit story needs a hero because ultimately, that’s whom we’re going to connect with as listeners, as viewers, as consumers of the story in one way or another. And if we can’t connect with them, then it’s not going to work in the first place.  

How Stories Connect To Your Audience

Ephraim: So then how can nonprofits harness the power of storytelling to connect with their target audience?  

Boris: Well let me start with the fact that storytelling is in our DNA.  

You’re in Israel at the moment. Are you familiar with two Israeli heroes of mine, well heroes in some sense, Yuval Harari and Daniel Kahneman?

Ephraim: Yes.

Boris: You know those guys? Hang out at the at the café or the shuk? Yuval Harari wrote the book “Sapiens: A brief history or a history of humankind” and in there I pulled the quote and I could have paid him to write it, “storytelling is our specialty. It’s the basis for everything we do as a species. It’s in our DNA. We evolved with it. We wouldn’t have survived, much less become the dominant life form on this planet if we couldn’t tell stories and if our brains didn’t automatically put ourselves in the role of the protagonist as we’re listening to it.” Otherwise we wouldn’t have believed somebody that sharks might be super dangerous or even eating a certain berry, right? And we wouldn’t be able to form a community or society, which is something that is critical not just to evolution but to what nonprofits do today. So that’s quote number one.

Quote number two is from Danny Kahneman and he said that no one ever made a decision based on a number. They need a story. Now Danny Kahneman is not a storyteller. Danny Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for Economics, for his work. Basically, he’s one of the founders of behavioral economics. So if someone who wins the Nobel Prize for Economics says that we need stories, not numbers, I think they know what they’re talking about.

So telling and listening to stories, as I was saying by what Yuval Harari said before, is the way that we connect to others and we resonate with them emotionally. Hopefully, if the story is told well so that we put ourselves in the role of the protagonist in our minds, whether we want to or not and we release certain chemicals in our brains. We release dopamine if it’s a happy story. We release oxytocin if it’s scary and we… not if it’s scary. I’m sorry. Oxytocin if we can relate to it on an emotional level and it’s that emotion that is going to then get us to take action. When you buy a candy bar, you’re not doing it based on ration, you’re doing it based on emotion and then you’re justifying it then backwards with rationale. So that’s the same thing that we do with every decision we make. If you want someone to donate, they need to first connect with your story on an emotional level and then they’re going to justify it based on the information that they have to feel good about their decision. They can answer their question.

The Hollywood Way

Ephraim: Good. So now let’s dive into storytelling. You talk about storytelling quote unquote “the Hollywood Way.” Today’s actionable item: Please outline for us what is the Hollywood Way and how organizations can use that model to tell stories their  audiences will connect and respond to?

Boris: Okay. So the Hollywood Way, the Hollywood Model, is basically a combination of elements. One is it’s based on tried-and-true principles of storytelling that were really put together succinctly and beautifully in “The Hero’s Journey.” I encourage anyone who’s interested in storytelling or writing of any sort to read. It’s packaged into a three-act structure that helps our hearts and minds basically connect to the adventure and of course the hero.

So the three-act structure breaks down into act one, the beginning. In the beginning we establish what is the world of this story, of our heroes, our protagonists, our antagonists and most importantly, what’s wrong in the world. So if you’re a nonprofit and you’re trying to create change in the world, that means there’s something wrong. If not, then frankly, what is the need for your services, right? So in act one we’ve really got to establish the world, whom the potential heroes are and what’s wrong. Why we need them to step up and then we need to call them to action. We need to say hey, you can make a difference. Here’s how and get them to click that button, follow that link, sign up for something, whatever it’s going to be.

Then there’s act two. Act two in Hollywood is once the hero has accepted the call to action, it’s the series of challenges and the ways that they have to overcome those challenges. That’s all act two and usually the stakes keep getting higher and higher. If the hero in act one was told, you’re gonna have to put your life on the line and there’s a good chance that half your family might die in the process, they would never step up, they’d be scared. But what they’re asked at first is to do something small that just makes everyone else understand that this person cares and most importantly, helps them understand that they care. They’ve now raised their hand and identified themselves now. In act two we can slowly build up the tension, build up the stakes and what the hero has to do in order to succeed. That’s act two.

In act three, that’s the final battle. Oftentimes this is going to require the help of friends. Now mind you, I’m not just talking about blockbusters. I’m talking about When Harry Met Sally. I’m talking about movies you see on the Hallmark Channel. Every story that’s told in Hollywood from Hollywood and even if it’s not made in Hollywood- as many movies are not anymore- still is going to follow the structure.

So in act three, friends are going to need to come into the picture, oftentimes other supporters are going to need to come in and the final battle for the fate of the world, in this case whatever the problem was that we identified in the first place- which might just be, hey I’m about to turn 40 and I’m still single- that’s a plot that I’ve seen a lot of times. Or it might be hey, the evil empire is about to eliminate all Jedi from the face of the universe. So that’s the final battle and the question is, what will the world look like if we succeed? Hint nonprofits, it’s your vision and what’s it going to take to get us there. So that’s the three-act structure.

Beyond that, there’s a little more that Hollywood does right. It’s not enough to just write a movie or even make a movie. You know, chop down the tree in the forest and no one’s there to hear it. That anecdote. Similarly, Hollywood invests millions and millions of dollars into every single movie made and they have to recoup it. So they have their marketing machine around that, they have a framework that I also adapt to nonprofits including having a poster teasing the content enough to get people to click through or to scroll down or take interest enough in a story that you want to tell. And a trailer perhaps that you might post on social media or as an introduction somewhere, to get people excited about the story, get their attention, get them off of the next video in their feed or whatever it might be to pay attention to you. So that’s basically the outline of the Hollywood Way as I like to adapt it for nonprofits.

Storytelling Across Multiple Channels

Ephraim: Fantastic. So let’s now take storytelling. You mentioned the marketing and storytelling. There’s websites, email, social media, blogs, printed materials and lots more in the nonprofit fundraising and marketing arsenal. Should organizations be using the same story across all channels or not?  

Boris: Yes and no. You’re right. There’s so many different channels that we could be talking about. Audio podcasts, interviews and on video like the one that we’re doing today. There’s no shortage of media these days and there’s always more coming up. What stays true is storytelling still works on all of them but there’s no one story. Each story can be told entirely or in parts across different media channels.

What’s most important is that you stay true to the medium that you’re on. If it’s TikTok, you don’t want to tell… it could be the same story but you don’t want to tell it the same way as you might in a blog post or on Facebook or in a documentary video. But you could get some of the same components that act 1, act 2, act 3 into any of them, in any of those circumstances.

There’s also this concept, when I was in Hollywood, this concept of transmedia was really coming up and it isn’t as popular at the moment, because it’s actually been integrated into most things that we do now. Are you familiar with omnichannel and multi-channel marketing? I’m sure you are. So omnichannel is basically what transmedia has become and that is the parts of your story can live in different places. It could be the same story but told… so transmedia would take things and transform them across different sections of communications.

A friend of mine won an Emmy for creating a TV show in which people at home could actually call up. There would be a phone number that was told on the show, that was said on the show and you could call in and hear the voicemail that this person left for someone else. That’s transmedia and ultimately you want to reach people wherever they are. You don’t want to make them come to you. You’re not going to get my parents, much less my grandmother, to go on TikTok but you might get someone from TikTok to come to your website. So being wherever you think your avatars are is what’s most important and then adapting your story to be natively told or part of your story natively told on that channel.

Ephraim: Just as a quick follow-up. Does that mean that when a nonprofit is preparing their story, they should prepare it in such a way that they can segment it out or divided up for the different channels that they want to put it on in the different formats?

Boris: In some ways you absolutely have to today, because if you’re telling your story on your website, well you’re going to need to tell a different version of it, tease it somehow on your newsletter and in a different way on your Facebook page, assuming that that’s one of your primary social media channels. So yeah, you have to. Now, how much you do, that really depends on the bandwidth you have. Of course it would be amazing to tell it in an Instagram story, as well as a TikTok, as well as a LinkedIn post and a YouTube video, all depending on how important you believe this story is to your overall work at this time and connecting to individuals, you might invest more or less time in it. But to some degree you have to with every story.

Ephraim: Okay, that’s important. I asked that follow-up. I hope that people who are watching or listening or reading listen to that, because that’s something you have to prepare in advance before you go out there and publicize the story. Have that ready in advance, how you’re gonna market it on each different channel.

 Boris: And sometimes it actually goes in the other direction. Sorry to interrupt Ephraim but sometimes it goes in the other direction, where you can come up with a hook and a headline that you want to get out into the world but then you’ve just got to make sure to substantiate it in the full story that you’re going to tell somewhere else.

Activating People To Take Action

Ephraim: Absolutely. On your website,, you talk about activating more heroes for your cause. what must accompany a good story to activate people to take action?

Boris: This is one of my big pet peeves that I see a lot on nonprofit websites and in their communications in general. They sometimes hopefully tell great stories and then they drop you. Okay, you read the story. Thanks for coming. You have to have a call to action on every single piece of content. My personal philosophy and I understand it’s not always that easy but there should be some compelling call to action that should also be relevant to the story you just told and the people that just resonated with it. If you gave me a lot of value, you could ask me for something in return. Just make sure to connect it. If you told me about your program in homeless shelters, don’t suddenly ask me go donate to our new program that is in youth development center, right?  Have it be consistent, so that it’s the natural next step that you want me to take after I’ve enjoyed and appreciated the story that you just told me.

Learn More About Boris

Ephraim: I am 100 percent with you on a call to action on everything. As many things as you can, add that call to action when you post something. Absolutely. Let’s learn more about you Boris and move on to the lightning round. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Boris: Failing at everything else in life. No just kidding but not really. The short version of the story is I spent 10 years exclusively in technology and then I spent about 15 years in entertainment, where I was still supporting my habit doing technology and at some point I got tired of playing the Russian bad guy on TV, as you said in my bio. I didn’t feel like I was actually making a difference in the world.

One of the reasons I fell in love with theater was because I knew that that personal experience of being in the same room with characters going through something can actually change minds. It happened to me enough times that I knew that it was possible but I wasn’t getting that really at that point. It wasn’t fulfilling and so I started looking at other career options and I realized that I could combine my passions for technology and for storytelling and help nonprofits do more with their stories, tell better stories and use technology to get it out there. Luckily I was able to find a position at the Milken Family Foundation who is still one of my clients to this day and it’s been a challenging but much more rewarding path ever since.

Ephraim: Fantastic. I also think you’re the first podcast guest who went from TV Russian bad guy to the nonprofit world. So thank you for introducing me to that. That’s definitely new for me. Given your expertise and experience in the nonprofit sector, if there’s one thing you could shake up in the nonprofit, world what would it be?

Boris: The hardest part of this question is one thing. I’ll go with- and I don’t mean any offense by this- but the complacency and inertia in the nonprofit sector. The feeling of this is how we’ve always done it, this is what our Board expects, this is what our donors expect, that’s a great way to make yourself obsolete. This is not just true for nonprofits. It’s true for any organization on the planet. Steve Jobs at Apple made their Skunk Works project which created the Macintosh because he knew that if they didn’t make the Apple 2e obsolete, someone else would. It’s a law, Darwin’s Law that if you don’t evolve, you die out. Unfortunately most nonprofits operate on legacy mindsets. That’s the one thing that I would change.

Ephraim: A fantastic one. Best and worst part of working in Hollywood? Not spilling all the secrets that you know. 

Boris: Right. No, we won’t do that. The best part of working in Hollywood would be meeting great people with brilliant ideas. There are some real amazing intelligent people in Hollywood that are trying to do fantastic things and exploring the world through different characters. I loved that. Pursuing that dream of Hollywood’s success if you will was also fun. But it was really getting in there and exploring myself and the world around me and how I could interact between the two.

The worst part was meeting many not so great people in Hollywood and being stereotyped. With a name like Boris Kievsky and at the time, to be fair, I had a goatee, they expected me to come into auditions already speaking with a Russian accent. In fact several times I came in with regular, no accent and they said ah, I still hear accent which was very exciting to me because I would then reply with oh, do you mean the Irish accent? Because I hate it when that just comes out of me like that. Sorry about that. So the stereotyping and playing the same character over and over just as I said before wasn’t so exciting and rewarding after awhile.

Ephraim: Alright. You’ve been in Hollywood, now you’re on the east coast. East coast or west coast, which one?

Boris: East coast baby. No matter where I am, if I’m not in New York, I’m a New Yorker in exile. It is my north, it is the center of my universe and I’m happy to explore the rest of the universe. I love traveling and living other places has been awesome, but east coast all the way.

Ephraim: And finally, what was your favorite story growing up?

Boris: Oh gosh. There was a book that my grandmother used to read to me when I was sick in Russian called “Fantasyoray,” The Fantasizers. In there one of the fantasy stories was called “Mishon Akasha” about a boy named Mikhail- Misha-  whose mother left for the evening and  left him and his friend together to make their own buckwheat for dinner and boy the adventures they went on based on that. Still sticks out in my mind as my favorite story.

Ephraim: Cool. I like it. Lastly we will turn the table. You get to ask me one surprise question. I have absolutely no clue what’s coming. Go ahead.

Boris: I don’t know if you’ve been asked this before but if you turn back time and couldn’t be a nonprofit consultant, what profession would you pursue?

Ephraim: If I couldn’t be a nonprofit consultant, there’s a lot of potential good there. What would I be doing? Probably in marketing and communications like I am now. It’s just a passion. I love it. That would be one.

The other one probably public speaking, which is tied to marketing, communications. I love getting up in front of a crowd. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s like this, one to one or in front of a thousand, two thousand people which I’ve done. I’m game. Bring it. I know that a lot of public speakers get very nervous and whatever. I love it. There’s an energy and there’s just a lot of fun to it and so I’m happy to bring it when I speak to people. If I could figure out making a salary off of public speaking, I would absolutely be doing that. 

Boris: That’s good acting.

Ephraim: Have I considered acting? I have not. I have not. I don’t think I have a dream of making it big in Hollywood, to be perfectly honest. It was never that.

Boris: You’re telling me about enjoying speaking in front of a lot of people. I’ve had the pleasure and it really is a pleasure to perform on the live stage, in front of over a thousand people and it’s a rush. It’s a great feeling.

Ephraim: It is.

Boris: I thought maybe maybe secretly Ephraim wants to be an actor.

Ephraim: You know I gotta be honest. The money is nice, the fame is nice but everything else that comes with it, I’m not sure that it’s my cup of tea. Honestly I don’t. I see people want to take pictures and all that stuff and I look at that and I go, no. Just not me. The money would be nice. I’m not going to say no but I think that the ability to be anonymous… once you lose that, I don’t think… That’s not me. I’m sure some people feed off of it and love it. Absolutely just not my cup of tea. I prefer to be in the background and I’m good with that. 

Boris: Totally fair, totally valid.

Ephraim: Not my thing but it’s a good question. I like it. And now of course, after we’re done, I’ll think of another three other things that I would be doing if I wasn’t in nonprofits but you know, that’s for three o’clock in the morning.

Boris, thanks very very much for appearing on the podcast. I encourage everybody to connect with Boris a) through his website, and connect with Boris on LinkedIn as well. It was a pleasure learning from you today. Thanks for being here.

Boris: Thank you so much Ephraim. This is a lot of fun and always great to connect with you and chat with you on any subject.

Ephraim: Same. Have a great day.