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How can we become better storytellers?

17 July 2020

Stories help us understand the world around us, the lives others lead, and experiences beyond our own. They are a powerful tool for raising awareness and understanding and, used well, can deliver real impact while honoring the storytellers who share them.

The charity sector is lucky to have the opportunity to help others tell their stories. But we also have a responsibility to make sure it’s done right. This is something CharityComms’ three-day Storyfest event was all about – bringing together great examples of powerful and impactful storytelling to learn from and aspire to.

So what have we learnt about being better storytellers?

It’s about telling the right story in the right way

Storyfest kicked off with a reminder from TVE’s Nicole Itano, that “we tell stories for a reason and every story that we tell should have a purpose”. To inspire real life action from story sharing you need to dedicate time to ensuring it has impact. Start with asking yourself what you want your audience to ‘Think. Feel. Do’ and apply these vital steps to help you:

  • Define your objective for telling your story from the outset. Writing it down will force you to think harder about what you want it to do, and what you want the viewer to come away thinking.
  • Do research, and put yourself in the shoes of the audiences you want to reach to help understand how they feel – stories should emotionally resonate for impact.
  • Decide what success looks like and be clear about how you are going to measure it so you know if it’s been effective in what you want it to do.

User-generated content is powerful but prioritise humanity when collecting it

Abi Mellor from Morever talked about the power of using user-generated content while reminding us to show humanity and empathy for those creating it. When working on UGC projects it is important to put yourself in your contributor’s shoes, make human connections and be agile. The storytellers sharing experiences with you are real people with real lives and there needs to be an understanding of that. Think about how you can help them tell their story in their own way, how and when they can. The journey isn’t always smooth but humanity and a willingness to be agile – as well as clever use of techniques like weaving in b-roll – can help deliver UGC with impact.

Do what you can to help storytellers tell their stories

Lockdown has changed how we collect and share people’s stories. But as our panel of sector story managers showed, it is still possible to share people’s experiences in this changing environment by empowering storytellers. Maggie’s Lucy Shaverin suggested circulating crib sheets of what stories are collected to keep track of what is available to share as well as delivering training to frontline staff to help in the collection. Age UK’s Phil Marsh championed using team expertise to put together a video calling guide for storytellers to help them. British Red Cross’ Alicia Melville-Smith highlighted frontline volunteers as great storytellers whose sharing of experiences enables you to show what’s going on when service users are too vulnerable to ask. And Alicia’s colleague Nana Crawford reminded us of the power of words and how simply using someone’s quotes on social can deliver real impact. What resonated from them all though was the importance of taking time to get things right and putting best practice in place, like always going back to every storyteller before resharing their content.

Support lived experience in a way that offers a better experience for storytellers

Building on the clear thread of putting storytellers first On Road Media’s Nathalie McDermott chaired a thought-provoking discussion on how to build a better storytelling culture. Playwright and media volunteer Tanaka Mhishi summed up what was needed perfectly by saying “a collaborative equal relationship needs to be the bedrock of any successful media interaction”. A point echoed by All About Trans advisor Ugla Stefania Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir, who explained the importance of establishing a relationship of trust and mutual understanding that “creates a space where the person feels comfortable to share their stories”.  Something which was also evident in The Poverty Alliance’s Twimukye Macline Mushaka’s championing of creating a “safe space for people to identify what they are passionate about and what they want to talk about.” So how do we do all this? Well, a starting point would be to apply the learnings of documentary image-making and ethics lecturer Jess Crombie’s and allow time for; participation, openness, and active listening in all we do.

Sometimes you have to think outside the box to bring a story to life

In the keynote talk of Storyfest, Conservation without Borders’ Sacha Dench inspired us to challenge ourselves and be brave with our storytelling ideas. Using her real-life ‘Flight of the Swans’ expedition she explained how she used awe and powerful storytelling to raise awareness of the decline of the Bewick swan. Telling the story of the swans’ migration through both the eyes of the birds themselves and the people trying to help them enabled audiences to connect and take action in a fresh way. Admitting when she first came up with the idea she thought  ‘this is so bonkers it might just work’ the reaction to the film proves thinking differently really can work.

Real people sharing real stories shouldn’t be rushed

The duty of care to the storytellers you work with has to be first and foremost. It takes something emotionally from those who are sharing their experiences and it can’t be rushed. As the NSPCC team spotlighted it is vital to commit to relationship building with storytellers and ensure those with lived experience have autonomy. Ruth McDermott, Lorrin Braddick and Poppy Stalker emphasized doing this by:

  • considering whether it is the right time for the storyteller
  • asking why they want to be involved and what support networks they have in place
  • making sure the storyteller is truly happy with how they are being represented
  • giving storytellers ownership and involvement in decision making
  • remembering storytellers “need as much time as they need to tell their story”
  • using a person’s own voice in copy that accompanies their story to empower them

Consider how you frame things

It’s not just about the story itself but also about the way you tell it and how you represent the people within it. Drawing on the #NeverMoreNeeded campaign Forster Communications’ Peter Gilheany and Ayesha Gardiner explained how we build narratives in a useful way is something we should all be thinking about. One big tip they shared on this was that when making sure we are framing issues in a useful way we need to make sure we know our audiences first. Think about how you would convince those in your network, those that share your or your campaign’s values and also those with opposing values. By knowing your audience and their touch points you can start to create empathy. Remember “stories are subjective and you need to walk in the shoes of the audience you are seeking to engage and put people front and centre.”

If you are interested in finding out more about how to improve your storytelling all the live sessions from Storyfest are available on-demand alongside a selection of additional pre-recorded talks here.

Plus CharityComms would like to say a massive thank you to all our delegates who joined the live events for all of their amazing questions, knowledge sharing with each other and for flagging tips and resources that they have found valuable themselves.

You may also like:

Storytelling: What brands can learn from David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg, Disney and Pixar
Working with storytellers: ‘It’s never our story to tell, it’s theirs’

Image: Jr Korpa on Unsplash

Christine Fleming

Head of digital content, CharityComms

Christine is the head of digital content at CharityComms in charge of the commissioning and editing of all content on the site as well as leading on the project management of the new look best practice guides. A former journalist with a background in online news, she has a masters in Global Media and Transnational Communications and is passionate about comms and helping charity communications thrive.