There are many charities doing great, inspiring and forward-thinking work around content, stories and storytelling strategies. However, with great storytelling comes a great responsibility. Behind every story is a person. A person with real fears, real hopes, real vulnerabilities and real futures.
As charity professionals we need to ensure we tell stories honestly, openly and authentically, free from the constraints that demand every story needs to tick every box. Whatever the experience and whatever the story, our duty is always the same – to ensure the person we’re listening to is protected and they remain the keepers of their own story. The people who lend us their stories may not, and should not, fit into a perfectly planned brief whether it be for fundraising, an event or campaign. Our challenge is to balance this with the need to produce powerful communications that inspire and move people to engage and act.
As charities, we have access to a wealth of stories and we need to ensure we have the right culture, processes, procedures and focus to use and deliver these stories honestly and effectively. In my experience, there are some essential things charities can do to ensure authentic storytelling is at the heart of everything we do.
Help your people understand why authentic storytelling is key
It’s important to take the time to help all those involved in producing materials for communications, events and fundraising understand that behind every story is a person.
When you visit an individual and ask them to tell their story in their own words and in their own way, they will do so. And in doing so, they may not tick all the boxes set out within the original brief. This person may not say what you’d wanted them to, they may not act or show their emotions as you’d hoped and, they may not even look the way you’d expected.
Help your CEO, trustees, frontline staff, office staff and volunteers understand the processes, the importance of authentic storytelling and why building up a portfolio of different stories and voices will benefit your charity.
This will avoid the all too common scramble before a flagship event to find that perfect case study. It will avoid blood-boiling statements and questions like, “She doesn’t look vulnerable with her hair and makeup like that.” or, “Could we get him to say something like, ‘I was scared for my life. Without charity X, I wouldn’t be here today.'”
Most significantly, it will enable you to build stronger and more informed content, fundraising and communications strategies around the stories and experiences you’re hearing, from the very group of people you’re supporting.
Storytelling creates great content, but it also gives those you support a voice and an opportunity to shape the projects, programmes and initiatives impacting them.
The way you conduct your interviews and gather stories, as well as the way you edit, rewrite and cut down your final story, will heavily impact the authenticity of your story.
It can be difficult to spend time with our storytellers because of time restraints and tight budgets however, spending time is important because the more comfortable they feel, the more they will open up to you. Explain the process in detail and tell them why you need stories and how you intend to use their story. Ensure they understand the true implications of this use, especially if the story is being used online. Get written consent from the participant (use fingerprinting if necessary) and make sure any restrictions or concerns are noted alongside the story.
During the interview, your job is, of course, to guide the person through telling their story. However, avoid leading questions and remain sensitive to the persons emotions and feelings.
I also believe that there needs to be a shift in our focus so we are not just looking at the final product but placing much more importance on the process as well. If you can, try and involve the person you are speaking to in the process of telling their own story. Show them edits, get feedback and take on board what they are telling you. If you aren’t certain enough of the authenticity of your final product to show the participant involved, something has gone wrong.
By shifting the focus, you can ensure that participants of your projects and those you support have a say in what story they tell and when and how that story is told.
Understand your challenges first
Put in processes and procedures so your charity has a storytelling strategy and plan. Firstly, understand what your story gathering and storytelling needs are across your organisation. Identify where the gaps and the challenges are. Once mapped out, you’ll be in a stronger position to gather stories strategically but most importantly, with your participants in mind.
Challenges may include the need to build confidence or win trust of your frontline staff; a lack of skills and capacity within your organisation or processes that don’t work. Once you know these gaps you can design the necessary interventions, such as building relationships or running training sessions across the organisation.
Charities are lucky. We don’t have to pull our hair out to humanise what we are offering in the same way a bank or sportswear company might have to. People are often at the heart of our causes already. We have an abundance of amazing, inspiring, heart-warming and impactful stories at our fingertips. The challenge now is to tap into this opportunity, do it well and most importantly, do it right.