Published: 1 March 2019

The power of human stories: our top takeaways

What makes a powerful story and how can we harness stories to create change? CharityComms brought together storytellers and story gatherers working across the charity sector for our ‘power of human stories: how to be an authentic storyteller’ event in pursuit of an answer to just that question. Here are the key themes which came out in different ways throughout the day:

Person first, charity second: Storytellers welfare is a priority

Our storytellers are often also people that our organisations exist to support. Their welfare is a priority.

Author and media volunteer for CRUK, Emma Campbell shared that this was something which helped her, as “the feeling has always been that we, the volunteers, are the priority”.

In a similar vein author and CEO of Making Herstory Onjali Rauf said that her top tips for working with storytellers were: 

  • Ask us what we need 
  • Remember that we have lives and families and recognise that we can’t always do what you need us do 
  • Don’t be offended if we say no  
  • Help us with our self care – we are so angry and hungry for change that we need you to make sure we are doing okay. 

It’s also our responsibility to manage the expectations of those we work with. Jon Arnold, CEO of Tiny Tickers and a storyteller said to “encourage storytellers to own their story, tell the truth of how it is,  but make them aware that they may lose control once it is out in the world.”

This is why it’s so important to have a robust and clear informed consent process. People need to fully understand what they are agreeing to and they must be comfortable with how their stories will be used. The Children’s Society for example offer the opportunity to revoke consent at any time before the story goes live. If the young person changes their mind, the story goes nowhere. Simple as that. 

Building on this the advice from Sounddelivery’s Jude Habib about not getting safeguarding confused with gatekeeping is useful to remember. If storytellers want their story to be heard, you should do what you can to support and empower them to be able to do that. 

It’s no doubt a difficult balance, built on trusting relationships with the people involved, and knowing that the storytellers welfare, safety and security – both physical and emotional – should come first at all points. 

Tell stories in new and innovative ways

We have to be creative in the way that we tell stories if we are going to cut through the noise, engage our audiences and do justice to our cause. 

From the point of view of engaging our audiences – this makes so much sense. Your favourite book may be amazing, but it doesn’t get more interesting each time you read it. Your favourite joke doesn’t get funnier each time you hear it. 

Plus, if audiences are consistently told of a problem, there is a risk of compassion fatigue or fatalism ultimately resulting in the opposite effect from a campaign sought to mobilise people to act. 

But there’s also an ethical consideration to this. People and issues are multifaceted. To repeatedly tell one side of a story doesn’t do justice to the cause. As Tamsin Maunder from WaterAid UK said, we have the privilege of having access to these stories – so it is our responsibility to share them in a full and rounded way.

That doesn’t mean shying away from reality, but embracing it – humanitarian communications consultant Jess Crombie stressed that it may be necessary to show suffering in certain contexts but that cannot be the only thing that is shown. Tamsin followed up with showing how successful their #Untapped campaign was because they sought to show the depth and complexity of the stories which existed there, in a way that people could relate to. 

As most things are, this idea is expressed well by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

 

Create a culture of storytelling

No matter how good your storytelling strategy might be, our last panel highlighted that it wouldn’t be effective without establishing a storytelling culture within your organisation. But what does that mean? Colette Philip, CEO of Brand by Me defined it as when everyone was “empowered, equipped, inspired and ready to tell effective stories.” Here are some of the top tips from the speakers: 

 

  • Christine Phillips from The Children’s Society highlighted the need to develop trust internally. That building relationships with everyone involved and encouraging people to share with each other was key to the process. 
  • Frances Umeh of World Animal Protection suggested creating a guidance document around what to include, and different ways stories can be told, helping staff build confidence to tell effective stories.  
  • Ruwani Purcell from Parkinson’s UK pointed out that you need to identify what is in it for the rest of your organisation – and to be aware that engaging, enabling and encouraging won’t happen overnight. 

 

This was one of my favourite CharityComms events to date, I was blown away by the stories of resilience, bravery and strength in the face of some of the most acute adversity. I was also bolstered by how much commitment there was to doing the right thing by storytellers, audiences and colleagues in the process of sharing stories. At the same time it was one of the toughest. This served as a reminder that just as it is important to treat the stories of others with care, it’s also important to afford ourselves the same consideration, so we can continue to support and empower people to share stories which will move the world.

Photo by Aurelia Bergs


Molly Clarke, digital and finance assistant, CharityComms

Molly is the digital assistant at CharityComms and a Charity Works fellow. Before CharityComms, she was studying for her MA in International Development. Prior to that, she directed, produced and edited film projects both in a corporate and not-for-profit setting in the UK and internationally.