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The storytelling tug of war: do stories empower or dehumanise?

4 May 2016

Storytelling is essential to communications and can empower those supported by charities. However, there are times when telling the stories of vulnerable people can be harmful, and we’re reminded that protecting those we support should be our first priority. 

At Business in the Community, our Ready for Work programme supports people from some of the most excluded groups in society to overcome barriers to employment; we believe they have stories that can and should be told. But my experience of writing case studies for the programme has shown me that storytelling brings with it an internal tug of war. Does storytelling empower or dehumanise the people we support? Here’s the view from both sides.   

The power to empower

The case for telling stories is compelling. Personal stories bring to life the work we do. They prompt empathy by showing the human impact of poverty and they showcase our successes in a way that numbers never will. Ask any fundraiser and they’ll tell you sharing stories from beneficiaries is one of the most effective ways of connecting with supporters. 

For those who have overcome adversity, there is also often a strong desire to share their experience with others. We see this a lot in our Ready for Work programme. Storytelling can help someone take pride in how far they’ve come and can give them a voice to reach others. As charities and communications professionals, we have the tools and platforms to make this happen. There’s a danger that caution can stifle the people we help, when we should be giving them a megaphone to make sure their perspective is heard.

Michael, a Ready for Work graduate with a criminal conviction, has thrived as an advocate for our work. He’s shared a platform with the Prince of Wales, and has spoken about his experiences on BBC Radio 4. While we’ve been careful to make sure he understands the implications of these opportunities, there’s no doubt that they’ve given him fresh confidence and ownership of his story.

Can storytelling dehumanise?

But there’s good reason to be cautious. Through Ready for Work, we encourage the people we support to focus on their aspirations for the future, whatever stage they are at in their employment journey. When clients share their stories, this usually involves reflecting on previous experiences that no longer define their lives – poverty arising from complex challenges such as homelessness, substance abuse, family breakdown, or time spent in prison. 

Even when handled carefully this can be a painful experience; at worst, it can lead someone back to the very circumstances we have helped them to overcome. This is particularly true when the storyteller is far removed. The chain from key-worker to journalist can get lost in translation, and there’s a danger that the individual concerned loses ownership of their story. Far from empowering, in this way, case studies can make a commodity of the people we support.

Some years ago now, one of our clients agreed to share his story on stage at an event. It was a powerful moment, which undoubtedly impacted the audience. But afterwards, we discovered that our client had found reflecting on the past to be very distressing. This experience motivated us as an organisation to make sure the stories we tell are never at the expense of a person’s wellbeing. 

Finding the balance

It can be very hard to predict whether someone will respond positively or negatively to sharing their story. But having good processes in place and making sure the people you support always retain ownership of their stories will stand you in good stead when things don’t go to plan.

This guide from CharityComms is a good place to start when developing your own set of principles. At Business in the Community, we’ve built on this to develop our own ethical guidelines – if your organisation doesn’t have any, I’d encourage you to do the same. SoundDelivery is also encouraging and equipping charities to be braver in the way they tell stories – its Social Media Exchange conference in February was a great reminder that, while caution is advisable, we have a duty to give a voice to those who may otherwise go unheard.

Nevertheless, with all this in mind, there’s one thing that can help us to get the balance of storytelling right: we must remember that the stories we’re sharing do not belong to us.  

*Names have been changed to protect the people we support

Charlotte Gibb

campaign and events coordinator, Business in the Community

Charlotte is campaign and events coordinator for the Work Inclusion team at Business in the Community. In her spare time she volunteers with a project supporting women working in the sex trade, and believes lived experience should be a thread that runs through all charity comms and campaigns.