Partnering with People to Tell Their Own Stories

By Kate Marple

Related Key Lesson People and Goals: Take this lesson

A couple years ago, a close friend of mine agreed to be the client speaker at a nonprofit’s fundraising gala. In the lead up to the event, the organization removed the personal and empowering parts of the beautiful speech she had written; the edits they proposed reduced her story to her problem. She had been asked to share something deeply personal, but to fit her experience into a pre-determined narrative created by the organization, one where the role of the organization was elevated over the work she had done for her family. I witnessed how that made her feel, and the strength she demonstrated in pushing back to maintain control of her narrative and ensure her perspective was included.

There is a lot of emphasis and training in the social sector to make sure the stories we tell are compelling and effective. That’s really important. But so is creating a storytelling culture that is empowering and community-centered. Are organizations and those of us who tell stories for social change doing enough to ensure stories are shaped and driven by the people closest to the policy or issue in question? I wasn’t, and my friend’s experience really drove that home for me. Afterward, I started a list of all the ways that I could partner with clients and communities to make sure they are in the driver’s seat when my organization does storytelling, and I turned them into a guide, Who Tells the Story?, so that I’d have a process to hold myself accountable to. Here are a few of those strategies:

1. Decide with clients and communities what types of stories your organization will tell and develop a story gathering process together.

If we’re asking someone to share their story when there is already an immediate need for it, chances are they won’t play a significant role in the shape of that story, how it’s shared, or why it’s shared. Instead, clients and front-line staff should be involved from the beginning in figuring out what messages and values your organization’s stories will convey, and the process for how it’ll gather them. It can be really helpful to have group conversations with staff and clients to discuss goals and air concerns. Developing guidelines together for who to approach, how to approach them, and some ethical guideposts to adhere to, can not only create a stronger, more transparent process, but will likely also result in more widespread participation in the story gathering process itself.

2. Ask about someone’s perspective on the issue and their goals for sharing their story.

When organizations ask clients to share stories, they often focus on the “what,” not the “why”. They might tell a client that a reporter called or they are having a fundraising event, and they need someone to share their experience with an issue. It can be a really one-sided request, and the parameters of the ask are often already set. What if instead, the initial conversation was an exchange of goals, where the organization explained the big picture of what it hopes to change or accomplish by sharing the story? And what if the organization asked the client about their perspective on the larger issue and what they hoped people would understand and learn from hearing their story? The message could then be built together. When delivering services, organizations tend to ask clients about their goals and align services to match them; why should storytelling be any different?

3. Ask how and where someone wants to share their story.

A client told me that he would be happy to share his story, but only if he got to speak directly with a reporter; he did not want to be talked about. I hadn’t asked him how he wanted to share his story, but this was important enough to him that he made a point of mentioning it. It got me thinking that these initial conversations should be about understanding a client’s goals and boundaries, and that just like we shouldn’t assume someone doesn’t want to share their story, we also shouldn’t assume that if someone wants to share it, that they are up for sharing it any time, in any way. There should be options. Do they want to use their name and likeness? In what mediums can it be shared? Written? Online? Do they only want to share it when they can be present to tell it themselves?

4. Ask what activities someone wants to support with their story.

Someone who is happy to share their story to advance a specific policy effort may not want it included in a fundraising appeal. Interview / story release forms often include a single paragraph with a lot of language right above the signature line that essentially says, by signing below, the organization can do whatever it wants with the story. Releases should instead have checklists and ask specifically if someone has any restrictions on how it can be shared; consent should not have to be all or nothing.

5. Ask questions that go beyond a person’s problem.

Empathy is generated through relatable moments of human life and behavior, not the details of circumstance. To tell stories where people are more than their problems, organizations need to consciously gather other information too. It can be helpful to ask questions like: “What are you most proud of?” “What do you love (to do)?” Or simply ask someone to tell you about their family.

6. Ensure people are the “protagonists” of their own stories.

Stories do not have to be explicitly about an organization in order to convey the organization’s value. A person’s story should always be centered on them and their experience and perspective; the organization is, at most, a supporting player. It’s also critical that stories convey the work people do to help themselves and their communities, not just what the organization is doing to help. When that information is left out, it becomes easier to associate negative stereotypes with the individual, and for the reader to distance themselves from the person; it reinforces savior narratives.

The ink was barely dry on my guide before I started wondering if these ideas go far enough. All of the strategies speak to ways to involve people within the existing framework of social change storytelling, but do we need an entirely new one? I’m not sure that people in communications roles can effectively partner in storytelling efforts if they are housed in development or policy departments, sometimes having limited contact with clients and communities. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that storytelling is often thought of and conducted as a marketing activity rather than as an ongoing programmatic initiative, informing how an organization both operates and communicates. And I wonder if organizations should even be in the driver’s seat for story campaigns, or whether they should invest their limited communications dollars into community-led story and documentary projects, finding ways to simply be a megaphone instead.

What I know for sure is we must invite others into the process in much more meaningful ways. While reflecting in her 1987 commencement address at Tufts University on lessons learned from a life spent in community organizing, Gloria Steinem remarked, “A person who has experienced something is almost always far more expert on it than are the experts.” That feels like the principle that should guide our storytelling culture.

Kate Marple is the Director of Communications for the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership, a lecturer in nonprofit communications at Northeastern University, and co-Director of The Perpetual Visitors Theatre Company.