The Black Box

If we can’t see what’s happening in our mind’s eye, we won’t feel anything. And it’s the feelings we remember first when we remember a story.

Her name was Sherry. She ran a shelter for victims of domestic violence, and she told me a story I’ll never forget.

The following is based on a true story. Names and some details have been changed to protect privacy. 

Actually, it’s the second draft of her story that stays with me even to this day. The first draft, which Sherry shared during a storytelling workshop I was leading in Orlando, Florida, got off to a good start, but then it ran smack into one of the most common problems I see whenever nonprofiteers tell stories about their work.

Here’s the first version of the story Sherry shared that day:

Joan, a 30-something mother of two, was a repeat visitor to the shelter. Each time she would arrive with her six-year-old daughter, Tara, and four-year-old son, Jake, in tow, she was an emotional wreck as a result of her husband’s latest explosion.

During each stay, Sherry would try to convince Joan to leave her husband and start a new life, but Joan always had an excuse for going back. “He was just drunk,” Joan would say. “He didn’t mean it.” “I don’t know how I could do this without him.”

Sherry had heard all these lines before, but through patience, perseverance and compassion, she and her team at the shelter were eventually able to get through to Joan, help her extricate herself from a dangerous situation, and begin a new life for her and her children. The End.

Now, at first blush, that may feel like a pretty good story. In Joan, Sherry gives us a sympathetic character to pull us into the narrative, and there’s clearly a positive outcome demonstrating the efficacy of the shelter’s work. But take a closer look and ask yourself: Exactly how did the shelter help Joan? The answer is hiding inside a black box. It’s hiding behind words such as “patience,” “perseverance,” and “compassion,” which are lovely but don’t really paint a picture. If we can’t see what’s happening in our mind’s eye, we won’t feel anything. And it’s the feelings we remember first when we remember a story.

So after Sherry told her story that day in the workshop, I asked her, “What really happened? How did you turn Joan around?”

“Well,” she began, “there was one day when I asked Tara and Jake to go play in the children’s area while I talked to their mom. The area was set up with a kid’s-sized kitchen with a plastic stove, cabinets, table and chairs.

“Tara took out a black plastic pan and mimed preparing breakfast. She put plastic bacon and eggs in the pan, and after a few minutes of shuffling them back and forth, she poured them onto a plate and held it out for her little brother. Jake looked at the plate for a second and then slapped it out of her hands. And he said, ‘It’s cold, bitch.’

“Tara didn’t cry. She just knelt down quietly, picked up the eggs, bacon and pan, and started preparing breakfast all over again. Her mom saw all of this, and in that moment, the full extent of the damage that her husband was doing was finally clear to her.”

Now do you begin to get an idea of how this shelter does what it does? Clearly, there is much more to this story, but when Sherry started opening up that black box, she gave us a chance to see, feel and, most importantly, remember.

Take a closer look at your organization’s stories, and ask yourself if the essential aspects of your work are hiding in a black box. If so, start writing your new draft, and see what happens when you pry open that box. It may not be pretty. It may even be hard to share. But it’s what your audience needs to hear.