Approaching storytelling with authentic engagement

Jan 20, 2020

Working in journalism and nonprofit communications, I’ve spent my career asking individuals to share their personal stories. While I’ve tried to approach these conversations with respect and care, I’ve only recently begun to appreciate the relationship building that’s required to honor their voice.

This realization hit hardest when I had coffee with an individual whose story I told several years ago. This individual explained how she appreciated the opportunity to share her story widely, but that doing so took a toll on her well-being and had unintended consequences with her family. Eventually, she chose to stop sharing and to use her voice to advocate for others.

Her story is an important reminder of the responsibility we have to those whose stories we tell.

I continue to think about how my lens of privilege shapes the narrative I place on another person’s story and how I can better partner with those who choose to tell their stories to help them achieve their goals and to feel supported in sharing. A lot of my perspective has been shaped by my colleague Rachel Vogel Quinn, a fellow nonprofit storyteller.

This past December, the HealthConnect Fellows and guests participated in the Partnering for Results workshop to learn the philosophy and practice of authentically engaging individuals in partnerships that promote policy change and leadership development. The session was hosted by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, which works to ensure youth ages 14-26 who have been in foster care have equitable access to resources, relationships, and opportunities to achieve positive well-being and success.

Their session inspired me to compile my own guidelines for how I should approach storytelling, and I welcome your feedback on how to improve. My hope is that through storytelling we can more authentically build relationships with the individuals we strive to serve in our work so that their expertise drives our efforts.

Tip 1: Build a relationship

Capturing a story is more than a one-time interview. Ideally, it involves an initial conversation that covers why you are asking to tell that person’s story and how you will use the story and covers their background and any concerns. The process of interviewing someone should take place in person with time to talk through details and take breaks. Also be willing to share some of your own story, not just listen to theirs. You may even want to have a follow up interview to clarify details and to meet to review the story together and make changes. You should share with the individual when the story will be published and check in for support after the story is public.

This means giving yourself more time to start the storytelling process early without pressuring an individual to meet fast deadlines and to perhaps tell one longer story than trying to capture many stories quickly.

Tip 2: Find a comfortable location

Ask the person you are interviewing where they would like to meet or if they have a favorite place to go, my colleague Rachel advises. Meeting at a coffee shop or restaurant can be a neutral place and allows for bonding over a drink or food, but make sure the person you are interviewing can easily get to the location and explain up front that you’ll cover food and drinks. You can also offer the option of meeting at their home, work, or another personal place if they feel more comfortable, but never invite yourself over.

Tip 3: Openly communicate often

Be clear up front what you are asking the individual for, the time it might take them, your purpose in using their story, and where the story will appear, with the chance for them to ask questions or voice concerns. Let them know your timeline for publishing the story and give them an update before you publish, so they can prepare for any attention they might receive. If possible, follow up whenever you use their photo or story for other purposes.

Tip 4: Make the story about your goal and theirs

I try to ask whomever I’m interviewing: What would you like people to know? Or, what do you hope to accomplish in sharing your story? This gives them an opportunity to share the message they most want to get across to anyone reading their story. It can also lead to an opportunity to offer them other avenues to share their story in a way that continues to meet their goals.

Tip 5: They are the hero, not your organization

In writing a story, I try to keep in mind that the individual being featured is the hero of their own story and that the program or organization they worked with supported them along the way. The individual featured is the one with strength, courage, and hope, and a program or service simply provided an opportunity they seized. I try not to change or omit details that don’t neatly fit how I want the story to go, being aware of how my own biases can cause me to not fully represent the realities, complexities and nuances of someone else's situation. This also means potentially giving more space or time to tell the full story without summarizing or stereotyping.

Tip 6: Ask for feedback

I try to build in time for the individual featured to review their story with the opportunity to make changes to ensure that the story represents what they want shared. Upon request, I have generalized details, and in one case, I changed a story from third person to first person to give authorship to the individual. I’ve often offered the opportunity to meet again to talk through the story.

The exception to this tip is if you are writing a journalism piece, in which case you can call to check facts, but cannot share the full story for editing.

Tip 7: Provide compensation

Each time I meet with someone to share their lived experience, I try to bring an honorarium that reflects the value of their time. Usually this is in the form of a gift card to a location they can easily access. Again, an exception is if you are writing a journalism piece.

Other opportunities for storytelling

If you are seeking several stories for social media or other purposes, set up a system that allows people to share as they would like through a form, a drop-in meeting time, or by creating a culture in which your coworkers are listening for and offering stories. Be clear up front with those who will be featured how their stories will be used and do not use their stories without their clear written permission. If you can, circle back with the individual who shared their story to let them know when and how it will be used. Never push someone to share their story if they do not want it shared.

I am also increasingly thinking about how to tell broader stories of a place or of several individuals, with an emphasis on solutions. Topos Partnership especially provides great insight on how personal stories can do more harm in engaging decision makers and the community in an issue by not giving full dimension to an entire issue and the systemic factors that affect an individual's situation. When telling a story, consider digging deeper into research or understanding where systems created barriers or opportunities and how policy interventions can play a role.

Here are a few resources I’ve recently found that can help you in establishing your storytelling practices:

What other practices should we think about in how we tell stories in our work?

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