We’ve talked before about why we care about ethical storytelling and why it matters. Through ethical storytelling, we can share stories about the people impacted by an organization’s work or affected by an important issue—and we can share those stories with authenticity and sensitivity.
In this post, we’ll cover five practical ways you can start practicing ethical storytelling. Here’s what we’ve learned from our experience and how we approach it.
- Share where the story will be used and how
- Be transparent
- Check in with your storyteller
- Be sensitive
- Share a draft with your storyteller
#1. Share where the story will be used and how
When we begin working with a storyteller, here’s one of the first things we do. We talk to them about where the story will be used and how. The format (pitch letter, media interview, feature story, etc.), the purpose, the intended audience, the types of outcomes and effects they should consider.
And if we get their agreement, we still keep them in the loop every step of the way. If a reporter is interested in running their story, for example, we let the storyteller know as much information as possible. The story belongs to the storyteller—and we respect their ownership.
#2. Be transparent
It can be tempting to draw straight lines between cause and effect when you’re telling a story. Because your organization took up this effort, this person was able to achieve this outcome.
But people are complex—and so are their stories. When we help storytellers share their experiences, we need to tell the truth. We need to be authentic. That usually means that whatever the organization’s efforts were, that’s only a piece of the puzzle. We don’t embellish details or data to cram the story neatly into the organization’s mission.
We get the storyteller’s perspective and share their truth.
#3. Check in with your storyteller
If you’ve worked with us before, you’ve probably heard about storybanks. Storybanks are one of our core practices: collecting success stories and identifying where and how each would be used so that they’re ready to go.
But here’s the other side of that. Stories about real people aren’t necessarily evergreen content that you can hold on to forever.
Our senior content creator, Liza Sacilioc, shared that—no matter if it’s six months down the road or a year or more—she goes back to the storyteller. She checks in and says, “We have this opportunity to share your story again. Is that okay with you? Is this still how you’re feeling about the things that you shared with me last time?” This is important because sometimes people’s circumstances or feelings about their past have changed—and because they should be in control over their story.
#4. Be sensitive
It’s our responsibility, as experienced professionals in the field, to be sensitive and push for better practices with our partners, through education, through our approach, set an example. This is about keeping sensitivity and empathy in practice throughout the entire process and with all involved in getting the story out there.
For example, when a corporation partners with a nonprofit partner, the corporation may be excited to share about what they’re doing. But we push back, through suggestions. If the corporation wants to include a photo, for example, we go back to the storyteller or to the nonprofit and ask for them to provide a photo they’re comfortable sharing, rather than the corporation just choosing on their own. Being sensitive to the subject’s needs and feelings is key to practicing ethical storytelling.
#5. Share a draft with your storyteller
After we’ve helped get their story down, and before we publish anything, we share a draft with our storyteller.
This gives them the opportunity to review and edit the story if needed. Sometimes, when we say something, we don’t realize how it might come across until we see it in writing. Allowing the storyteller to review the draft gives them more control over their story and shows that we respect their ownership.
By following these guidelines, you can start practicing ethical storytelling too. Remember to keep your storyteller in the loop, be transparent, check in with them, be sensitive, and share a draft with them. Every decision you make is an opportunity to engage ethically with the storytellers you cover and your subject matter. This is how we do it, and we’re always on the lookout for ways we can improve our approach.
And we know that our partners appreciate our expertise on this. “Our process is the same with all organizations,” Liza explained. “We ask them to find people that have good stories to share, and when we speak to them, we tell them: This is your story and we want to share it for these purposes. Which ones are you comfortable with: appeal letter, newsletter, social media? They can check the boxes of what they feel comfortable with, what they don’t feel comfortable with, and let the client know that. When we write it for them, we run it by them to make sure that everything is there and we have agreement before it gets published. I think they appreciate that we have a process for it.”