Stories let us put a face on issues, causes, and data, humanizing details so that our audiences can feel a connection and understand complex information. And the most compelling stories are those of individuals who have faced challenges and emerged stronger.
If you’re like us and you communicate for organizations that make a positive impact, then you already know that stories are so important. Finding someone who’s comfortable sharing their story publicly, though, isn’t always possible.
This came up for us recently, actually. We wanted to find a story that would highlight the importance of a nonprofit partner’s work. But with the difficult topic the project focused on, we couldn’t find a storyteller.
So, how do we harness the power of stories when we can’t find a storyteller?
Why you might not have a storyteller
To figure out how to move forward in situations like this, it’s important to understand why you might not be able to find a storyteller.
Let’s think about it for a minute. When any of us shares a personal anecdote about a challenging time in our lives, it takes emotional work. We’re not always willing to talk about it, or maybe we only want to share it with a certain person.
And that’s also why you’re not always able to find a storyteller. The people you ask may want anonymity or be worried about others’ responses. A previous storyteller could change their mind when you reach out to them about sharing their story again. An organization could even be protecting the people they’ve served.
Whatever the reason, as communicators, we respect the individual’s decision, their privacy, and their ownership of their story.
But if you know the story you want to communicate is important, how do you move forward?
1. Share a story about the community or group at large.
Here’s one way. You can focus on telling stories about the collective experiences of the community or group. This way, you can share general information about the impact of your organization’s work—without divulging personal details.
Look for a leader within the community or an affiliated organization who can speak about the impact they’ve observed, any changes they’ve seen, and what challenges and unmet needs they perceive.
And, of course, share both the positives and the negatives without embellishing the details—that’s how you make sure you’re telling stories authentically.
2. Share a story of a volunteer or employee who can provide a personal perspective.
Volunteers and employees often have a deep understanding of the impact of an organization’s work. And they’re another source of stories.
If they’re willing to be a storyteller, they can speak to the personal reasons why they’re passionate about the cause. They can weave their personal experience contributing to the organization with details of specific initiatives.
More than that though, volunteers and employees can provide a voice that goes beyond the perspective of leadership, helping round out your storybank.
3. Leverage media relationships to find storytellers.
Reporters have relationships with people in the community. Sometimes, even if we can’t connect with an individual willing to share their story, a reporter can.
Building relationships with reporters who work in your community or write about your topic can be instrumental in finding suitable storytellers.
That situation we talked about before, when we couldn’t find a storyteller? Well, we were able to rely on a reporter we’d already built a relationship with who identified a storyteller. And the reporter benefited from the key details about the organization and topic at hand that we provided.
It’s important to recognize that there isn’t a definitive, “one-size-fits-all” approach to how to tell sensitive stories when you can’t find a storyteller—but it’s something that we’re thinking about.
Stories can be a powerful tool for change. How can we authentically share stories that reflect what real individuals and communities are going through and ethically use those stories to affect change?
It’s a responsibility we all share when we work with storytellers, and by approaching this topic thoughtfully, we can ensure that the stories we tell connect with our audience while honoring the ownership and dignity of those involved.