We crave a good story. One that has people at the center of it—people we can relate to, we can root for.
But when we tell stories about the impact that organizations have, we’re telling stories about real people who have faced adversity, difficult circumstances, hardship.
This calls for authenticity and sensitivity. So no matter what final form the story takes, we practice what’s called ethical storytelling.
What is ethical storytelling?
Ethical storytelling is telling and sharing stories that:
- Come from the storyteller’s perspective. This is their story to tell, not ours. So we collaborate to make sure that their voice comes through, that the details are about their experience.
- Respect the storyteller and subject matter. What may be a “success story” for an organization could include a negative experience for the storyteller. How the story is told and where it’s told needs to be sensitive to that.
- Express the truth. In the past, it was common for some organizations to angle stories in their favor. They embellished details that made them look good—and hid details that didn’t. We should instead allow stories to be complex, not oversimplified.
- Recognize the storyteller’s ownership. If they don’t want to share their story (or change their mind about sharing it) we need to accept that.
We spoke to our Senior Content Creator, Liza Sacilioc, who shared a great way to preserve the storyteller’s ownership and express the truth. She explains, “I always go back to the person—even if it’s six months down the road, a year, however long—and say, ‘We have this opportunity and we’d like to share your story again. Are you okay with that? Is this all still true? Is this still how you’re feeling?’”
(Thinking of all this makes us want to call it “authentic storytelling.” Because that’s what it all keeps coming back to… being authentic to the storyteller and the truth.)
Why does ethical storytelling matter?
Ethical storytelling matters because we’re sharing stories of real people.
As we said up top, we love stories. They’re an invaluable way that organizations communicate why their work is important. Storytelling lets organizations raise awareness about their causes. It lets them gain resources to pursue their missions.
Their missions often are to help people who have faced difficult circumstances, who have faced trauma. We need to be sensitive to that when sharing those stories. We need to have respect for the storytellers. We don’t want to stereotype or pigeonhole people. Their stories are about their lives, and putting those stories out there takes courage.
And it goes beyond communicating about the organization. One of the other reasons ethical storytelling is powerful is because it can impact people too. Norma Kelly, our Senior Media Strategist, shares that “The positive results can be amazing. If someone reads a paper or sees a television interview with someone who struggled with addiction and is on the other side of that now, they may say, ‘That’s me. I need help.’ And that can influence them to make a call to get help, to seek assistance.”
It’s not just for nonprofit organizations, either. Ethical storytelling should matter to anyone who tells stories about real people.
How do we practice ethical storytelling?
Our process is the same with all our partners (so our partners who are reading now will recognize this!).
When collaborating with a storyteller, we reinforce their ownership. So however we want to share their story as part of our strategy, it’s up to them to let us know what they’re comfortable with. Maybe they’re comfortable with an appeal letter, for example, but not a TV interview. We always honor that.
Once we write that story, we give the storyteller the draft. That way, they have the opportunity to make sure they’re okay with the way it’s written and what details are included. We incorporate their feedback before it gets shared anywhere.
And here’s another thing we do. As Liza said earlier, we always check back in when we want to share a story again. The storyteller’s perspective, situation, or willingness to share their story may have changed, so this is a key part of being authentic.
Our partners appreciate the care we put into this process, and that we have for the people and communities they work with.
In the past, organizations didn’t always understand the need for ethical storytelling. But things are improving, and our hope is that this becomes standard practice for all communicators.
Keep up this practice in your work, as we do in ours. Tell stories with sensitivity, authenticity, and respect for the people and communities participating.
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