This one is for you, storytellers.
I was thrilled to co-present a session last week at the IOF National Convention on storytelling alongside the brilliant Mathew Sherrington and Lucy Gower. Since then, I've heard from so many of you saying "I feel the same way!" and I'm glad it really resonated.
Right then, let's recap and allow our brains to fizz on this a little more...
My piece was about ‘keeping it real’ - yep I know, I eye-rolled myself over this cliché, however, let me say that I mean it in every literal sense of the phrase. ;)
I’ve spent much of my charity/humanitarian ‘career’ life in international development as a story hunter...and then I left the sector. Now I work at the intersection of business and charity. Another post for another time!
When I was a fundraiser though I was very fortunate to be the person who got sent to remote and fascinating parts of the world…places you may not necessarily have chosen to go. Places you don’t search for on Skyscanner. No wi-fi here, folks. No choice but to switch off and get the heck back to reality.
Now, in some of these remote places you will find some of the best storytellers in the world. When there’s no light or power, nothing but candelight to make out the faces huddled together in tiny rooms, quite often all you have left to do is tell stories. We’ve been at this for centuries. Even with no common language, when you really try you can always find a way to connect. It’s often where the magic unfolds. Stories will unravel in the tonality, expressions, hand gestures, characterful faces and from the delightful way in which people sing their language.
I’ve discovered that many of the people we tell stories about – we often call them ‘beneficiaries’ – are just like us. They are passionate advocates of truth and justice; they love a bit banter. They laugh and jest. They debate politics, economics, education and the like. They are communicators, marketers, fundraisers and seekers of better ways to do things. They are building schools with bare hands long before we’ve reached them. Sure, they may live in different environments, be differently-abled, possess a different level of education, or none at all, but I’ve seen them do it.
Or perhaps it's what I choose to see.
I’ve marvelled at the basic nature of the campaign messaging I was prepped to write, versus the way that communities I’ve spent time with articulate what’s going on in their world. I haven’t always understood the language but sometimes I didn’t need to, I could feel it. They intellectualise, make sense of the world and they get on with it.
What is the realness in the stories we tell? What have I learnt?
Listen. Like...really, really listen. Get to know the characters and personalities of people you write about, as much as you unobtrusively can. Show your listeners and readers who people really are, so that they too can connect to your story subjects in a human way. Heads-up: It might mean side-stepping your own conventional writing formulae.
Dignity, respect and authenticity. You've heard this all before, so at the risk of sounding like I'm on a video call with patchy wi-fi I'll say it anyway: Authenticity is everything. In some cases, the truth you uncover will be uncomfortably raw. But we need that....especially since we all have a little section in the back of our minds where we can get a bit... judgy. Here, in this place of dignity, I believe we have to allow stories to breathe because it's also where the thrilling, crunchy, powerful conversations take root. Plus, you get to find out what makes your beneficiaries tick! Sure, it's about problem-solving, impact and so on...but I also like to see the fire in people's eyes, their crazy ideas, mad inventions and how they see change happening in the world.
Find out things that stray from the norm, in other words, I want to hear things I don’t know. When you hear the words ‘capacity building’ repeated back to you, wonder and question ‘Is that the language they’d actually use if I wasn’t here?’
Find out what happened after you left – did we simply cut the story short because we got what we wanted? Stories are not disposable. Beneficiaries are not disposable.
Listen to other voices, not necessarily those whose story you’ve gone to capture…because the story might not actually be about them.
For so long we've been talking about how the landscape of fundraising is changing. I don't know about you but I want to get deeeep. How does this change our narratives?
What surprises you? What’s that niggling thing you can’t stop thinking about…the facts that don't quite add up?
What’s the story that gives you goosebumps when you tell it? We all have one. Who is the person you’ve written about that makes you feel alive? Who validates your mission and your purpose in life as a change-maker?
Who is that?
Your stories should make you and those you write about, proud. Stories will always be subjective but tastefully done I believe we can keep the power where it always should be – with your beneficiaries.
We are amongst the communicators and message-makers in the world who can actually influence and shape the way people think. The story we hold in our hands …it’s a gift.
So let’s do more justice to the way we tell them...because we don’t write in a vacuum. We write for meaning, purpose and connection.
Keep it real.
p.s. I have stories and insights like this for days, y’all. Always happy to discuss changing the script with you.