3 Ways to Center Your Storytellers

I’ve written a lot about how utilizing empathy requires that we not project our own perceptions, assumptions, and desires on to others.

While the general public seems to think “empathy” means feeling exactly what another person feels; we often don’t know how another person feels because we are actually  just projecting what we would feel in another person’s situation.

This problem gets compounded when we, as story gatherers and curators for our nonprofit organizations, project assumptions onto our clients – the storytellers and onto our audiences.

In this work it is important that we decenter ourselves, that we maintain awareness of our own viewpoints, perspectives, biases, and assumptions and that we actively create space for that of the storyteller and the audience.

In the nonprofit sector, we have a representation problem. Many organizations have fundraising and marketing staff who have never experienced hunger, housing instability, displacement, or war, yet they are telling stories about people who have.

So, for those writers whose lived experience differs from those in their stories:

Do not ask, “How would I feel if it was my story…” The golden rule doesn’t serve you well because you are not the barometer for treatment. When our lived experiences are not so similar, we can’t assume that “how I would feel” is a good indication of how someone else would feel.

Instead ask, “How would I feel telling this story if the person it is about was sitting next to me?” Or, because you don’t know them well enough to assume (any assumption would likely be a projection of how you would feel), ask, “How would they feel being in this story?” 

But even if you do come from a similar lived experience – even if your organization was founded by and is staffed by people who share in some of those identities and experiences—your challenge here is still not to assume or project.

Does your worldview really represent everyone with a similar experience? It doesn’t. The time is different. The contexts are different. The individuals are different.

Our sector absolutely needs at the helm more people with lived experiences that match those of the people they serve, but no group is a monolith, and no one person represents all stakeholders.

For more thoughts on this, see my article on analyzing our own subjectivity (“You’re the Microphone—3 Ways to Not Be a Faulty One.”

Here are three concrete ways to center your storytellers:

#1) Get feedback from your story contributors.

Collecting feedback is one of the best ways you can be sure to treat others the way they want to be treated. But if they’re too afraid of offending you or if they feel they can’t trust you for some reason, even if you ask for feedback, you likely won’t really learn how they want to be treated. See my article on feedback for a deeper exploration of this.  

#2) Ask what the storyteller wants people to know, hear, see, and read.

Often, we ask the story contributor to focus on their own personal experience. But each person has an awareness of how they fit into the world and how they are perceived by others. Each person has hopes and dreams for what they would like to see change about the world, not just their personal circumstance. Broadening the scope of your interview allows the storyteller to go deeper with their message and affords them the same opportunity to decenter themselves when speaking for others that you seek for yourself.

Next time you are interviewing, ask questions like these (with changes, of course, for the specific situation):

  • What do you want people to know about you?
  • What do you want them to understand about people in your situation?
  • What do you want to see change in the world/in our society?

#3) Search for gaps in your audience’s understanding.

In major gifts, you are used to asking donors what they would like to learn more about. In marketing, you might do a survey or track engagement on posts to see what is resonating with people. Whatever your specific tactic and goal, the point here is that you do not want just to identify their interests but to identify gaps in their knowledge that they themselves may not be aware of.

If I’m talking to a donor one-on-one, I may say, “If someone asked you why this problem [that our organization was created to address] exists, what would you say?” Or: “What do you think is the greatest barrier preventing people from finding/accessing [the solution]?” From those questions, I can learn a lot about what a donor does and doesn’t know, and we can have a deeper conversation about reality of our work.

            Remember, the burden of your donors’ education is not on your storyteller—it’s on your organization. By identifying gaps in your audience’s understanding, you can work content into your communications that deepens their learning and contextualizes the complexity you are working in and you are asking them to participate in.