Human beings are wired for storytelling—it’s how we connect our experiences to one another and increase our understanding of shared values and diverse perspectives. For this reason, storytelling is one of the most powerful communications tools for mission-driven organizations seeking support for their cause.
But while storytelling can often be seen as a means to motivate people towards a common goal, stories are more than just a tactic; they are a window into someone’s real-life experience. And with that comes a responsibility to approach storytelling in a respectful and ethical way.
Cause Communications’ Founder, Chris Hershey, teamed up with Michael Kass, an award-winning storyteller, coach, and facilitator, to explore the ethics of storytelling and get his insights on the subject.
Chris Hershey (RCH): What drew you to ethical storytelling? How would you define this topic?
Michael Kass (MK): Years ago, as I was working with individuals, as well as organizations, to help them reconnect with, shape, and tell their story, I realized there was a kind of meta-narrative emerging. The way these stories were being told, and the structures they were using, were actually contributing to some of the various systemic challenges that these individuals and organizations wanted to shift.
The definition of ethical storytelling has shifted since I started. At first, it started as a set of tools and practices to help people honor the storytellers within their organizations at every level. Now, what it’s evolving into, is really a way of being, and a culture, that has some tools associated with it.
At a base level, if you’re embracing ethical storytelling, what you’re really doing is embracing a deeply inclusive way of being within your organization that honors not just the words and the stories, but the soul of your storytellers, the people you’re speaking to, and of a kind of spirit of change that wants to be born.
RCH: I just love that because the authenticity rings so true. And I’ve seen these dangers of traditional storytelling firsthand. At one organization the staff even called it “pimping our kids,” because the youth were brought up as examples of something that needed to be rescued, when nothing could’ve been further from the truth.
Can you give some examples of a story where you were able to help shift the narrative?
MK: Yes, but first I’d like to tell you about a time when I had a “learning opportunity”—that’s the charitable way of saying I screwed up.
I was working at a nonprofit that helps people experiencing homelessness. I met a young man who had been through services there and he was fairly stable. We were doing an event, so I lobbied hard to bring his voice into the experience, and said, “Look, I’ll coach him. It’ll be so beautiful to have a young person who’s experienced homelessness in the room, sharing his story openly, and feeling supported.” Everyone agreed and the coaching process went great.
What I did not take into account was that working with someone in an environment where they felt safe could not be more different than putting them then in a room with 150 fairly wealthy people, all of whom were looking at him like he was some sort of either a messiah, or a zoo animal, or some combination of the two.
RCH: He must’ve felt completely unsafe in that environment.
MK: Exactly. He basically said none of the things that we had worked on, and ended up setting his own progress back, because his experience at that event was fairly traumatic. That was a huge lesson for me. Even though I had the best intentions, I totally screwed up. So, it’s not like we’re always going to get this right. Or that doing it “right” one time means we’ve got it figured out. The question we should be asking is, “How can we engage in an ongoing process?”
In terms of successes, one of the largest shifts I’ve seen was within an organization that essentially adopted storytelling as a cultural norm. They now start every staff meeting with two staff members telling stories that they’ve had time to workshop with other staff members. That has shifted the way the staff interacts. Eventually, the board caught wind of this, and now the board also starts with these stories.
RCH: That’s so powerful.
MK: Yes, and the impact of it has gone beyond just changing the relationships the staff has with each other and with their clients. By really listening deeply to the stories, they’ve actually been able to identify strategic opportunities. It has shifted their programming in a way that benefits not just the organization, but their entire ecosystem.
RCH: Now that’s fantastic! I’ve seen some of that as well, and as you know, I’m a believer.
If others out there are interested in making a commitment to more ethical storytelling practices, what tips can you offer? How can organizations begin to shift their mindset and their approach?
MK: For me, the key is that people get to own their stories. And so, for anything that’s going out, organizations need to ask, “Does this accurately reflect what you would like to share with the world?” “How long would you like to share it for?” Especially if it’s a video, “When should we check in with you to see if you’re still comfortable with this?”
The idea is that, story moves from being a tool and a communication tactic, to something organic, living, dynamic, and intrinsic, really linked to somebody who’s valued as a human being.
The more we respect their story, the more we’re honoring the value that they bring, simply by virtue of being who they are. That’s the big shift.
The way we can give people ownership over their story has to do with the questions we ask to elicit those stories. And it has to do with really making sure that our storytellers—whether they’re clients, board members, or staff members—feel like full partners.
Michael Kass is a coach, writer, speaker, and award-winning storyteller with over 18 years of experience helping organizations and individuals use story for impact. For more of his work, upcoming workshops, and recent book, visit www.storyandspirit.org.
For more information about ethical storytelling, check out the issue brief Michael developed in collaboration with the Hollywood Homeless Youth Partnership.