Storytelling is trendy right now, with for profit businesses and nonprofits alike. Everyone wants to be in the business of connecting with consumers and donors. This is accomplished by looking as real as possible. This is good news for writers and storytellers. We find ourselves in demand and have people approaching us for our expertise.
When I started writing, I only wrote fiction. I had no interest in telling real stories because I saw no value in them. This was mainly due to the fact that the thing of highest value to me at the time was wordplay. In journalism, there is little space for wordplay because everything is about facts. Also, I was really young when I made this declaration and did not yet understand the value of life, at least not as much as I do today.
Even so, to be where I am today, is quite a surprise. I occupy an interesting spot in this world being both a fiction and nonfiction writer. But I got to where I am because the people whose stories I’ve had the honor of sharing brought me to the other side and taught me the value of raw human experience — no matter whether that is a small moment or something big and unwieldy. All of these things add up to this beautiful thing called life.
As I’ve segued into the nonprofit world, I find that my skills as a storyteller are in high demand in all aspects of the business. From the beginning of the donor pipeline to the end, stories are the “it” factor.
Earlier this week, I met with the development director of a local nonprofit. I sit on this nonprofit’s Young Professional Board (YPB) and the director knows about my writing/storytelling background. She wanted to talk to me about storytelling and how to empower employees in other areas of the organization to collect stories from the people with whom they work/serve. She is planning to do a presentation to the staff and walk them through the process of gathering a story and teaching them about the important components.
But the question is, how do you get someone who is unaccustomed to thinking about stories or people as stories to get into that mindset? Additionally, it’s important to note that this is an organization that serves immigrants and that many of the employees of this organization are immigrants themselves.
I started thinking about the only immigrant story that I’ve had the privilege to write, the story of a Holocaust survivor who came to the U.S. as a teenager. Being in the interviewer role, I got to ask this amazing woman questions that would, under normal circumstances, likely be inappropriate or peculiar. But, given the fact that I was creating a video about her life and writing articles about her, I had the opportunity to probe a bit deeper. Through this woman’s story, I learned about the horrors of a concentration camp from the lips of someone who experienced it firsthand. I learned about her challenges assimilating and relating to other teens (once she and her family were freed and immigrated to the U.S.) given her time spent in a concentration camp. I learned about things lost and small moments in the chaos of the war and her imprisonment that led to significant memories.
So, I began to think about the situations that many of the employees could relate to: being an immigrant, learning about a new place and culture and more. What better way, then, to help them connect than to do a quick exercise and have them think about a small moment in their lives and how it is a story and help them flesh it out, simply for the sake of experience. Of course, very few of us like group activities during meetings. So, the director and I talked it out a bit more and we decided that she could share her own story and use it as an example for the people she is teaching. Then, she can highlight the sort of information that others can gather from their story subjects on behalf of the organization. Plus, it gives her the chance to be open and a little vulnerable by sharing a part of herself which gets at the raw give-and-take that happens when you are a story collector and teller. By learning something new about her, the team could possibly understand the importance of story collection from a new perspective. I’ll be curious to hear from her how the talk went!
Those of us who are storytellers are very privileged to be working in a time when companies and organizations understand the value of telling the real stories of their people, no matter whether those are employees, students or people who have benefited from a nonprofit’s services. At least, that’s how I feel. The human experience is rare and beautiful and it deserves to be documented, for by capturing that story, you do it honor by remembering it and celebrating what the person who lived that story brought to the world by choosing to open up and share their experience.