Barefoot Starter Kit: 10 Best Practices for Ethical Storytelling

As nonprofit storytellers, we believe in the power of people to change the world for the better. We work hard to incorporate ethical storytelling into our work with clients. For us this means we consider the impact stories have on both the storyteller and the audience we share it with. It also means being intentional about honoring a person’s right to decide when and how their story is shared.

We’ve identified the following ten best practices for ethical storytelling. 

  1. Get to know storytellers before you ask them to share their story. Stories about our lived experience are by nature deeply personal. Before asking someone to tell you their story, spend time getting to know them. Consider connecting with program staff who know them well to understand their history and relationship with your organization. Look them up on social media or the internet. You may find interesting life details on LinkedIn, a company website or another social platform. When you reach out, schedule a time and place that is comfortable for them. Ask if they prefer zoom, phone or in person. If in person, be sure to be sensitive to select a location where they feel most respected – don’t just assume a coffee shop nearby will feel safe.
  2. Prepare storytellers for the experience. It is up to you to prepare your storyteller for what they might experience as a result of sharing their story. Be upfront – tell them that while you expect they will receive lots of positive feedback, there is a chance there will be negative comments too. Explain how you plan to use the story – frequency, platform, call to action and your hope for the overall outcome. Then, explain the support you can provide them through the process. You may consider offering to review and approve comments on social platforms before making them public, handling requests from the audience for connection, or even support from social worker or mental health professional. You may also consider sharing a note about how you have prepared your storyteller with the audience for the story. This could include linking to an ethical storytelling policy on your website or sharing a note that you will continue to provide support.
  3. Provide choice on platform and presentation. As communicators it is easy to succumb to the pressures of delivering on the tactic in front of us. However, providing a choice on the platform and presentation of a person’s story is one of the most important ways we can respect storytellers. Think in advance about what you can offer. Blogs, social posts, video, still photography, and live storytelling at an event may all be possible. Once you’ve made the decision together, respect their choices by keeping track of them in a way that is accessible to your current and future staff.
  4. Respect a storyteller’s limits. We all have limits and preferences that help us feel safe, respected and like we are presenting our best selves. When working with a storyteller, get to know what theirs are. Some tellers may want to avoid sharing a full name or be photographed to protect their identity. Others may feel empowered by writing and sharing their story in their natural words and language while another individual will prefer you distill their words and give them copy for editing and approval. Be flexible in your thinking and focus on what will be best for each individual not for your editorial calendar.
  5. Curate the experience. Once an individual has agreed to share their story with your audience, prepare them for the experience with the same level of support you would provide your CEO or Executive Director. Explain the audience and the logistics in detail. For in-person events, consider providing someone to greet them, help them navigate the room and handle post-event attention. Always give them final editing and approval authority before a post, video or picture goes live. 
  6. Provide professional training. Most storytellers don’t write, speak or appear on camera for a living. Speaker coaching, media training, support with hair and makeup and other professional services can help a teller feel more confident throughout the process. Remember to offer this as a standard service to all individuals who agree to share their stories with your audience.
  7. Report back on impact. One often forgotten task is following up with storytellers to share back the impact they had. While a thank you is standard practice, we encourage adding this extra step to add depth and importance to the relationship. Share if you heard someone was moved to take action or if an especially large donation was made. Send a personal message that includes an update on how your campaign performed, what you learned from the process and what comes next. Don’t forget to ask the storyteller for feedback on the experience and any suggestions they might have to improve the process for future storytellers.
  8. Continue the relationship. You have invested time and resources into building a relationship with a storyteller and they have done the same with you. Keep the good vibes going by asking them to participate on a committee, attending future events, or serving on your board. 
  9. Ensure representation. One of the most important elements of moving from story selling to ethical storytelling is to ensure there is representation from the communities they represent in your staff, board and other decision-making positions. This goes beyond storytelling and reflects your organization’s authentic commitment to EDI practices.
  10. Consider compensation. To honor the value of an individuals’ lived experience, consider compensation. While budgets may be tight and capacity limited, there is always a way to do this in a responsible way. Some organizations offer a stipend while others will offer an hourly rate. If a storyteller chooses to forgo compensation, you may offer a donation in their honor or a gift card for dinner that allows them to take their loved ones out to celebrate their impact. In addition, always offer them the rights to photos and video – no strings attached. Work this into your contract with vendors to make the experience seamless.

While many of these practices may seem intuitive, others require attention. We encourage you to adopt these practices for your organization and consider creating an ethical storytelling policy that outlines how you work with storytellers to share their stories.

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