In our roles as non-profit storytellers, we often need others to tell us their stories so that we have material to work with. We need to collect and share individual stories that highlight our organization’s impact and show the difference we’re making in the world. Collecting stories is a multi-step process as I’ve documented in this article here. Arguably one of the most important steps in collecting individual stories is interviewing someone about their story.
Story interviews can bring up all kinds of memories and emotions. As non-profit professionals, we are not therapists or medical professionals. Yet, in this context we are holding space for people to share some truly special or important moments in their lives. In this article I want to talk about how you can hold space for and support someone in the process of sharing their individual stories.
Why Supporting People Sharing Individual Stories is Necessary
Do we always have the best perspective to support people through their storytelling process?
This question came to mind after teaching two recent workshops where I walked people through a couple of activities that help them tell their own story. At first, it can feel unnerving and like I’ve thrown them into the deep end. But there’s a method to my madness.
The reason I want you to experience the process of telling your story is because it gives you a better perspective and empathy for what it’s like to tell a story.
In our role as fundraisers or communications professionals, we often think it's no big deal for people to tell us their stories. This assumption is commonly made if the story is not seen as traumatic. If someone did not experience loss, immense grief, depression, and so on, then the story surely must be easy to tell.
This is an assumption that will hold you back in your storytelling work. All stories can be challenging to share because it is vulnerable to tell any story.
A Personal Story about Storytelling
At a conference a few years ago, I gave a talk about personal storytelling. Naturally, I had to lead by example in my talk and share a few of my own stories. I started my talk with a story about how I used to hate it when people would ask me the question, "So what's your story?"
Here's what I said during the first minute of my talk:
I used to hate it when people would say to me, “So what’s your story?”
I think many of them assumed that since I own a consulting business that solely focuses on storytelling, that surely I must have a good story to tell about myself. I’m sure a few also thought that they were being very clever when they asked me that question.
I tell other people’s stories for a living. I have worked with dozens of non-profits and interviewed hundreds of people over the last few years, all with the goal of helping them tell their stories. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, I love the work. But I allow myself and all of my stories to fade into the background behind this work that I do.
What’s interesting to me is that I knew I was doing this. It’s not like I hadn’t considered what my stories are. I had a good sense of some of the details I might want to tell people. But as I inched closer to them, I started to feel deeply uncomfortable. I was getting up close with the messy details of my life and let’s be honest, that’s not always the easiest work.
I remember that when I wrote this in the draft of my speaking notes, I started having all these doubts about whether or not I should share this with people. Should I openly admit to a time when I didn't like it when people would ask me about my story? I thought that if I shared this and people misinterpreted what I said, they would think less of me and the work that I do. That somehow I would be seen as an imposter. "Who is this woman who does storytelling work, but doesn't like to tell her own stories?" I imagined a rioting group of attendees saying things like that to me. 'm happy to report that that did not happen. Everyone was very nice.
As you can see, I was nervous about sharing this story about myself. And in the scheme of all the stories I could tell, this one would have been perceived as being not that difficult to tell. Yet, it still was. This experience reminded me that no matter what story we are trying to tell or where we are telling it, storytelling is a vulnerable act. It's important to recognize the vulnerability because we will be able to be better listeners and guides the next time someone tells us their story.
Being a Better Guide When Someone Tells a Story
Understanding just how vulnerable the process of storytelling can be will make you a better guide when you are helping other people tell their stories. When we ask someone to share their story, it can be an extraordinary ask. But with the right support, it can also be a wonderful experience.
When you have intentionally experienced storytelling for yourself, you are in the best position to support others. At the workshops I taught in February, I had a few people say that they understood how to be better listeners and better question askers. They also felt they could empathize better with the storytellers. Such good news!
The added benefit of experiencing the storytelling process for yourself is that you get to connect to your own story. Time and time again, I’ve seen people have wonderful realizations and “ah ha” moments by simply engaging in a reflection process.
I know from my own experience, doing the work to develop my personal stories has helped me become even more thoughtful and mindful of the storytelling experience for others. In turn, that has led me to better support others in telling their beautiful stories.
Here are a few of my tips for supporting people when they share their individual stories.
- Set the tone at the beginning of the interview by letting them know that you’re going to ask them questions, but they can choose to not answer questions that make them uncomfortable or feel too vulnerable. To me, doing this is about ensuring that someone knows they have power over how the experience goes.
- Make eye contact and be present. I know it’s very easy to get caught up taking all the notes during an interview. But giving people the gift of your presence will create a safer space for them. This is one of the reasons why I opt-to record interviews when I can so I can just focus on the conversation.
- If there are evident emotions, show that you see them and respond to them with empathy. I’ve done interviews before that have brought up tears and others that have sparked joy. No matter what emotions surface, I want to acknowledge them and give a few moments for processing.
- Let the storyteller know that they are part of the approval process. I always want people to feel like their story is truthfully and authentically represented by the non-profit. That’s why I ensure that the storytelling is part of the approval process.
Three prompts to help you experience storytelling
Before I give you the three prompts, I want to preface them by saying that sometimes unexpected emotions and memories can surface when you tell a story. Sometimes what surfaces may even be triggering. If that happens, be gentle with yourself and take a break. Do something that feels soothing and nourishing that will help you through the emotions you are experiencing.
Here are the prompts:
- A moment you'll never forget - Throughout the course of our lives there are moments that stick with us and feel like they could have happened just seconds ago. These moments - good and bad - leave a lasting imprint on you. Pick one of the moments that you remember and tell the story of that moment to someone.
- A time you were proud of yourself - It can be really hard to own feeling proud of ourselves but telling the story of one of those times can help you take ownership of the feeling. Identify one of those times in your life and tell that story to someone.
- One of the challenges you've been through -Think about one of the challenges you have faced in life and tell the story about that challenge. (Note: this prompt was adapted from the work of Public Narrative.)
I hope these three prompts help you experience storytelling in a new way. After you have finished sharing the story, find some time to reflect on the experience. What emotions came up? What did it feel like? Was it different from what you expected? Use these answers and more to cultivate deeper compassion the next time you have the opportunity to listen to someone's story.