Alternative facts, fake news…
These terms have been thrown around a lot lately.
And while there may be surprisingly few repercussions for politicians and pundits when using “alternative facts,” the reality for nonprofits is quite different.
Honesty and transparency are the bedrock on which we build the trust essential to earn the public funding and private donations that will allow us to achieve our mission.
Obviously, we need to strive to be honest and truthful in all of our communications, including the stories we tell.
However, nonprofits have an unfortunate tendency to let the requirement of truth interfere with telling a good story.
I know you might think I’m treading on thin ice here, but hear me out.
Nonprofits often let the need to tell the truth hinder their storytelling.
We think that because we have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth that we have to stick with provable, documented facts.
This often results in nonprofit stories that are really just reports on something that happened.
A report is not the same thing as telling a story.
Stories will do far more for your nonprofit than reports. Stories will move people to take action.
Reports often do the exact opposite. They bore people and can become so dull that people never achieve an emotional state that is conducive to taking action.
Let’s look at a few storytelling devices that nonprofits often ignore in their aim to report facts and then discuss how nonprofits can use “alternative facts,” um, I mean these “devices” honestly in their stories.
One of the most important elements of storytelling is the use of dialogue. This is a powerful way to reveal key elements of your story.
Dialogue can help your audience get into the scene and into the minds of the characters.
But the use of dialogue in nonprofit stories is extremely rare.
Why? Because nonprofits have a tendency to think that if the conversation itself wasn’t recorded then we can’t use dialogue because it can’t be verified with documented proof.
This is exactly what I mean when I say nonprofits often let documented, provable facts interfere with good storytelling.
So how do you accurately capture dialogue and then include it truthfully in your stories?
This is one of those things where you just have to do your homework. You need to ask the people in your story about the dialogue that took place.
If you don’t ask the people in the story what was said then you can’t use dialogue in your stories. You can’t simply make it up down the road.
But if you do ask people what was said, then you can use their memory of the dialogue in your story.
Always ask the people in your stories the following questions…
“To the best you can remember, how did that conversation go? What did you say? How did they respond? Then what was said?”
If you ask these questions and accurately capture the response of the person you interview then you can use this dialogue in your story without hesitation.
Of course, you should get perspectives on the dialogue from the other participants in the conversation. After all, you want to verify the dialogue as best you can.
But as long as you are telling a story backed up by what your were told in an interview then you can use it in your telling of the story.
All you have to do is ask.
Protecting the innocent
I’m often asked,
“But, Jeremy, how can we tell stories of those we help if we need to protect their identity?”
I have a tremendous amount of respect for this question and the priority these organizations give the privacy and security of their beneficiaries over their need to tell powerful stories.
But, it doesn’t need to be a trade off. You can tell powerfully emotional stories about your beneficiaries without revealing their true identity.
You can change names, cities, locations, and any other potential identifiers in your story to protect the innocent (and the guilty, depending on your beneficiaries).
This does not make your story “false news.”
But it does allow you to tell more intimate stories of the vulnerable people you serve without putting them at risk.
Just be upfront with your audience any time you do this. Let them know when you have changed names or other details in order to protect your beneficiaries.
Here’s an example of language you can use:
“The privacy and security of our beneficiaries is extremely important to us. We have used this story with permission and some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.”
Your community of support will understand why you need to do this. Protect your beneficiaries but still tell their story…with their permission, of course.
Many nonprofits are surprised when I suggest that they create composite characters in their stories.
Composite characters are created by fusing two or more different people, and their experiences, into one character of your story.
This is most often done to protect the identify of beneficiaries, especially for nonprofits where their services are fixed in a single location, making personal details a bit more difficult to change or hide.
On the surface it may seem awfully close to fiction, but any nonprofit can do this honestly and ethically.
To do this right, keep in mind these three things:
- You must make sure that every incident, dialogue, and aspect of the story can honestly be tied to one of the people that makes up your composite character.
- The final story must represents what is commonly true for people in this situation. Meaning that by combining the various experiences of multiple people into one character you are not over-exaggerating the experience of your beneficiaries.
- You need to be upfront with your audience that you are using composite characters.
Approach the use of composite characters carefully.
You shouldn’t use composite characters in order to make a story more exciting or to make your hero look more sympathetic.
It should be limited to times when you need to be very careful about protecting the identity of the people in your story.
- Being honest and transparent is the bedrock on which we build trust and earn funding. Never put this trust at risk.
- A report is not the same as a story. Focus on telling stories. They will do more to move people to take action than a report.
- Always ask about dialogue when you interview for a story. You can use their memory of the dialogue in your stories.
- It is absolutely okay to change people’s names and the location of events in order to protect the identity of the real people in your story. Always disclose this information.
- It is absolutely okay to use composite characters in your stories as long as they adhere to what is true and you are upfront about your use of composite characters in the story.
Keep doing good work,