Social Impact Storytelling with Integrity

Can businesses talk about social issues without being exploitative?

Our clients impact lives. Some work on social housing, others on food security, and there's those who serve survivors of domestic abuse.

All serious issues. But how do we talk about it without appearing performative?

What ties these programs together is that their work is felt by people. So that's where I look for meaningful stories.

At its core, storytelling is about connection. We get to see through another's eyes, we feel their emotions, we share in their experiences. The people in these stories, regardless of their life's situation, begin to feel familiar to us.

For our partners, when we share in the lived experience of others, we connect more deeply to the organization's mission.

But, there's a caveat.

Inexperienced (or even disingenuous) storytelling can lead to "trauma porn"; to exploit the suffering of others to solicit a cheap emotional response that's inconsistent with the emotional truth of the story.

Brands get called out for this stuff all the time.

This is often the pushback I get when talking about impact storytelling. And, you know, the pusher-backers are not wrong.

One of the least understood, less deliberately orchestrated, and often overlooked components in digital marketing is the storyteller's intention.

"Telling" is half of the work in storytelling. Yet, in so much of today's fast-fashion of digital media, it's hardly understood.

If your intention is to solely evoke a negative emotion to guilt people into action, the audience will see through it.

Re-victimizing people who've lived through trauma; putting their scars on display; over-dramaticizing their lives as a one-dimensional experience of pure suffering; these types of stories come across as manipulative.

We are so much more than the sum of our suffering. Audiences know this intrinsically.

When the story is so focused on a single stream of exploitative exposition, the audience tunes out because they know that the storyteller is trying to manipulate their feelings.

Now, this isn't to say that suffering isn't real, or not worthy of our empathy; but a story solely focused on another's pain without thoughtful perspective is just cheap.  

So how do we tell these kinds of challenging stories without being extractive?

Well, the first thing I do is set the right intention.

I step into the situation with an understanding that we're here to share in someone else's lived experience.

Easier said than done.

Spend time with the people in your story. Get to learn their mannerisms and experience their relationships. Learn what makes them laugh, what makes them tick, how they see themselves in the world, what they dream of becoming. These are all components of a well-rounded human being.

Even those who are living through challenging times will exude a complex variety of emotions and aspirations which add up to their emotional truth.

By sharing your time and offering compassion, you get to figure out how to represent the experience with authenticity.

When you share these stories, even if they do contain challenging circumstances, it becomes clear that those experiences are just part of a larger tapestry of emotions that audiences can also connect with because they'll feel your intention as the storyteller to tell the story with dignity and respect.

This approach has led us to confidently represent the lived experiences of people who's lives are impacted by our client's mission.

So next time you set out to tell a story on behalf of someone who is experiencing a tough go. Stop and ask yourself: why am I doing this? Who is this for? Who is this person that I'm sharing this experience with?

Happy storytelling.

Written By
Inder Nirwan
Co-Owner & Filmmaker