7 Steps to Ethical Storytelling (G.R.E.A.T. Stories)

Does the protagonist of your story know what she’s getting into—how you’ll use her story, and the risks are of sharing it? Probably not, if you’re like most communicators. Let’s change that.

Organizations like ours—that share stories regularly to activate our people—wield power and influence. When a protagonist lends us her story to share, she opens herself up to curiosity, criticism, misunderstanding, and sometimes even physical harm. It is our responsibility to respect those whose stories we share, ensuring they 1) are comfortable with the way we use their stories and 2) stay safe.

Now, thanks to innovators in our field, we have a framework for screening stories–the ethical storytelling pledge. Commit to ethical storytelling, then use this seven-point checklist to select and shape stories that are ethical to share:

1) Solicit input on whose stories to tell and how from the people you serve, and those most directly affected by the issue you work to advance.

2) Assess those stories:

  • Whom do you help by telling this story?
  • Whose perspective is highlighted; yours, the protagonist’s, or…?
  • Does the story present your organization as the savior?

3) Is the protagonist of the story willing to share it?

4) If so, let your story subjects know how their stories will be used. Offer a “terms of use” page on a share-your-story form or in conversation.

5) Ask for your protagonists’ written informed consent. Make sure story subjects know what they’re getting into—where you’ll use the story, what you’ll include, and how you’ll depict the impact of your services on them. Witness’ tip sheet guides you through an effective conversation on informed consent.

6) Shape stories to maintain the protagonist’s dignity and humanity. Avoid oversimplifying or dramatizing the story, even if that makes your story more compelling. Avoid stereotyping—it strips dignity away and weakens your stories.

7) Minimize potential harm to your story subjects. You may need to set ground rules for comments on a Facebook page and deleting as needed, blur faces in a video or photograph, use a fake name and identifying information, or decide not to use the story at all.

Ethical storytelling is a foundation of G.R.E.A.T. stories that engage your people and are most likely to be remembered and repeated. Keep posted for more guidance on…

Getting to G.R.E.A.T. Stories

  1. Goal-oriented framework for story collection and useMap story collection to right-now campaigns. Root all stories in your organization’s “master story.”
  2. Rich, relevant, and repeatable stories: Develop rich, specific stories incorporating the core components necessary to engage your people to ensure they remember and repeat them to their own networks.
  3. Ethical story sourcing and sharing: Respect, don’t exploit, privacy to ensure the dignity and safety of story subjects. Whose stories are they? Who tells them?
  4. Action: Shape stories as pathways to action, with a specific, doable call to action ending each one.
  5. Train a team of storytelling champions: Story owners, and those positioned to identify, collect, and share those stories.

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