Piper Hendricks, Founder and Executive Director of P.H. Balanced Films, shares five questions that will help your nonprofit tell respectful, true, and effective stories through video.
Stories predate written history and are how humans have formed bonds, conveyed values, and shared experiences for millennia. Companies have long channeled the power of stories to create emotional resonance and move people to action—namely, buying products. Increasingly, the nonprofit sector is recognizing storytelling as a way to build meaningful connections, raise awareness of problems, and inspire people to be part of the solutions.
Given the power of stories, I feel strongly that storytelling is not simply a tool, it is a responsibility; to best address the needs of those we serve, the nonprofit sector must share their stories. To ethically fulfill that responsibility, we nonprofits must be mindful of the limitations of telling another person’s story, whether in video or other format. One of the most common issues I encounter in nonprofit stories, particularly video, are harmful stereotypes that portray people as helpless or one-dimensional and reinforce existing power structures.
Here are five questions that will help you tell respectful, true, and effective stories, including through video:
1. Whose story are you telling?
In the vast majority of articles I write on storytelling, I begin with the Golden Rule: Know your audience. Here, however, we must begin with Socrates: Know thyself—and the limitations of your knowledge. Or if you prefer a more modern example, channel the Tom Petty song, “You Don’t Know How it Feels.”
Be it a person or an entire community, the hero of your story is not you. Nor is it your organization. As such, you cannot have perfect knowledge of the story you are bringing to your audience.
To tell an accurate story, you need to partner with your hero(es).
The greater the cultural divide you are bridging, the more involved your hero(es) should be in the process of telling of their story.
(While the ethics of valuing participants’ time is beyond the focus of this piece, allow me to note that “involvement” takes time. Consider budgeting funds to repay community members for their time, if appropriate.)
2. Who do your representatives represent?
In finding video partners as you answer the first question, it is easy to default to “community leaders.” Before you assume those leaders are the only partners you need, ask one more question: “Who do these representatives represent?”
Put another way: “Whose voices are missing?” Do the leaders you’ve identified truly speak for everyone in that community—including women, children, people of various abilities, orientations, religions, etc.? Ensure you have the voices at the table that will tell the full story.
3. Are you being fair and honest?
The two most common mistakes in telling someone else’s story are 1) to put your hero(es) on a pedestal; or 2) to condescend to them.
The first mistake often comes from a good place. Perhaps you intend be benevolent and put your hero(es) in the best light possible. Perhaps you want to tell a story with a happy ending. Perhaps you want to create a sense of hope. Don’t.
Instead, aim to tell the real story. Perhaps it will have a happy ending and perhaps it will have hope—but don’t tell the story you want to tell. Tell the story that is.
The second mistake is less forgivable. Condescension often comes from a place of unexamined bias and failure to see your hero(es) as equals. To avoid it, ask “What norms are we assuming? Are we playing into stereotypes or are we respecting the humanity of our hero(es)?” Having your hero(es) involved in the telling of their story will help, but don’t put the onus entirely on them to point out your biases.
At every step in your storytelling, aim to be fair to your hero(es) and honest with your audience.
4. Who is your audience and what will they understand?
Your goal in telling any story is to connect your audience with your hero(es). To do so, you must be aware of your audience’s level of familiarity with the culture being portrayed. Unfamiliar but relevant elements of the story should be explained; unfamiliar and irrelevant elements should be removed.
For example, a story about the need for clean water—a universal need to which every human can relate—will not need as much clarification as a story about a ceremony that is unique to one culture.
Your audience needs enough information to relate to the hero(es) and not be distracted or confused by elements of the story they don’t understand. Account for this in your planning, especially when it comes to collecting B roll and drafting interview questions.
5. Have you gathered enough feedback?
Whether a 3-minute podcast or full-length documentary, it’s simply impossible to include every element of every story. In the course of gathering and telling a story, those most involved may “lose sight of the forest for the trees.” (This is particularly so with film as you watch the same footage over and over and over in the editing suite.)
To ensure sound decisions about what you’ve included and what you’ve left out, allow time to gather feedback on your potentially final piece from representatives of both the community involved and your audience. Start with open-ended questions then move to specific decisions you have in doubt.
If you want to tell respectful, true, and effective stories, gathering feedback is not optional.
Allocate space for review and revisions, if needed, in your project timeline.
Remember we’re all human.
At the end of the day, telling stories that aren’t our own means overcoming limitations in our understanding and in the format of storytelling itself. These are no small tasks, but asking these five questions early and often throughout your project should put your organization well on its way to telling stories that are respectful, true, and effective.