Nervous. Anxious. Vulnerable.
That’s how I felt the first time I stood in front of a group and told my own story of how fossil fuels had impacted my family and why I got involved in the climate and environmental movement. Still, when you tell your story on a digital platform, it can be far more intimidating. Suddenly, you find yourself sharing a piece of your personal life with thousands, or even millions, of strangers.
Personal stories are a powerful way for nonprofits to share the importance of their work while highlighting community experiences and inspiring action. But personal stories must be approached with care. It’s essential that storytelling is rooted in authenticity, respect, relationship building, and accountability.
As a National Online Organizer at the Sierra Club, I’ve had the privilege of working with brave and inspiring people to share their stories about some of the most pressing climate and environmental issues. I’ve used email and social media to share personal stories about Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, Flint, the largest on-land oil spill in U.S. history, the Pope’s climate-focused encyclical, and economic diversification for coal communities.
Recognizing that every story and experience is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all process to follow, there are some tips and lessons I’ve found helpful in my work sharing personal stories digitally.
Storytelling is about a relationship, not a transaction. Sharing something personal requires a lot of trust, so this isn’t necessarily the time to look for new partners. However, it can be a good opportunity to celebrate the work and elevate the experiences of community members and volunteers whom your staff works with regularly.
Similarly, most of the stories I have worked on have come from existing relationships. One example is Becky Gillette, a Sierra Club volunteer who was instrumental in exposing the toxic FEMA trailers that were making Katrina-impacted communities sick. I learned about Becky’s story through her relationship with Leslie Fields, the director of our environmental justice program, and reached out based on that recommendation.
- Think about the audience you’re trying to reach with your story and whose perspective will matter to them
- Work with your staff and volunteers who know the community well to reach out to potential storytellers
- Plan ahead: How will your team collaborate with the storyteller to provide feedback? What will you do if something comes out of the story that doesn’t fit your goals or narrative? How will you make sure the storyteller has a positive experience?
Choosing a Medium
Social media and email each come with their own set of challenges. It’s important to consider these challenges as you decide how to share the story. Make sure the storyteller is comfortable with the medium and the ways in which you’re using their name and identity.
When I worked with Becky to share her story, we discussed the pros and cons of social media and email and decided to create a graphic and a social media post.
Email Pros and Cons
- Allows for more detailed storytelling and a fully developed narrative, but that also means your storyteller must be willing and able to give the time it takes to develop a longer story
- In many cases, an email story will need to include calls to action and connect with a specific ask. It can be a challenge to make this work in an authentic way
Social Media Pros and Cons
- Great for stories with visuals or audio. However, it’s important to ensure the storyteller is comfortable with any images you use and that you avoid images that could be misleading
- It’s difficult to tell a full story in a social media post. This makes social media a good option for someone who is interested in sharing their story but may not have the time it takes to develop an email story
- Sharing a story on social media opens the storyteller up to criticism on a public forum; they have to be prepared for and comfortable with that risk
Developing the Story
Every storyteller will have a different level of comfort and experience with sharing their story. When I reached out to Becky about her story, I learned that she had a background as a reporter and didn’t need more from me than some general guidelines, a word count, and a deadline. Other storytellers may prefer to answer questions and let you create the narrative. I try to give storytellers a range of options and let them decide what makes them feel most comfortable.
- Be prepared with a list of open-ended interview questions and examples of other personal stories in case the storyteller finds this information helpful
- Be flexible and let the storyteller take the lead in writing if they’re comfortable doing so
- If you do an interview, record the storyteller’s words as accurately as possible and make sure the final story reflects their word choices
One of the biggest challenges of digital storytelling is creating a story that’s true to the storyteller’s voice and fits within the confines of an email or social media post. It’s critical to keep the storyteller involved in any editing to be sure the final product is authentic and accurate.
Similarly, I didn’t think it would be fair to write about sharing Becky’s story without input from Becky. I reached out to her again recently to get her advice. She emphasized the importance of a collaborative editing process and called on her own expertise as a reporter: “Check and double-check accuracy before you post anything. Writing a personal story should be more a collaboration with the source, not just doing a phone or email interview and writing something up without letting the subject have input.”
- Work collaboratively with the storyteller to edit and finalize the story
- If someone at your organization has an existing relationship with the storyteller try to keep them involved in the process. They can help flag if something doesn’t feel authentic and help make the storyteller feel more comfortable
- Don’t omit details the storyteller identifies as important, even if they may not seem important to you