Empathy and the power of stories

We laughed, we cried, we empathised. Yesterday’s Being the Story event, curated and organised by Jude Habib of SoundDelivery was a showcase for stories.

Four images from the Being The Story event

It wasn’t a traditional charity conference. There was no mention of digital comms channels, no talk of impact measurement. We shimmyed our pom poms, we boxed, we walked in other people’s shoes and sang. But most of all we heard people’s stories, told first hand. It was moving and powerful and upsetting and inspiring. It was all about the experience.

The stories

Each speaker shared their story in their own way. The common thread was how the speakers had used their own experiences to do something amazing. I can’t even start to represent the power of the stories which were shared. So here is a very brief summary, with links to more information on the BeingTheStory website. We heard from:

  • Pastor and community campaigner Lorraine Jones whose son Dwayne Simpson was fatally stabbed in Brixton in 2014 and set up Dwaynamics to help young people develop life skills through boxing and fitness
  • Sam Smith whose own troubled start in life inspired him to support young people
  • Jodie Clark whose own experience of disability discrimination by employers led her to become an advocate
  • Solicitor Sue James who tells the stories of the people she represents in Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre
  • Mandy Thomas‘ who told the harrowing story of domestic violence
  • The Empathy Museum’s project of ‘A Mile in My Shoes’ which was recently used at the NHS Conference to help health professions understand the experience of patients
  • Brititte Aphrodite who shared sections from her punk poetry show about her depression
  • Naveed and Samiya Parvez who created Andiamo to fit and 3D print orthotics after their experience with their son – “we realised that we’d always had healthcare done to us, not with us”
  • Emma Lawton who shared how her diagnosis of Parkinson’s at 29 changed her life in a positive way
  • Hassan Akkad who shared his 87 day journey to the UK from Syria
  • Photographer Giles Duley who shares the stories of the people he photographs via his humanitarian projects
  • The Micro Rainbow International Interfaith Choir.

How stories are told

The stories they told were amazing. But more than that, it was how they were told. Hearing directly from someone in the same room, is very powerful.

In some cases the delivery was a performance. Watching Emma Lawton peg visual representations of the things that had happened to her, then cut the piece of string held by her parents was one of the most moving things I have seen. It brought the house down.

First-hand storytelling

First-hand stories are powerful. You might think you are doing this already through your case studies. But it is not the same.

This is about creating a platform and a culture where people want to share their stories for you. They are the ambassadors for your cause, not your charity. They help people to understand and empathise about the condition / experience which helps to inspire someone to help do something about it (through donating / volunteering etc).

How to harness this is crucial. The strongest channel must be the in-person delivery. The top of the comms pyramid is the opportunity to be listened to for 20 minutes with no distractions. How could you not be affected?

There are other examples which come close. The audio / shoe experience from the Empathy Museum connects sound with something physical. The WeAreHere installation in June bought the stories of WW1 soldiers to life.  There must also be examples of individual storytelling using Virtual Reality. These are all about intimacy and experience. By sharing an experience we can feel empathy.

Can this be done in other ways? Watching a video of that person is good but not the same as in-person delivery. You have to be so engaging that the hovering swipping finger stays still until the end. Can you distill someone’s story into 140 characters, a written case study or blog post? It is of course possible but is it enough? Maybe it depends on the complexity of the story?

Text with quote from the event ""One of my clients could only afford 1 light bulb & had to move it from room to room.""

There are some organisations doing this. For example SeeMeScotland’s recent #myunfilteredlife campaign where people have been sharing images on instagram with many saying ‘I don’t usually join in with social media shared like this’. An intimate picture and powerful words, directly from the person helps us to share the experience.

SeeMe Scotland

Start with empathy

There are organisations who have expert ambassadors who publicly talk, for example CoppaFeel’s founder Kris Hallenga who was the highlight of one Media Trust conference and the Expert Citizens programme. Emma Lawton is herself an ambassador for Parkinson’s UK. And many organisations have beneficiaries who speak to the media.

SoundDelivery’s mission has been to help organisations collect and use the stories of the people they work with. They understand the power of putting on a pair of headphones, listening to someone speak and sharing someone’s world.

The question for us all as charity comms people is how to find and share the authentic voices. Whether you take inspiration from Emma Lawton’s performance or ideas from the Empathy Museum, now is the time to be creative. Now is the time to find ways to put empathy rather than sympathy at the heart of your comms.

More from #BeingTheStory

Do look at the BeingTheStory storify to get a sense of the day (as well as the hashtag from the event). Lots of people have also written blogs, sharing their thoughts:

Spotted any first-hand stories? Do share them in the comments. This week I read this story in the Metro Online for World Alzheimer’s Day – My nan’s dementia and me.

(Images with thanks to @magnetogaby @katiecubbage and @sushi_juggapah. )

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A call to arms – tell your stories

Kid's drawing - two smiling people holding hands

As I write this, the world is shifting. The pencil marks (or pen marks) are still fresh on the papers and people are trying to make sense of the referendum result last night and what coming out of the EU means for us all. These are uncertain and scary times.

In light of the dark events of last week, Zoe Amar wrote We need social good more than ever now and this morning on Twitter I have certainly seen a call to arms from charity people rolling their sleeves up to take on the new dawn (see Stuart Etherington’s blog). Many are expecting a rise in demand and drop in funding.

We are already operating in tough times, having gone through the fundraising fall-out and media storm. This week Vicky Browning of Charity Comms shared some recent research from charity supporters and non-supporters – Developing a positive response to the public’s view of charities. It revealed issues of trust and described how the media has been focussing on shaming charity bad practice which often reflects the public’s own negative experience. The article calls for reform but also some collective response to communicating the impact of the sector.

NCVO and others are working on this. In the meantime there are ways that charities can tell their stories. Last month I wrote this post for Zurich Insurance’s charity blog about Challenging charity bad press. It looks at some of the vehicles for positive storytelling including Guardian Voluntary’s beautiful The day I made a difference.

Since I wrote the Zurich post, two more websites have been launched (Positively Scottish and Good HQ). And Jude Habib’s BeingTheStory event in September is selling fast suggesting that organisations ‘get’ that they need to be better at sharing their impact.

So, as we enter day one, week one, month one of this new world, let’s take charge. Let’s share our stories, our positivity, our love and the difference we make.


Since I wrote this, other posts on a similar theme have been written, please do read them:

And the Charity Commission published new research on public trust which says that levels of confidence are the lowest ever recorded. The report found that trust is based on transparency, good management and ethical fundraising.

The Scottish Charity Regulator produced similar research. OSCR’s infographic (PDF) of results tells a similar story of trust being damaged by negative media stories and concerns about staff salary costs, money not going to the cause and harassaing fundraising methods.

In response, Karl Wilding’s latest blog talks about how charities need to change their practises and what NCVO is doing to build a framework for talking about charities.