Recap from our August Member Call with special guest Michael Kass the Founder of the Center for Story + Spirit.

Last week, I had the opportunity to share with and learn from some of the members of Conveners.org during the August Member Call.

Our conversation started with a brief introduction to some work that I’ve been doing around Ethical Storytelling for social impact organizations. So many organizations do amazing work and do a less amazing job of talking about that work. They either drown their audiences in so much data that it ceases to carry much meaning or tell a story that tends to follow this structure:

Bob wasn’t doing well —-> Bob met us —-> Now Bob is great —-> Give us Money

 

In addition to not being a terribly interesting story, these over-simplified ‘success’ narratives do a disservice to:

 

  • Clients by defining them in terms of their deficits instead of treating them as three dimensional human beings;
  • Funders and other stakeholders by advancing a narrative that celebrates dramatic successes instead of the small, day to day interactions that form the heart of most organizations’ work;
  • Staff members who feel pressured to shoehorn stories into a pre-determined structure that feels inauthentic.

 

 

This type of storytelling can put an organization’s communication at odds with its mission.

 

The invitation of Ethical Storytelling is to look beyond the now standard ‘hero’s journey’ structure to put the people the organization serves at the center of the narratives.

They are the heroes and experts of their own challenges. The organization is there to support them through its programs. By putting human complexities at the center of storytelling, ethical narratives have the ability to embrace ‘success,’ ‘failure,’ and everything in between.

 

It’s a simple enough concept that, in practice, requires rethinking the role that storytelling plays within an organization’s culture. The major shift is from thinking about story as a ‘tactic’ to valuing it as a process that both reflects and builds culture, meaning, and relationships through the organization’s multi-faceted community of staff, volunteers, Board Members, clients, and contributors.

 

Thinking about this shift brought the conversation to the core question I wanted to discuss with the members on the call: What would it look like to put the story and human connection at the center of convenings instead of content? And how might this deepen the impact of our gatherings?

Instead of addressing this question from a strategic, tactical foundation, we instead took the opportunity of being together, even if only virtually, to experience the power story could have in our gathering.

 

Working from a simple prompt–tell a story about a time you felt naturally yourself with no hindrance–we spent 20 minutes sharing brief, personal tales. These stories took us deep into the Grand Canyon, to a simple moment on a sun dappled couch, a conversation with two students in India, and more. After each story, we shared brief reflections and appreciations for moments that resonated with us.

In less than 30 minutes, we connected with each other as human beings and, even across the continents, began to build a feeling of shared identity.

 

From that foundation, the conversation could have moved in a number of different directions. We could have moved towards addressing a tactical issue, explored the power of storytelling to build connection more deeply, or surfaced a common narratives based on the stories we had shared.

 

When we start with human connection at the center, a whole world of potential reveals itself.

 

That is the true promise of Ethical Storytelling: not just that it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, but also that it can transform strangers from different backgrounds and cultures into tribes with ease, efficiency, and beauty.