I have a huge job that covers everything in nonprofit external communications and even some internal issues. But plain old story-telling is still the best part of it.
Stories are a labor of love for me. I probably take too much time over them. I usually spend an hour or more with one of our clients, volunteers, or donors, recording their story on my iPhone. Then I spend a few more hours transcribing the notes while I shape the story in my head. Then the paring down begins – a sometimes painful process of chipping away at gems of insight or fascinating personal details.
I still don’t know the “ideal” length for a story. I let it tell me as I shape it for our blog. Then I’ll recast it in different forms, from one sentence to a paragraph, to promote on social media, in speeches and PowerPoints, and so on.
But I’ve learned over the years that telling a story isn’t everything. Listening intently, respectfully, and compassionately is just as important.
You have to understand this when you work with disadvantaged people as I do. When they open up, you have to stay very present. The interview process is a mutual gift. They are giving you inspiration and information to share with the public. That’s core to your mission. But you are giving a sympathetic ear. Your full attention. Your respect. They don’t get that often enough. It’s very precious.
Then you have to sift through the details – many of them too raw and painful to share publicly – and find just enough to get your audience to see their humanity, their aspirations, their “deservingness.”
Over the last few months I’ve spent time with one of the original residents of the infamous Jungle encampment in San Jose that was cleaned out in December 2014. That was a very hard day, though there were many reasons it had to close. Grace had lived there on an off since 1970 when she fled her home as a teenager. She was one of a small group who named the encampment the “Jungle” (originally La Salve in Spanish). She is articulate, insightful, painfully honest – and like so many clients I encounter, she loves to talk.
I will never forget her and what I learned from her story.