my blog

ideas and inspirations
what i think and what i've been up to

How do you help others tell their stories?

There’s an unspoken rule among ghostwriters and speechwriters: We never tell. We let the speakers speak for themselves. So it’s a rare opportunity when I can show my work and talk about what goes into helping others tell their stories.

When working in public interest communication, issue advocacy or social change communication, nothing is more powerful than centering stories around the voices of those most impacted by an issue. If someone is incarcerated, let them speak for themselves. If someone wants to share their journey as a transgender person, lift up their voice and stay out of the way, something I worked hard to do in my transgender story series at Eclectablog. If a person is struggling to make ends meet because they’re not earning a living wage, let them talk about their own lived experience.

I had the pleasure of collaborating on a project with the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) Innovation Service and the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida that put these principles into play. We worked as a team to help a refugee tell his story of the smart solution he created to address issues being faced by his fellow refugees in Uganda. We each had a role to play in helping this enterprising young man, Peter, share his experience and personal narrative in his own voice. The goal was not only to celebrate Peter’s accomplishments — which are well worth noting — but also to remind other refugees and displaced people that they have a vital role to play in re-shaping their lives. They have help, certainly, from UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations, but displaced people are empowered to take action on their own.

Because the Innovation Service is keen to experiment with storytelling and how it can be better applied to demonstrating the work not only of UNHCR but the refugees it works with, they interviewed all of us involved in the project. The end result was an article that shows what goes into helping someone shape their own personal narrative, in their own voice, and lifting up their own story for the world to hear.

As I said, ghostwriters never tell. But in this case, I didn’t. Someone else did it for me. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about our collaboration as much as I did being part of it.

Read “5 Lessons on Crafting New Voices for Innovation” here. 

[Photo credit: LAF Lines Photography]

Cultivating gratitude

Every moment is a chance to experience gratitude, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

I’m still learning this lesson, and I have to keep reminding myself. But in every moment — with every breath — there’s something to be grateful for. If you really can’t think of anything else to appreciate, be thankful for another breath. And another, and another.

I’ve always been a goal-setter. I used to make New Year’s resolutions, but like most people I made myself promises I could barely keep for the first day of the year, alone for 365 of them. Then I started setting yearly goals, and soon wised up and allowed myself the latitude to revisit those goals every quarter, every month — every day, even. It’s not that I don’t stick to my goals. In fact, many of them carry over year after year because they’re worthy goals. But you have to give yourself permission to refine, relax or replace those goals with something that works better.

Lately, the yearly practice I gravitate to the most is keeping a gratitude jar. All it takes is an empty jar, some notepaper and a pen, and the willingness to pause and write down something you’re grateful for. After seeing the idea on a friend’s Facebook page, I filled my first jar in 2015. I’ve been doing it ever since, and just dropped the first note of gratitude into the jar for 2018.

There’s something enormously satisfying about watching a jar fill up with your thankfulness over a year. The beauty of a gratitude jar is that you don’t have to write much. It’s just a scrap of paper. I don’t force myself to write every day, but I scribble something when the urge strikes me. Maybe I feel a surge of gratitude or appreciation. Or maybe something meaningful happens and I take a moment to note it, along with the date, and to feel thankful. There are also days when I feel like there’s nothing to be grateful for, and I make myself find something — anything — to appreciate. It doesn’t ever take me long to come up with something.

The sight of the jar filling up reminds me to feel grateful, and motivates me to find more reasons to make that jar overflow (remember: I’m goal-oriented). Then at the end of each year, I go through all the slips of paper one by one, reliving the year’s moments of gratitude — jumbled and out of order, but almost more meaningful that way because those moments add up to a whole that isn’t bound by time and space. Sure, the notes evolve as my life does, but with hindsight it’s the sum total that really resonates with me. The many little reasons for gratitude really add up.

In talking with others who practice gratitude regularly — or who want to — one central concept is consistent: Taking a moment to experience gratitude cultivates more gratitude. The more grateful you feel, the more reasons you’ll find to be grateful.

I know it’s unlikely that I’ll be consistent enough to drop a note in my gratitude jar every day this year. After all, I have decades worth of journals with only the first few pages filled in before they were abandoned. But maybe this year I’ll try adding one note to the jar each day. Because the days when feeling grateful seems impossible are the days when gratitude is needed the most.

The strength of stories to create change

All of us who work in social change know that it doesn’t happen overnight. But in the early morning hours of a late July day I woke to discover that something significant had changed overnight — and I firmly believe stories played a central role.

I’m talking about the vote in the U.S. Senate that may well mark the final defeat of Republicans’ efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare. I went to bed anxious about what I’d find when I arose, but comforted myself that I’d done everything I could and would keep up all my efforts if the fight continued.

I made my voice heard to my elected officials, I attended rallies, I wrote letters to the editor and, most important of all, I told stories of the Americans whose lives have been changed for the better by the ACA, including my own. My storytelling project was inspired by my work on President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and has continued ever since. The stories I began writing to demonstrate the ACA’s value suddenly became vital to protecting its existence.

I believe the stories told by countless Americans made a difference. They elevated the human condition over the often wonky discourse around health insurance and healthcare, giving people on both sides of the aisle a reason to fight for something better than a purely political agenda: people’s lives.

When my friends at frank invited me to answer the question “Does activism work?” for a piece in their newsletter, I was delighted to respond in the affirmative.

One voice at a time, we can steer the conversation in one direction or another. We can make people think, whether they like it or not, about our view. When enough people share the same view — and say it out loud — it becomes impossible to ignore. A storm of public opinion is formed drop by drop, until it becomes a wave crashing on the shore.

You can read my thoughts about how activism helped change the conversation about health reform, along with the insights some of my fellow franksters shared about their work, in the frank newsletter.

« « View Older Posts