You Tell Your Story So I Can Tell Mine

Posted: Oct 2, 2013

We’ve already talked about naming relationships in stories and creating obstacles. Now, in our third entry for our series around storytelling, let’s talk about why we should tell our own stories rather than the stories of others.

Telling other people’s stories doesn’t help people understand you

If you asked my grandmother to tell you what is going on in her life she would say, “Oh, my grandson is a very busy teacher.” Perhaps her life may be all about her grandson, but she is dodging the question and making it impossible for anyone to learn more about her. If you wanted to know about her grandson, you could just go talk to him.

This same deflection happens with many organizations, especially those doing anything complicated (who isn’t?) with multiple relationships. They lament, “No one understands what we do!” yet when you ask them, they talk about the people they support—or “partner with”—and what those people do. Foundations do it about their grantees. Firms do it about their clients. Their intentions may be good, but they unwittingly answer a question they were never asked and don’t answer the one that was. Just like Grandma, they mean to be modest but end up invisible in their own stories.

No one will know you until you tell your own story

If your organization is part of a landscape with other organizations, paint that picture and include yourself in it. When you place yourself in shadow and shine lights only on the organizations you are related to, the more essential they will seem and the less relevant you will seem. This imbalance also makes the landscape you live in seem less populated, diverse, and rich than it might actually be.

Let’s use an oversimplified example of a funder. The funder should tell the story of how she is trying to move the needle in hunger and does it by funding food banks that help families in need. Instead, the funder talks about a family in need and the food bank that helped. Then the funder invites the audience to “join the cause.” A week later, the food bank sees an increase in its donations, and the funder wonders why no one is calling her about her bigger vision.

Tell two stories, not one

There is a way to talk about all of it. My grandmother can talk about how much being a grandmother means to her, the days when she was a teacher and raised her daughter to be teacher, and how proud she is to have that legacy continue. You will do your organization the most justice when you talk about what you are doing yourself (and with whom directly) to achieve your vision on a grand scale. Go from talking about a few branches to showing your place on the family tree and people will start to see you more clearly.