Why stories matter

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Many of us have grown tired of the economic gloom and doom news stories. But last night something captured my attention. In fact, I was totally riveted to a news story...a real journalistic piece, so rare on network news it seems. The rapidly growing number of Americans who are homeless is something so difficult to wrap our minds around; millions are now without stable and secure homes. This story focused on a few families who had lost their homes and were living in a motel along a highway in a southern state. It particularly focused on eight-year-old Jeremy living in this motel, playing in the parking lot with his soccer ball whenever he could.

Since his dad, who worked for a mortgage company, lost his job and then their family home was seized in a foreclosure, Jeremy's grades have dropped at school. He talked about how sometimes he saves food so he won't get too hungry, and how no one at school understands what it feels like to have no home, no yard, few toys and no neighbourhood friends.

At one point, he began to cry. The reporter asked him and his Mom if it was okay to keep talking and they both agreed. This is what unfolded:

Reporter: What are you afraid of losing, Jeremy?
Jeremy: I am afraid of losing my clothes.
Reporter: Have you lost other things in the past?
Jeremy: Yes, lots.

Jeremy puts his head in his hands and starts to cry. We can no longer see his face just hear his young voice break.

Reporter: What does that feel like?
Jeremy: I am so afraid.
Reporter: Do you know what you are most afraid of?
Jeremy: I have just given up hoping. I don't hope anymore.

Silence was left for us to take in how powerful it is to hear a child say he has lost all hope. Suddenly, we understand the devastation of homelessness; Jeremy's story creates a meaningful connection between those of us with homes and those of us without homes. His story bridges the gap of our different realities and connects us in our shared humanity.

As author notes in her book Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, "The truth is, your facts aren't as powerful as human emotions. Feelings alter facts, at least the impact of facts...so being right is only halfway to action. The rest of the way is through perceptions and feelings. The goal is to alternate back and forth between linear thinking when talking about the facts, and nonlinear thinking when telling or interpreting a story."

The idea here is not to exploit people's emotions, as was widely critiqued in the 1980s through a series of articles and discussions that coined the phrase "the pornography of poverty," which challenged the notion of using emotionally charged images of starving, impoverished children, usually from Africa, to tug at heart strings so that the wallets in the west would open wide. Good storytelling is as much about talking as it is about listening; it is the art and science of co-creating meaning, context and connections. It is essentially about trust built upon the authentic intention of your narrative. It is about shifting perspective, not about exploitation or being right. Good storytelling creates the possibility for change. I will talk more about that in my column next month.

Pattie LaCroix has provided strategic leadership in crafting integrated communications and fundraising strategies to nonprofits for more than a decade. As CEO of Catapult Media she is passionate about the power of storytelling in engaging your audience and building support for your work. You can reach Pattie at www.catapultmedia.ca.

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