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Navigating Ethical Storytelling: When You Feel Like You've Gotten It All Wrong

When I stumbled into the world of ethical storytelling, it was more of a limp than anything else.

I'm not sure when I first heard the term or uncovered the concept of “ethical storytelling,” but when I did, I had a dual reaction: I was delighted that this work was already in place and a better path was being forged, but also, I came to it disheartened and discouraged realizing all the ways I had potentially imposed harm on the very people I meant to serve.

I had gotten it wrong on so many levels — taking and sharing pictures without permission, exaggerating facts to create more captivating stories, leaning into stereotypes, viewing the stories gathered as commodities to trade for donations, accolades, or simply my own sense of self.

Who is this really for?

As I reflected on the praise I received in the past as a "really good writer" or someone who "took such stunning photos," I realized I had shared stories and images as much for myself as anyone else. I wanted the acknowledgment of being seen as adventurous, brave, as doing good work.

This is how I realized that becoming ethical storytellers — committing to story stewardship — is collective work, yes, but it starts as personal work. 

In this work, we must confront what we've done, but we must extend grace to ourselves as well. Because shame never accomplished anything.

So, my friend, if you've also stumbled into this space bearing the weight of past mistakes, I humbly invite you to lay all of that baggage down. I'll do the same.

How can we practice grace?

A few days ago, I came across a post on Instagram from Susan David, a Harvard Med School Psychologist, that simply read:

Courage over comfort.

Compassion over shame.

Curiosity over judgment.

I immediately thought of the many conversations I've had with other storytellers who have histories and regrets similar to mine. I thought of all the nonprofit marketers who are continuously working to move away from traditional marketing approaches and instead build processes and collateral that empower all involved. And I thought of how awkward that transition can be.

What if Dr. David's post became a rubric for us as we navigate more ethical approaches to our marketing and storytelling? What if we could...

  • Recognize that this transition requires courage — to put ourselves out there, invest in relationships in different, go against the grain of the “best practices” we’ve been taught, and say uncomfortable “no’s” to donors, clients, or bosses.

  • Lead with compassion — be kind to ourselves as we develop new skills, be understanding of coworkers still navigating this space, and be sensitive towards people whose experiences we highlight.

  • Remain curious — how can we continue to do better? What different approaches might work? What else is possible?

It could go a long way in helping us not only become better marketers but better friends, colleagues, and advocates as well.

P.S. If you need to seek forgiveness for past stories or practices or pull down certain stories or photos, please do. Grace is not a shrug of the shoulders but rather a loving-kindness we can show ourselves as we do our best to right past wrongs and move forward in a better way.



Christy Kern is a seasoned communications consultant who has traveled the world working for hundreds of businesses and nonprofit organizations. With a passion for ethical storytelling, Christy coaches, leads workshops, and facilitates training sessions in order to help people become better communicators. Not only does she work with clients to find clarity within their messaging, she can help that messaging be conveyed the right way. From mission statements and marketing to speeches and conversational skills, her consulting runs the gamut and is tailored to accomplish the specific needs of each client.

After more than a decade of living abroad, Christy is currently settled in the Chicago suburbs with her husband, Hagen, and their curly canine, Watson. She’s a huge fan of putt-putt and loves searching for good tacos around town.

To learn more, get connected, or to work with Christy, click here.



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