Wesley Brown

The emotional pull of great storytelling

Consider these two conceptual approaches to visualizing the idea that homelessness is a problem in America.

Approach #1:  A local shelter produces a video detailing the statistics of the numbers of homeless people in the in the United States, what their ethnic and gender makeup is and how homelessness affects the individuals themselves and society at large.  The video is scripted and focuses more on the people running the shelter rather than the people they serve. While honest and earnest in its presentation, the video does very little to allow the viewer to experience the true emotional plight of people who find themselves homeless.

Approach #2:  A local shelter produces a video in which a presumably homeless man in their care looks directly into the camera and relates the story of his personal loss in an unscripted, unguarded 5 minute monologue along with some vocal narration.  Here is his story:

“My name is Thomas.  I’m 35 and I’m a married father of three kids ages, 9, 5 and 3.  I was living in a small town when I lost my factory job of 15 years due to due to the company moving the plant overseas.  At first I tried to find jobs in my area, but the town I was in was so small and everyone mostly worked for the company that left, so I couldn’t find anything at all.  Not even retail or food-service.   So, I began to look outside my city.  I was driving sometimes two hours away to try and find work.”

“After about 3 months of traveling to other cities to look for jobs, my car got totaled in an accident.  The bus routes in my area were only to local destinations, I had medical bills mounting and my wife had to stay at home to care for our children. We went through our savings in a matter of weeks.  I had to start missing my house payments as feeding my family was more important. The bank was evicting us and I felt so lost and hopeless.”

Thomas’ eyes water, his voice cracks and he is unable to look at the camera as he recalls the feelings of shame, helplessness and failure at being a husband and a father.   “I thought I was worthless, useless and less of a man” he said.

Thomas one again looks into the camera and says “I kept saying to myself, “How could this happen? How could we become homeless?  I worked hard and I tried to do the right thing…I never, ever thought I’d end up here.   I was in a very dark place and I didn’t know what to do.   I didn’t want to ask for help but I had tried everything I could think of.  I had hoped better for my kids than I had it and here we were without a home.”

“For a few weeks, my family lived in a the beat up station wagon I bought by selling the few things we had left.  We went to a local food pantry, but they could only do so much for a group of 5.”

Thomas’s head is down when reflecting on the lowest point of his life.  Then abruptly, he raises his head and looks at the camera.

“Then a friend told me about a place that could help.  A shelter in a nearby town where me and my family might be able to rest.  When we made the decision to go the shelter, I was very embarrassed at first. I still couldn’t accept the fact that we couldn’t do it alone.  But the staff welcomed us right away.  They gave us warm beds, food, a place for the kids to play and time to rest and just breathe.  I hadn’t felt so relieved in months.  It felt like there might actually be some hope for our future.  I thought I might just be getting a handout but what they really gave me was a hand-up.”

“The counselors helped me get enrolled in job training classes and taught us more about budgeting and how to make sure we never end up in this situation again.  The people I met there were from all walks of life:  People who had good jobs before, families with small children.  All of these people ended up homeless because they had a few things knock them down…that’s all it takes sometimes.  You never think it can happen to you, but it can.   I was so humbled and so thankful to have found help and it made me realize that we weren’t alone and that we weren’t lesser people for being homeless.”

With his brow furrowed and lip quivering, Thomas looks away with a distant, glassy-eyed stare.  After a moment, he turns his head and looks back into the camera.

“My family and I stayed at the shelter for 5 months.  With my wife and kids safe and well-cared for, I was able to spend more time looking for jobs.  Because the shelter had connections in the local businesses community, I was able to get a full time job with better pay than I had at my last one.  The shelter also got me enrolled in GED classes to expand my opportunities in the future.  The love that I felt for those who helped me out is hard to put into words.  They gave me my life back. ”

After a deep breath, Thomas continued.

“It’s been four years since the shelter helped me out.  I am happy to report that not only do I have a steady, good-paying job, but we have an apartment and I am working toward my AA degree from a local community college.  I’m hopeful and exited about what lies ahead and I didn’t think I’d ever get back to such a happy place in my life.   I’m so thankful  that someone decided to take a chance on us and I know that I could never have done it without the shelter’s help.  I’ll always be grateful for them and the way they treated us in our time of need.”

As Thomas says these closing words, the pride and sense of positive self-esteem are evident in his entire demeanor from the grin on his face to the posture of his entire body.   This is a man transformed and ready to tackle whatever problems might come his way in the future.

Now I ask, dear reader, which of the two methods above best illustrated the face of homelessness in America?  The scripted video with the statistics, or the raw, personal story of someone who’s been there?

What’s that you say? You had already forgotten about the first video option?  Ahh.  We did too.  That’s the power of storytelling and the emotional narrative at play.  No matter what kind of work you are producing for yourself or for a client, your end goal will be achieved much more easily and much more effectively if you remember to ask yourself “What is the story I am trying to show here and what is the best way to do it?”  Don’t get bogged down in the raw data without realizing that everyone and everything has their own unique tale to tell whether it is a product, service or an individual. Find these stories, tap into them and shout them from the rooftops. We promise you will never be led astray.

Does anyone have any experiences they’d like to share regarding narrative- based work approaches?  We’d love to hear from you!  Join us in the conversation at CiceroStudios.com

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