Using Creative Storytelling to Normalize the Human Experience
Creative Storytelling and Diversity: Normalizing the Human Experience Through Increased Representation
Storytelling is a powerful tool. It can help us explain complex topics, and share stories and struggles in a very human way. Through stories, I have learned about the black struggle, what it’s like to grow up as queer in the American south, and the challenges of getting around the average American city in a wheelchair. Stories help us connect and build empathy for people who are not like us, and highlight the struggles that historically underrepresented groups face.
Even though the creative industry is notorious for its lack of diversity, in the last few years, we’ve seen an uptick in stories that show different groups of people and the struggles they’ve historically faced and continue to face. The increase in diverse subject matters in film, advertising, books, and graphics is great progress, but we must take things a step further. Creative storytelling isn’t just about who we include, it is also about HOW we include those people. We can highlight struggles and challenges different groups face, but we must also use different creative outputs to normalize often stereotyped groups and showcase them as beautiful and complex humans.
Moving Beyond Stereotypes: the complexity and beauty of being human
For Pride this year, my co-worker Ansley Luce wrote about what designers can do to be more inclusive when it comes to image choices. One of the points she made was how important it is to include more queer people in normal settings. She writes:
“The Images that do show actual LGBTQIA+ humans seem to be ones that comment directly on their gender or sexual orientation rather than representing them just as people in the world. Trans people putting on makeup, same-sex couples kissing, or just awkwardly standing together in front of non-descript backdrops. Images that still make them seem objectified, marginalized, and excluded from normal daily life. If we only see images that objectify people for their identity, we will continue to objectify them in real life.”
Excluded from normal daily life. The line says it all. Often, historically underrepresented groups are shown only when we talk about their specific issue areas, and not as complete humans living normal lives. The images people see of themselves influence how people feel about themselves, and the creative profession has the power and responsibility to find ways to represent people from different groups as full humans—not just as stereotypical characters or simplified icons.
Disability and Representation: showing people as full human beings.
The conversation spans beyond the queer and LGBTQIA+ community. In the film industry, we’ve seen a movement towards including more people with disabilities. But we don’t just need them represented in stories that center on their disability, we also need them shown in everyday settings. This article features commentary about how we can best represent disability in the arts. Jack, a British actor with cerebral palsy, explains that “to truly represent disability in film, it should be incidental, not the focus.” What does he mean by incidental? To show people with disabilities incidentally is to show them in normal settings and to quote Jack, “show that people with disabilities are flawed beings with foibles and loves and hates and longing and angst (I’ll stop it before it gets too self-referential), just like the rest of humanity, and they just happen to have a disability.” This is the same scenario Ansley discussed around LGBTQIA+ humans. Stories featuring people with disabilities do not always have to center their disability. They can be featured like any other abled-body actor doing everyday things—living everyday lives.
Storytelling in the nonprofit world: Nothing For Us Without Us.
Moving away from stereotypes and singular narratives is especially important when it comes to issue-based marketing. At Media Cause, we help organizations promote their causes by highlighting people’s experiences. But how do we make sure that the stories we tell call attention to the issue while also showing that humans are more than their circumstances? For example, how do we talk about homelessness while communicating that people experiencing homelessness are layered individuals with personal needs and wishes? How do we highlight the problems facing underserved communities while also showing the potential and passions available in those same areas? Or how do we express the need for better design solutions to accommodate for disabilities while also showing that living with a disability is a multi-faceted experience?
There isn’t a quick and easy answer for this, but one thing we’ve seen effective is working WITH the people we’re trying to help. For example, if you’re working on solutions to homelessness, your marketing strategy and creative execution should be created alongside people with lived experiences. This can be people who’ve been or are currently experiencing homelessness, or partners who have in-depth experience serving that community.
Disability activists have always pushed for inclusion, and in the early 1990s, they started promoting the idea of Nothing About Us Without Us! The slogan rooted in political action focuses on how the group affected by a policy should be part of the decision-making process. The same concept extends to our marketing campaigns and design decisions. The people affected by a problem should be at the table making the decision for what stories we tell, and what products we make.
Through storytelling and collaboration, we can normalize our differences. Stories help us build empathy, and we need stories that do not just show historically underrepresented groups in their struggle, but also in their joy, and in settings where they’re living normal lives. We need this in all areas of communication and work. From the photos we share to the actors we cast. Heck, we even need to diversify who reports the news and what they sound like. By including diverse groups in the normalcy of storytelling, we show that differences make us stronger. And that no matter how different we look, sound, or act, we’re all human beings first.