How to tell stories about other people

*Also applies if someone makes a cameo in your story and you’re not certain they’d be ok with that.

You have three options:

1) Get Their Permission

Where I can, I try and do this as a matter of course — and ALWAYS with former clients. Not least so that potential future clients don’t get spooked that I’ll share all their secrets! If the story subject matter something heavy, you could offer to send a draft to the person before you publish/perform it. But usually, a simple,

“Do you mind if I tell the story about [thing we experienced together] on Facebook/on my blog/in my talk?”

should do.

2) Change identifying details

As I’ve talked about before, one of my storytelling rules is “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.” By this, I don’t mean “lie to make yourself sound good,” but rather, “do whatever you need to do to make the listener feel the way you felt in that moment.”

You can also use it when you need to protect someone. There are a bunch of reasons why you might want to protect them. Maybe they don’t come across well in the story, but you still have this person in your life so you don’t want publicly to throw them under the bus. Maybe you actually just don’t know if this person would be ok with the story being told, but you’re not able to contact them to find out. Maybe they’re *very* litigious.

Either way, here’s what you do:

Keep the emotional truth. Change all the other identifying details.

Examples of things you can change while still keeping emotional truth:

  • Demographic (their gender, nationality, age)
  • Who they are to you (if it still makes sense within the emotional truth — so maybe if it was a friend’s boyfriend, you switch it to a distant cousin)
  • Time frame (if it happened 10 years ago, you can say it happened last week)
  • Location (if it was at a hairdressers in Chicago move it to a tanning salon in Guelph)

The most important thing:

Make enough changes that even the person in the story wouldn’t recognize themselves.

CAUTIONARY TALE FROM MARSH: There have been times where I’ve tried this, but told the story so soon after the incident that I suspect the person in question saw right through my changes and knew I was talking about them. I still carry quite a lot of shame around this — actually the appropriate amount of shame because, if my suspicion is correct, it means that by telling the story so soon, I hurt that person, which suuuuuuuckkkkkkks of me. So if you’re going to use this method, do make sure you give it a few months at LEAST.

3) Don’t tell the story

Sometimes, the situation is so particular and specific, changing identifying details would not protect the person’s identity. If you also know they wouldn’t be ok with you telling the story, doing so will cause harm (see: my CAUTIONARY TALE above). Other times, by telling the story, you will bring upon yourself a whole heap of trouble that is just not worth it.

If you have a story like this but it’s still bursting out of you, go ahead and write it — then, at the top and bottom of the document you wrote it on, say, “NOT FOR PUBLIC CONSUMPTION, FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY.” (so if it gets found, you won’t get their back up)

Or just let it go. Like a beautiful sunset that never made it onto Instagram, some stories are not meant to be shared.

 

A NOTE ON TELLING STORIES ABOUT CLIENTS: if you’re telling a story about something very personal, or if the work you do very obviously involves client confidentiality, I would definitely suggest two things: (1) be explicit that you got that client’s permission to tell their story, AND (2) do something I don’t usually suggest: be explicit that names and identifying details have been changed.

The reason I usually suggest you don’t tell people you’ve used fake names is because then, your reader/listener might think, “well… what ELSE in this story isn’t true??” But if you’re telling a story about a client and it’s personal stuff, your audience will worry about your client’s safety and your integrity. So show them you’re good at your job, and you did your due diligence, by explaining that you ​did​ get permission, and you changed identifying details.

So, which of these three are you going to try? Or do you have ANOTHER method for telling other people’s stories that I haven’t covered? I’d love to hear! Hit reply or, if you want to make my heart sing, leave me a comment over on yesyesmarsha.com/otherpeople

Thanks so much for reading. If you know anyone who has stories they’re nervous to tell, you can share this with them using one of the round buttons below, or you can just click here to share on Facebook (make sure you tag me — type @yesyesmarsha and I’ll show up!)

You rule!

xx (Yes Yes) Marsha

PS If you want even tips and advice on how to tell compelling stories, plus stories and secrets I won’t put on the internet AND my free guide for the magic bullet for how to tell any story powerfully, come over and join the Yes Yes Family by popping your details in below*:

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2 Comments

  • Ainsley

    Reply Reply March 13, 2021

    Great email/blog! My job is basically writing stories about other people so this is something I think about ALL THE TIME! The suggestions for details to change is great. I also always need to have a release waiver for stories I’m working on if their to be used publicly anywhere.

    I interview and write stories about people who may be experiencing poverty, mental health challenges, homelessness and other challenges. My goal is to always ensure they feel safe, that the process of interview to publication is respecting their journey, privacy and safety.

    They have amazing stories and I want them to feel pride in it. They are the hero.

    • Marsha (Yes Yes Marsha)

      That’s beautiful, Ainsley! Yes, making them the hero is so important in that context. It sounds like you’re doing a great job of holding the balance of being emotionally truthful and being respectful!

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