The stories we should be telling just now

Louise Shanahan

Health Copywriter | Edinburgh

Copywriting is about telling (and selling) stories.

Whether we’re promoting products, services or ideas, stories help us connect with our readers.

If we want our readers to care enough to do something, be that buying our product or buying into our way of thinking, we need them to feel emotionally invested in the outcome.

We use stories to paint a picture of what things could be like, to nudge our readers towards a belief in the possibility of transformation. And if we do our job well, we’ll write something that resonates with the reader in a way that moves them towards action.

With stories, we can turn a tiny seed of an idea into an action taken by someone else, with ripples extending to who-knows-where.

Isn’t that powerful?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of stories this week.

Like many of you, my newsfeeds, conversations and thoughts have been flooded with reports of what’s becoming one of the biggest civil rights movements in history.

When we read about the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many others, we feel the urgency. We want to be part of the change.

For those of us with the privilege to avoid thinking about racism most of the time, it’s through stories like these that we finally get it. We’re emotionally invested in the possibility of change.

And we see that we need to do better.

In one of my Slack groups this week, some fellow copywriters and content creators were debating whether the brands they work with should be posting content relating to the protests.

Is ‘politics’ on brand? We don’t normally talk about ‘this stuff’. Shouldn’t they stay ‘neutral’? Maybe you’ve been having similar discussions with your team.

But there is no neutral. Black lives matter. No debate.

Personally, I’d be pretty disappointed to hear that brands and organisations I like are neutral on the subject of racial justice – especially when so many were rushing to jump in our inboxes and say they were ‘here for us’ in the fight against COVID-19.

I get that it can feel awkward. It feels awkward to me too! We worry about saying the wrong thing and getting cancelled. Or worse – being accused of virtue-signalling. I don’t know what the right answer is.

But I’d rather be seen as jumping on the activism bandwagon than as someone who doesn’t care. I’d rather risk people unsubscribing than have them think for a second I’m ok with racial inequality.

What’s useful?

The worldwide protests against racial injustice have become a catalyst for many white people like me to sit up and ask themselves, what’s my role in this story? Have I been complicit? What can I do in my own little part of the world to make things better?

And as people who write copy, we’ve got an added responsibility – or opportunity – to think about the stories we tell, and how we tell them.

Take the health industry, for instance. As a health copywriter, I spend a lot of time writing content about fitness, wellness and healthcare. But take a look at any popular fitness site, and you’ll see the experts quoted are overwhelmingly bald white dudes! In wellness, it’s thin and wealthy white women who hold the floor.

The stories we’re told about what it means to be healthy are a whole other conversation. If you’re interested in digging into the wellness and coaching industry’s white problem in more detail, this episode of the Two Girls Talking Shit podcast, with Chrissy King and Shirin Eskandani, is a good place to start. (And follow them both on IG!)

Some thoughts about writing more inclusive content

Ok, let’s get practical. For those who may be wondering what to say right now (either as an individual or as a company), here are a few thoughts/questions I’ve been asking myself.

I’m no expert, but maybe these will be useful for you too:

  • whose story am I telling?
  • whose voice am I amplifying?
  • what value does this message have for the people who will read it?
  • who benefits from what I’m about to write or post?
  • am I saying this to help drive forward change, or am I looking for a pat on the back?
  • how can I speak up and out against racism, without centring my experience?
  • if I am hesitating to say something I believe, why is that?
  • what do I want my business or organisation to be known for? Can our brand values help us figure out what to say?

And most importantly – am I walking the walk as well as talking the talk?

Inclusive content isn’t just about choosing your stock photos carefully and avoiding culturally insensitive words like ‘tribe’ and ‘blacklist’. We need to root out our blind spots by educating ourselves, listening to and hiring and supporting people who aren’t like us, and welcoming feedback without getting defensive.

We should aspire to write copy that reflects the world around us – and that helps build the world we want to see.

Stories have the power to change lives and help us imagine a new reality.

Our words matter.

P.S. I do my best to make sure my content’s respectful and inclusive, but I am always open to feedback. Please let me know if anything here is incorrect or could be worded more sensitively.

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