On one Sunday in April, the streets of London overflow with determination and kindness. This year 36,000 people took part in the London Marathon and many more came to cheer and will the athletes on. If it were possible to bottle goodwill this would be the place to start.
Last Sunday, for the first time in years I wasn’t on the frontline near Embankment yelling encouragement at the athletes, instead I watched the London Marathon on television at home, with some friends. As you can imagine it was a different experience. I’m not sure if it was more emotional to be part of the noise on the sidelines, with the exhausted runners on the last leg of the race, or taking in the huge scale of the event from the wider television coverage.
The television coverage of the London Marathon, as you would expect, featured a lot of stories. Real life heart wrenching stories from real people about why they were raising money for charity by running the marathon.
We listened to and watched so many sad stories; a father running in memory of his son who committed suicide, he was raising money to fund projects to help young men like his son, so that no father would have to go through what he went through, a man who last ran the marathon 20 years ago, raising money for medical research in memory of his best friend and running partner who died of a heart attack, siblings running in memory of their brothers and sisters and parents running to fund ground breaking research in the hope that it will give more time to spend with the people that they love.
The stories were relentless. We sat and listened and watched and cried.
We were in admiration of the honesty and bravery of the people telling their stories. They bluntly described how awful it is when someone you love dies, how devastating it is to watch someone you love suffer, how painful it is in brief moments of remembering, how a cancer diagnosis tears families apart and how the marathon is their opportunity to fundraise to make a difference.
Then from the individual stories, we skipped back to the view of brilliant sunshine and crowds on the London streets and general commentary on the race.
It struck me as the commentator reeled off the names of runners who were fundraising for different causes, how different the tone of the commentary was to the real stories we had just heard. He spoke about running for ‘life limiting conditions’ and ‘capacity building in communities’ about ‘enabling positive life choices’ and ‘access to quality education’.
We were all a bit baffled.
Not one runner told a story about fundraising to help ‘life limiting conditions’ or raising money to ‘capacity build’.
When we seek real stories from real people they tell their story bluntly in their own words, in simple terms. They use clear language and are direct and to the point. Then something happens, political correctness, brand guidelines and fear of offending sets in and language is watered down and the power of the real story is lost.
Often we get tied up in knots about not offending anyone. It is right that we are sensitive to the needs of our supporters and beneficiaries, but the people telling their story are surely the benchmark for the sensitivity required? The bad situation is happening or has happened to them. Who are we protecting with our brand guidelines and protocol about the way we tell their stories and describe the causes that we fundraise for? I wonder if we would be surprised at their response if we were to ask them?
Powerful and real stories inspire people to take action. If we water down these stories, can we honestly say that we are doing the best job that we can for the people we exist to help?