The Power of Empathy in Storytelling

While at WPPI a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet a really lovely married couple. The wife was originally from northern England. I found this out because I had asked her what kind of photography she did.

“I do glama photography,” she replied.

“You do what?” I asked again.


“Huh? Or, glamour! Sorry. I just realized you have an accent.” (Way to go Ron. 🙂

What followed was a very interesting conversation about the different accents and types of people in various parts of the U.K. What I found particularly interesting was her take on the difference between northerners and southerners. She said southerners can come off as less friendly. If you were to go into a pub in London, you could stand in the middle of the room all night and not one person would talk to you. Go to a pub in the north, and as soon as the door creaks open, people want to see who it is. It’s kind of like “Cheers” (everybody wants to know your name.).

Out of curiosity I asked around to some other UK people I know and asked them what their take was on the difference between the north and south. Their answers were slightly different. I’ll be as euphemistic as possible, but the consensus was that the north was, um how shall we say, less rich. One person commented that in certain towns in the north, the joke is they have to bolt down the chairs during the weddings. And yes, you guessed it, the other UK folks I asked were from the south. 🙂

I must say, the documentary filmmaker in me found these diametrically opposing viewpoints to be quite fascinating. I’m dying to get on a plane, hop “the pond,” and do a drive around Great Britain asking people what they think of other parts of the country.

But in truth, I could just as easily do that here in the U.S. The difference between how northern and southern Brits look at one another reminds me of a similar dynamic in Los Angeles in the African American community. Ask someone from the largely African-American populated and upper class area of Baldwin Hills what it’s like in South Central and you may get an answer akin to “South Central is filled with gangsters and thugs.” Ask someone from South Central what the black folk in Baldwin Hills are like and you may hear, “Straight up boojy!” (For my international readers, “boojy” is a derogatory term used to describe uppity, snobbish black folk.)

So what does any of this have to do with storytelling? It has EVERYTHING to do with it. How we perceive those we encounter affects how we respond to what they say to us. As storytellers, you serve your audience and your subjects better when you endeavor to get to know them at an authentic and deep level. The ramifications extend to the work you do:

  • If shooting a wedding between a person from northern England and southern England, how would knowing these different perceptions affect whom you interview, what sound bites you use, or how you edit it?
  • If making a promotional video aimed at the African American community in Los Angeles, how would knowing the different dynamics affect your direction and editing?
  • If you are FROM one of these areas and given charge to make a film related to the other, to what lengths will you go to get the different perspective, or will you let your own feelings and possible prejudices stand in the way?

Stories have the power to heals wounds, inspire camaraderie and bridge the great divide. How will you use stories?

10 thoughts on “The Power of Empathy in Storytelling

  1. Hi Ron,
    It was great meeting you and Tasra at WPPI, we had fun sitting and chatting with both of you at lunch. It was funny to see this blog post come through our twitter feed, wondering before we had read it whether or not it was about our conversation.
    We really liked your take on the topic and your investigation into both sides of the story. It is definitely a good reminder for storytellers to be aware of as many details of their topic as possible, and to know who your audience is when telling your story.

    Great post and great meeting you!

    1. Ha! Glad you liked it Brian. I had planned to keep my “sources” secret. 🙂 It was wonderful chatting with you and Lindsay. I hope we get the chance to meet again. If you ever pop your head into an Atlanta pub, I won’t be there (I don’t drink), but feel free to call me up and I’ll come on down and make you feel at home. 😉

      1. Haha sorry to blow our cover as your source.
        If we do make it to Atlanta someday we’ll definitely get in contact (in or out of a pub).
        Great meeting you and keep making great work!

  2. On a trip to England I found the population to the South to be distant and not very friendly. When we drove to the North and I walked into a pub, I was immediately welcomed. People wanted to ask me all kinds of questions about America and what I did there. We ended up closing down that pub, as well as another pub, and we were working on closing down a third at almost 4 in the morning, when I said my goodbyes.

    I’ll always remember their parting words. “You’re lucky it’s Wednesday, or we’d REALLY be drinking!”

    1. This sounds very similar to my first visit to the U.K. as well. Except we didn’t close any pubs down nor did we have drinks until 4am. Haha.

  3. Hi Ron,
    I found your last line so poignant at this time in my life. I copied it and printed it.
    And I’m looking at it on my wall right now.
    I feel so inspired by it hope you don’t mind me using it some how. Don’t know how
    yet, but for now on my wall is it’s home.
    Have enjoyed Dare Dreamer for quite a while. Thanks for your inspiration.

    1. So glad it’s inspired you. And thanks for reading. I can’t say that last line was thought up by me, so feel free to use away. 🙂

Comments are closed.