This is what I’m on about! ‘It Happened to Me’

whats your story 4I always read the Guardian’s Experience page. Thousands, maybe millions of people buy real life story magazines each week, and internet publications are filled with first person stories.

But there’s a cost.

There’s a cost to the person who exposes their self to the media, and in this article, Mandy Stadtmiller, a ‘former first-person human trafficker‘ – also known as an online journalist for website xoJane –  talks about how easily it all gets out of control.

Mandy’s conclusion is that first person pieces have helped: “These squirmy, awful, brilliant pieces have encouraged us all to be a lot more honest about the human experience. A lot less afraid to be honest.” My feeling after reading her article is still shaped by some of the experiences she explores, where people have been attacked online, have had to withdraw from the online world altogether after sharing their story. Mandy explained her pitch to people: “I ran into Sonja Morgan from Real Housewives at a party the other day, and she reminded me of what I told her before I profiled her in the New YorkPost. I told her that the headline would likely humiliate her and she would be positioned in a way that was making fun of her, but that it would be terrific, wide-ranging, must-see press. So — was she in? ” This rings of a world where we have becomes so sucked in by the desire to be seen that we will accept being made fun of, accept humiliation, just for the clicks, for the exposure. Thinking about exposure in another context, who wants to be exposed? There’s something out of balance in these real life stories, whether you are hungry for exposure of self, or whether you are the editor, feeding your ravening audience a diet that has to be ever more shocking.

We no longer know what is normal, what is private. ‘It Happened to Me’ stories do play an essential role in helping people process their own experiences, but they also chew people up and spit them out in pieces.

In another piece, I write, as writer, as story teller: “I am hungry: tell me a story. I am never satisfied.” Do you want to be fed to the beast?

Using real people’s stories in PR

This is adapted from a piece I wrote for Dispensing Optics


If you are thinking about how to raise the profile of your practice, your charity, you may want to use real people’s stories. In this article you can learn more about how and when to use case studies.


A case study is a story, and people love to read stories about other people’s real life experiences. If you look at newspapers, magazines and websites, they are full of true life stories. The reader may feel empathy, ‘That’s just like what happened to me,’ and that their own experience is validated by reading the story. Alternatively, they may feel shock and horror: ‘How awful, I’m glad that didn’t happen to me,’ and although those sound like negative feelings, they can in fact reinforce a sense of well-being and ‘I’m all right’. People’s true stories and experiences are a powerful way to get others to take action. While it is easy to say ‘an eye test can save your sight’, it is far more powerful to read a headline in a newspaper about a specific event happening to a real person, such as: ‘Eye test saved Jane’s sight’ or ‘The Optician discovered my brain tumour!’ People reading any newspaper, magazine or website have a degree of trust in the publication. Readers usually regard journalists as independent which is another reason why this type of story can have added weight.  And again, there is an ‘it could happen to me’ factor. A story about a young woman who has a brain tumour detected at an eye test makes compelling reading for other young women, for example.


Beyond the media, real life stories can be valuable additions to your print literature – leaflets, magazines –  and websites. Whether it is a short quote as a testimonial, or a full page story, true stories can help you communicate important messages. The fact that the person in the story is independent adds weight to their words in a way that it wouldn’t if you told the story yourself as the practice owner or manager, practitioner or member of the charity’s staff.


Using case studies isn’t always straightforward, however, which is probably why we don’t take action even when someone has a life changing experience in the practice/as a result of the work of the charity. Read on to find out some more of the issues and how to address them.


One of the first issues about using someone’s real experience is that you need to ask their permission. This can seem awkward at the time: if an optometrist has detected signs that might indicate a brain tumour, the last things a patient needs is for you to appear with a consent form and ask them if they would mind appearing in the local paper. If your charity is working with someone on a complex personal issue on an ongoing basis, it may not be the right time to discuss PR. At this point, just note what has happened. Often patients return after a hospital visit and are keen to update practice staff on what has happened to them: they have returned because in some way they want to tell you their story. People who have worked with your charity may want to express gratitude. This is a better time to discuss whether they might be interested in being a case study. Alternatively, after time, you could phone up to find out how the person is getting on. Some people won’t be interested in being a case study at all, which must be respected. For many, though, talking about their own experience can be a positive thing. They may be motivated by the thought of seeing their story in the newspaper, or perhaps they may want to help other people who could be going through the same experience. Someone who has had their life or sight saved by an eye test may feel that telling their story and helping others gives them a reason for having gone through trauma.  Understanding more about what motivates people to tell their stories can help you to ask for their consent in a sensitive way.

It can help if you prepare consent forms in advance. You need to have space to write the person’s details, and how their story might be used. Would you use it only on a practice publication, on the website, in advertising, on social media? A written consent form with a list of possible outlets can help the person think about where they might be happy to see their story, and what might make them feel uncomfortable. Allow them time to read the form and discuss how they feel. You could also discuss and list on the form whether the person is happy to speak to a journalist, whether they would appear on TV or have their photo taken.


You need to keep the consent forms and any details of the person’s story, remembering your data protection responsibilities. A consent form doesn’t give you carte blanche to share the person’s details. If, for example, they have had a story in the local newspaper and then the local TV new show wants to cover it too, call them and check they are still happy to speak if. A consent form is also necessary if you want to use shorter quotes, perhaps alongside an image, as testimonials on your website or leaflet.


Images are a key element to any story. A picture of the person is a great start. It can also be good to have a picture that shows how their issue was detected: the doctor and patient in consultation, for example. People always like to see action shots, and it can be good to show the person doing their favourite activity, something they might have struggled with if their problem hadn’t been detected and treated, if the charity hadn’t helped them.


If you are using the story for your website or magazine, you may need to interview the person yourself. Here are a few tips. First, think about recording your discussion. Ask the person if they mind it being recorded so that you can check facts and quotes. Explain that you won’t share the recording with anyone else. Set up a quiet room where the person feels comfortable: ask if they would prefer to speak to you in practice or in their home. Provide a drink and tissues: retelling a story can sometimes be traumatic. Have a notebook and pen with you to jot down key parts of the story. Remember that people don’t always tell a story in a logical order so you may need to piece the story together afterwards. When writing up the story check back using the notes and your recording to make sure it is accurate. After that, it can be good to read the story back to the person to check that it sounds correct to them before you use it.


If you are hoping to get some media coverage for the story you will need a different type of write up. Journalists will want to see a few short facts about the story: what happened, and why is it compelling and unique? Real life magazines are often looking for stories that focus on ‘triumph over tragedy’ so emphasise the strongest points of the story, the real highs and lows for the person. Remember that it may help make a compelling case for the story if you tie your case study into an event like National Eye Health Week, or a relevant disease focussed day/week. Draft an email to the journalist, and then check back and make sure that you have covered the ‘who, when, what, why and how’ of the story too. Remember that you always need the person’s permission before passing the story on. If the journalist feels that the person’s story is a good fit for their programme or publication, they are likely to want to interview the person concerned as well as the practitioner who made the discovery or the charity worker who helped them. They may want to take photos or film in practice and/or in the person’s home.


Once you have generated some coverage for your practice using a case study, remember to follow up. You may want to thank the person, either in person or by sending a small gift. You should also make sure that patients and the wider public know about the coverage: you could mention that you have been part of the person’s story in the local media on your blog and in the newsletter, with a link to the article. Finally, always stay on the lookout for compelling stories taking place as they are a great way to communicate about issues that might not get raised otherwise, and reach new media.



Where we tell our stories – newspapers and magazines

I’m trying to focus this study, but that means examining the broad range of outlets in which we tell our stories. Blogs, books, and print media seem to be the three main places. There is an enormous appetite, it seems for real life stories in newspapers and magazines. I always read the ‘experience’ page in the Guardian magazine on Saturdays. For a taster, if you’re not familiar with the slot, have a look at this:

Experience: I chose to amputate my leg

And scroll through all the stories here.

At some point, I want to analyse the stories in more depth, perhaps look at the topics and what people choose to share. Beyond that, though, I want to understand what drives people to tell stories that are often traumatic. What do we gain when telling a story, and getting closer to the focus of this study, what do we feel, how do we change, when the story appears in print one Saturday?

PS: if you interview people for this slot, could you get in touch? I’d be interested in your views on why people volunteer and how they feel about telling their stories. Similarly, if you have appeared in something like this, please leave a comment!