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Pitfalls


Pitfall 1: Representing

When you showcase one person’s story (or one family’s story), the person (or family) is likely to be considered “typical” of an entire group – in your case, of WAP participants. The reader probably, and reasonably, assumes you purposely chose the person’s tale to make a general point. Since this usually is the case, it is critical to make your general points first, in ways that do not involve a personal story and that you choose your representative story very carefully to ensure that you frame the story in a positive fashion by using people with whom the public can empathize


Bad:

Lisa and Jim A.’s mobile home is in very poor condition, leading them to have incredibly high heating bills that the two, who live on Social Security, cannot pay.


Good:

In our community, the economic downturn has left many elderly living on fixed incomes, such as Lisa and Jim. A, unable to afford basic necessities, like heat for their homes

Pitfall 2: Disconnecting


There is a risk that the reader will not see the policy forest for the personal trees. A reader may feel sympathy for the person in the story while failing to make connections to the broad societal or community-level conditions that contributed to the person’s problems. A dramatic story increases this risk, but can also be very persuasive. Again, careful selection of the personal story highlighted is crucial to connect with the public and illustrate the larger problem.

Research tells us that a vivid image, such as a dramatic or emotionally evocative personal story, keeps the audience from perceiving the general problem behind the story or the policy and program that is the general solution. The person and her or his drama dominate the memory of the reader. This is one explanation for the willingness of many to send unsolicited donations to people whose misfortunes are shown in the media, while the donors lack interest in solving the underlying problem. Readers may also believe that a very successful individual is unique or is so strong that your organization’s contribution was marginal, or that it would not be decisive for less extraordinary individuals. Ensure that you connect the larger issues, such as high energy prices and job loss, to the personal story in a very concrete way.


Bad:

Jeremy R. was out of work and had limited constructions skills when he signed up for weatherization training at XYZ, Inc.


Good:

The economic recession and resulting job loss in Anytown, USA has left many, like Jeremy R., without job or the skills needed to get jobs – that’s where XYZ, Inc. steps in.

Pitfall 3: Stereotypes


A story without a general framework and a clear action sequence can activate one or more negative stereotypes. For example, there is a common misconception that economically impoverished families are larger, on average, than families in the middle class. A story of a family with a large number of children could backfire by summoning forth the idea that “poor people have too many children,” thereby causing their own problems. This is another reason why selection of the highlighted individual is so crucial for success.


Bad:

Annie M., who can’t work due to disability, and her six children were desperately cold in their home last winter, as many in the area were due to record snow and poor housing conditions.


Good:

Last winter’s record snow and the poor state of much of Anytown, USA’s housing stock left many unable to pay their utilities and stay warm, like single-mother Annie M. and her young children.


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