Responsible Representation in Storytelling

Representation is hard. Especially when you’re representing something which you are not.

In our role as storytellers we often have to slip ourselves into the shoes of the people, communities and brands that we’re representing. We have to portray them in a way that is accurate and respectful.

It’s easy (and normal) to find yourself taking shortcuts based on your own personal experiences.

Take the term ‘diversity’, for example.

What comes to mind when you read that? Is it ‘gender’ or ‘race’?

What about ‘LGBT’, or ‘migrant’, or ‘disabled’? What feelings bubble up when you read those words? How many people do you know that identify with those terms? Are they what you think of?

Our own life experiences create the lens through which we view the world, and we have to constantly remind ourselves that - it’s our lens. And it’s freaking complicated. And everyone else has their own, equally complicated lens.

This is what ‘intersectionality’ means and it’s the theme for a special diversity event that we’re partnering with this year (more about that later).

Kate Sheppard Place meeting.jpg


Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another.

Intersectionality is a tool to help all of us build a deeper level of empathy, which can be used to successfully navigate an increasingly connected and conscious world.

A world that is threatened by the promise of a cheaper (and more effective) robotic workforce.

Intersectionality says, “You know that diversity issue, that you think is about women? Well it’s not just about women…. It’s about women that have come from a minority class group, that suffer subtle but consistent racist oppression, that don’t speak English as their first language, and as a result of their situation, have always thought of themselves as intellectually disabled compared to their peers. Peers who might also be living in the same community and share the same demographic profile and struggle with similar issues.”

Storytellers need to be empathetic

Well, we all need to be empathetic. That’s how we’ll build a better, more inclusive world.

But as shapers of the stories which influence the way that people think about ‘plastic pollution’, ‘Donald Trump’, ‘bitcoin’ and other topics that get a lot of mainstream airtime, we hold a lot of responsibility.

In my case, that responsibility keeps me awake at night, thinking about how I could shape the political, social, environmental and economic narrative for the better. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you think about it too.

To make sure these stories are being portrayed in a way that doesn’t victimise, gloss over, or pander to existing inaccurate stereotypes. BUT, and a very important ‘but’, also doesn’t set expectations that will let people down.

Because trust has never been as valuable of a commodity as it is today. And attention has never been more easily lost.

I believe that the best way to tackle this tricky, complex issue is to:

  • Get the right people involved early in the process, making sure there are voices that represent all of the key lenses that you’re trying to capture to make a full, rich and accurate story. If you can’t do this (whether it’s a budget or time constraint), have good reasons so that you’re prepared to explain the situation when you’re called out on it by someone who wasn’t invited to contribute.

  • Keep an open mind, an empathetic attitude and a kind heart so that you can work against any of your unconscious biases that might be perpetuating common stereotypes.

  • Be aware that this is hard (but important work) and be kind to yourself. And be kind to the people that you are working to serve and deliver them the best version of the story you can deliver.

When mainstream representation isn’t enough

For those of us that have an obscure mad passion or a deeply personal beef, it’s also important to fight for more representation when these stories aren’t the ones that make it to the homepage of The Spinoff (or if you’re that way inclined, Stuff).

The ladies at Kate Sheppard Place Women are a real example of a team of inspired and motivated women that are walking the diversity and inclusion talk.

KSPW team.gif

Led by fiercely passionate Latina, Natalia Albert, they’re 12+ volunteers - migrants, refuges, daughters of the deaf and blind community, those who identify as women, of different body colours, shapes and sizes, and all united under a shared vision for bringing more unheard stories to the mainstream.

If you’re thinking about this diversity and inclusion stuff and you want to unpack it with a supportive, kind and incredibly smart and capable group of people, come along to Kate Sheppard Place Women on the 8th of March.

It’s a full day event held in Wellington. You can find out more at

Want to hear more ramblings?
Sign up for updates