The Power Of Storytelling: Generating $1,421 In A Week
February 24, 2013 1 Comment
If you’ve been following this blog, you’re familiar with Dave: he’s 40 years old, homeless, and lives under a bridge. Here’s where he lives now:
Against the odds, he’s making a love-fueled comeback.
After writing this post (my third in the series), I included a link that allowed readers to donate towards Dave’s journey.
Within minutes, $50 had been donated. After a week, we received $1,421, not to mention other physical donations.
Honestly, I never expected this to happen.
As I’ve shared Dave’s story (you can read it starting here) and talked to readers about my blogging journey, I’m often asked how it started, and why I do it.
This post explores some of these questions.
How Did This Start?
Dave is actually the second homeless person I’ve written about. The first was Joey, who I wrote about here.
I’m often asked, “How did you meet them?”
Simple: I drove around our city, looking in spots I knew the homeless frequented. I parked my car, got out, and just walked up and starting talking. That’s it.
You could do it too.
Maybe you just raised your eyebrows, thinking, “… And why would I do that?”.
Well, let me ask you this: when you see a homeless person, what do you see? If you’re like me, maybe you see grungy unkempt hair, a weathered and unshaven face, dirty and tattered clothes, and blackened fingers holding a cardboard sign.
And maybe you think, are they crazy and drugged out? Are they aggressive?
Maybe you feel fear.
Or maybe you feel a tinge of guilt when you look the other way.
In my case, deep down I blamed them for their homelessness. Surely in this land of opportunity, it must be as a result of their laziness or desire that they were on the streets.
As I reflect on my life, I realize that many of my assumptions about other people have proven to be wildly inaccurate, especially when it comes to accurately assessing their motives.
I find that I carry a strong bias about people I don’t know, assuming so many things about them – which I often find are just not true.
As I mentioned above, one assumption is that the homeless have chosen their lifestyle, or that they must just be too lazy to find a job. When I walk by them, clutching my money close to my heart, I assume that any money I hand them is spent on beer or drugs.
“I would just be making the problem worse and enabling them to continue their lazy lifestyle,” I say to comfort myself, hurrying my pace and avoiding eye contact. “Get a job, dude.”
Keep in mind that my sample is only a few people, but through their stories and the time we’ve spent, I’ve found many of my assumptions are, to put it mildly, just plain wrong. Also, bear in mind that I’m not suggesting that handouts are the answer; I believe a better answer is probably figuring out a way to equip them to help themselves (maybe more on that in another post).
The other question I often get is what I’m trying to do through the time I spend, and what the end objective is.
You know what? I started this with nothing more than a desire to just get to know new people – people who happened not to have a home. I just wanted to hang out, in large part because I feel we are called to care for the less fortunate.
Now that people have followed the story of Homeless Dave, they ask where his story is leading. With Dave, there seems to be a clear path ahead of him: getting into the OC Rescue Mission. If you’re not familiar with what this organization does, read this post I wrote after having visited their facilities.
Oh, and that brings me to one other point: many of the homeless I’ve met have little to no idea about the services that are out there to help them. Granted, I’ve spoken to less than a dozen, but I’ve seen this many times. I can’t figure out why this is. If you know, leave me your thoughts in the comments.
Behind The Scenes
On a Saturday in early 2013, I asked my wife for the blessing of a few hours of unscheduled time to go and hang out with whoever came my way. This is how it started. And I kept doing it.
Every time I went out, I met someone who wanted to talk. The shortest conversation was about 45 minutes, with Maria who has 4 children and lives in Anaheim.
Nearly every time, I fought through feelings of awkwardness, fear, and worry. I remember that before my time with Dave, I nearly convinced myself that it was unnecessary. “No one will want to talk to you,” I said to myself, justifying my insecurities.
I literally had one of those splash-water-on-your-face-to-shake-it-off moments in the Target bathroom.
Thankfully, I pushed through my fears. My approach was simple: learn their name, hang out, and ask about their story. I intentionally brought up the subject of their homelessness, and in nearly all cases, they engaged me in serious conversation about how it started.
In contrast to many of my assumptions, I’ve found very human and real people on the other end.
And while this my strike you as unlikely, I don’t think they’re much different than you or me.
The Writing Process
Writing about Dave and Joey was something I couldn’t resist doing.
In creating these posts, the narrative poured out with little effort (a sign of being in the zone I guess). I think I wrote the post about Joey in about 45 minutes (not including revisions). I distinctly recall the post just flowing out of me – it really didn’t take much effort. I remember showing it to my wife, as she mused in surprise, “When did you write this?!”
Here’s the process I use:
- After our meetings, I quickly write down as many parts of our conversation as I can remember. Because my memory is bad, I write dialogue and insights in abbreviated, staccato fashion – just enough to trigger recollection. I don’t worry about writing the points sequentially; rather, I just do a brain dump and write everything I can remember, paying no attention to spelling or grammar.
- Then, using these notes, I work towards a first draft. For some reason, I start most of my posts in TextEdit, and once they have some meat on them, transfer to Word. I think that writing in TextEdit gives me a sense of freedom and freshness.
- After my first draft, I set a goal of making at least 3 revisions, each time cutting 5% of the words. Sometimes, this process requires removing lines that I feel are good, but don’t add much over-all value. I find this process makes the posts easier to read.
- To gain perspective, I share the stories with my wife, who is an excellent source of feedback and refinement. She usually points out inconsistencies or things that don’t make sense, which leads to a few more revisions.
I did not intentionally set out to write stories with the intent of asking for donations – that just happened. I did not realize the impact the stories would have, and how many lives would be touched.
I use PayPal for donations, which is not difficult to do (click here to jump to the donation link). If you want to know how, let me know in the comments and I’ll write a separate post on this topic. In the case of Dave, I kept a running tally of how much had been donated and updated a widget on the right side of the blog.
Donations came in from 24 people, averaging $60 p/person.
Promoting the Stories
I share the stories in the following places: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. Facebook drives the most traffic (by far). I currently suck at Pinterest, but I’m developing some new tactics that I think will improve its ability to drive readers.
Because I am drawn to the cause, and because most of this blog’s traffic comes from Facebook, I experimented with Facebook’s Promoted Posts (which cost $7) and Ads (I budgeted $20) to drive additional traffic and interest. I’ll report on those results in February’s Traffic Report.
Interestingly, what ends up taking more time than writing and promoting the posts themselves is answering questions from readers. I find myself spending time after my daughter goes to bed answering emails, replying on Facebook, and keeping track of donations. I find this interaction very enjoyable, as often I’m meeting new people who are encouraging and positive.
If indeed I spend a night under the bridge with Dave (something I wrote about here), I’ll be sure to document it with pictures, as people seem eager to see the things I’m describing. I hear that the pictures and video make the story come alive, so I’m going to continue doing this as I document the unfolding narrative.
Homeless Dave has proven to be remarkably insightful about his own journey, possessing a noticeably mindful view of his own situation. For example, he recently mentioned to me that he feels that what is happening on this blog is transforming how (some) people view homelessness.
“You’re changing people’s perspectives of people like me,” he says. “And you’re also changing my perspective … there are good people out there,” he says, after having felt rejected and alone for so long.
It is inspiring to hear how he is encouraged by your comments and support.
To me, it reinforces the idea that it really is possible to make a difference in a person’s life, and that making that difference matters significantly.
Thank you for joining me in this journey.
Now it’s your turn: What questions do you still have? What assumptions have I made in this post that you challenge?