Ethical Storytelling: Manipulation vs Persuasion

4 min read
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Is storytelling manipulative, especially when it stirs emotions for donations? This begs a vital question about ethical storytelling: are you a communications manipulator at your nonprofit?

Heck, if storytelling is manipulative, we need to shut down BairStories like yesterday because we specialize in emotive storytelling. But hold on a second, is storytelling really that bad?

The truth is that storytelling can be both manipulative and empathetic. It’s like a double-edged sword. It’s neither inherently good nor bad; it’s all about how you use it. So why do some people think it’s manipulative?

Why People View Storytelling as Manipulation

Ken Burns, the famed documentary filmmaker, suggests good and bad manipulation. What does that mean?

To manipulate means to:

  • Control for your benefit, often unfairly. (Cambridge Dictionary)
  • Skillfully manage or operate something. (Webster’s Dictionary)
  • Influence in a subtle and possibly underhand way. Sidenote: Oxford reports in 1872 the use of manipulate, meaning “To manage, control, or influence in a subtle, devious, or underhand manner." (Oxford Dictionary).

The Core Elements of Manipulation are:

  • Done with skill
  • Done with the intent of personal gain at the expense of others

Done with skill is about how you do things - from running machines to swaying opinions. But doing it for self-gain, especially at the cost of others? That’s where it crosses the line. One of the reasons people question the ethics of storytelling is the concern that it can exploit emotions to drive people towards specific actions, like donating.

However, others argue that the facts and stats should be enough to persuade a donor. This is where the principle of ethical storytelling come into play, helping us discern manipulation from persuasion.

Discerning Manipulation from Persuasion

The answer lies in the nuance of the storyteller’s intention. Storytelling can guide, control, or sway people. But how it’s done - that’s key. Ethical storytelling ensures narratives are used responsibly, focusing on truth and empathy rather than manipulation.

Another word is required to avoid the negative baggage of manipulation. I suggest the verb persuade. It has less negative baggage and better explains the process of using storytelling for marketing purposes or fundraising.

To persuade means to:

  • Reason with someone to do something. (Webster’s Dictionary)
  • Encourage action in a specific direction. (Oxford Dictionary)
  • Convince by giving good reasons. (Cambridge Dictionary)

The Core Elements of Persuasion Are:

  • Influencing Others: Influencing someone’s behavior, beliefs, or decisions. This can manifest in various forms, such as changing someone’s mind, encouraging a specific action, or shaping their beliefs.
  • Use of Reasoning: Present reasons, arguments, or inducements to convince someone. This differs from manipulation, typically involving more open and rational discourse rather than crafty deceptive tactics.
  • Achieving agreement or consent (something suggested, not stated): This aims to bring someone around to your way of thinking or acting with their agreement or consent. The person persuaded has the space and respect to decide based on the information or arguments presented.

If you’re aiming to influence through reasoning, that’s persuasion. It’s about respecting the decision-making process. But influencing for personal gain, using deceptive tactics? That’s manipulation as we know it.

"Fundraising isn’t about forcing hands; it’s about aligning hearts with fitting programs.”

Jon Dize, Fundraising Coach

This philosophy aligns with the Biblical principle in 2 Corinthians 9:7 about giving cheerfully, not under pressure or compulsion. At BairStories, our films knock on the doors of hearts. We present stories that allow audiences to care and act as they feel inspired.

The Ethical Use of Storytelling

Ethical storytelling is vital in your nonprofit communications. It's not just about avoiding harm but uplifting and empowering those whose stories are being told, as emphasized by panelists at a MemoryFox-hosted event. Storytelling can shift from a transactional to a relational approach, focusing on aspirations and contributions rather than deficits.

Hard to relate when you’re manipulating, right? Hence, ethical storytelling is all about clear, honest, empathic communication.

Storytelling fosters understanding and connection - far from manipulation. This connection is key to humans and, by extension, to your nonprofit. Without this connection, why would anyone care? Why would donors contribute? Storytelling offers the tools for vulnerability and deep relationships.

Tips for Discerning Manipulation In Your Storytelling

  • Are you transparent in your communications, ensuring no misinformation or misrepresentation?
  • Are you respecting the donor’s autonomy to give as they see fit?
  • Are you focusing on empowerment instead of guilt?
  • Are you open to how someone wants to give, or are you dead set on how you want them to support?

If you’ve answered yes to all of these, you’re on the path of persuasion. These questions form a solid base for ethical, effective fundraising rooted in respect, honesty, and empowerment.


So there you have it. Storytelling isn’t inherently manipulative or benevolent; it’s a tool that reflects the storyteller’s intent. The journey through ethical storytelling highlights a crucial point: it’s about persuasion, not manipulation.

We’re talking about connecting with hearts, engaging minds through reasoning and respect, not exploiting emotions for gain. At BairStories, we’re all about opening hearts through stories inspiring action from a place of compassion.

Use ethical storytelling to build relationships for your nonprofit, not just seek support.

Download our storytelling guide that helps you tell stories that persuade, not manipulate.

Tagged: Ethics · Storytelling

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