Best Storytelling Has Empathy & Intimacy (It’s Important to Engage)


I HAD THE RESPONSIBILITY OF CREATING VISUAL CONTENT (PUBLICATIONS, PACKAGING, AND SAFER SEX ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS) to help save the lives of men, women, and children at-risk for HIV/AIDS during the four years that I worked at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Inc. in New York City, the oldest HIV/AIDS prevention, education and treatment organization in the United States.

ONE OF THE MOST CHALLENGING PROJECTS FOR ME WAS ART-DIRECTING A PHOTO SHOOT that required consulting and collaborating with sex industry workers to create packaging for a video: Prostitutes, Risk and AIDS.

One Image Worth So Many Individual Stories

Photo Source: GMHC

I WAS AN OUTSIDER FULL OF IGNORANCE ABOUT THE VARIETY OF SEX WORKER LIFESTYLES, who feared what I didn’t understand, and was reluctant therefore to empathize because my judgmental sensibility interfered with using my senses (i.e., of or relating to the senses)connecting through the senses–to set the right scene, mood, and tone to tell the story. It was challenging for me to connect to the textual and sound context: the feel of a lacy bra as the sound of the crispness of the dollar bills were being tucked into it, while the other hand holds a limp used latex condom–human visceral reality engaged in a multi-sensory relationship foreign to me.

I HAD TO RELY ON THE WOMEN TO COME UP WITH THAT PERFECT IDEA TO CAPTURE THE STORY in one realistic image, in a sensory fashion, so that the various target audience segments (e.g., adult streetwalkers, high-class agency-based or independent workers, children on-the-street hustling, pornography film actors, etc.) would instantly recognize the safer sex message in a way that would attract, engage and
persuade them to view the video inside the packaging. The video content encouraged them to use condoms to protect themselves and their customers. The stakes were high: lives needed to be saved.

DURING THE PHOTO SHOOT, I LEARNED A GREAT DEAL FROM THE SEX WORKERS ABOUT THE POWER OF VISUAL CONTENT. Today, I’m much more open to empathy as a valuable–and potential vital–path to tell a story that serves a goal, vision, intent, or specific outcome.

See Me, Feel Me, Hear Me, Touch Me, Taste Me (or Two Specific Ideas Featuring the Senses As the Main Attraction In Storytelling)

HERE ARE TWO ORIGINAL IDEAS for inspiration that use the sensory factor in creative storytelling:

TEXT, AUDIO, OR VIDEO CONTENT THAT FEATURES SOMEONE DEEPLY INHALING THE SCENT OF PLAY-DOH (or any piece of clay) can be useful as content (Read Creator’s Corner: Here Comes Play-Doh!). This particular sense memory can lead us into an intimate relationship with a story–most likely something related to our childhood.

To put a different twist on it to engage in a different story relationship, consider a person snorting the scent of Play-Doh like it’s cocaine. Different scenarios of the interaction will create entirely different relationships and feelings–comical or serious–depending upon the story direction and desired outcome.

(Photo Source: Flickr’s Valerie)
Column Inspiration:

SELLING JEWELRY? IMAGINE A STORY ABOUT A WOMAN FROM THE STONE AGE WHO FINDS SOMETHING WITH A VIBRANT SPARKLE ON THE GROUND.  She picks it up, smells it, listens for sound, throws it on the ground, picks it up again and bangs it against a rock; licks it, tries to bite it, rubs it against her skin–engages her senses in trying to understand this spectacular, unusual object. She is spellbound by how it glistens! We know it as a diamond bracelet. Next scene is a grandmother opening up a box of her keepsakes, selecting that bracelet among her precious belongings, and giving it as a gift to her daughter.

(Photo Source: Unknown)
Column Inspiration:

LET’S CREATE UNIVERSAL STORIES–OR NICHE ONES–ABOUT HOW WE ARE INTIMATELY BOUND TO SOMETHING, someone, some experience, and ourselves through our sensual relationships. Or perhaps, our story is about disconnection, and offers solutions to connect in ways we haven’t experienced in a long time if ever.

MAY YOU DISCOVER MORE CREATIVE ideas and storytelling support now (and in the future) by exploring the Creativity & Storytelling ‘Zine.


“Things are only impossible until they’re not.”
“Make it so.”
Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation


Valerie Mich’El Oliver explores the art and architecture of creativity and storytelling in imaginative, innovative, playful and award-winning ways. Tisch School of the Arts (New York University) and The Mystery School (Sacred Center for the Healing Arts) graduate. | Imagine, innovate, create, be generous, love this life, and dare to shine.

One thought on “Best Storytelling Has Empathy & Intimacy (It’s Important to Engage)

  1. Pingback: Lies & Storytelling: Strange Bedfellows in Shades of Gray | Creator's Corner

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