The Next Phase of Storytelling

For the past few months I have been deeply reflecting on the role of the storyteller.   I have been looking at it both in the context of my sector, the non-profit sector, and well as in a much more broadly across sectors and geographies. The most obvious example of the elevated role and importance of storytelling in recent years is the famous TED Conference, which invites leading thinkers across sectors, geographies, races to share their stories and insight about the world.

To speak from experience in the non-profit sector, we place tremendous emphasis on developing one’s skill as a storyteller as it is one of the most powerful tools we have to create empathy, raise capital, and connect people.  And, we, the ones who travel back and forth from the slums of Kenya to the conference halls of Aspen (I just returned from the  Aspen Ideas Festival), are seen as the carriers of these stories.  While I have been a storyteller most of my life, for the first time I have started asking not how can I perfect my skill but perhaps more importantly what is my responsibility as a storyteller? 

Storytellers bear an enormous responsibility to pay tribute to the endless complexities that exist in the world.  I have had the privilege to travel extensively in emerging markets (Pakistan, Senegal, Kenya, South Korea) and I often find myself as the only one in the room who has experience in those countries.  Sharing these stories can be an intimidating hat to wear.  So my advice is before you tell any story is that you remind your listener of the “Danger of a Single Story”.  Your experience and perspective is just one of many.

Storytellers must be dynamic.  When I am in an environment where few people have been exposed to the things I have been exposed to, I am constantly observing reactions, listening to questions, and repositioning my story and tone.  I have to challenge myself to continuously re-imagine the different sides of one story, and craft my message in a way that pushes others to question their perspective – but in a way that is not too jarring that they will unable to really hear what I have to say.  This balance is critical.  You must push your listeners at a rate they can absorb.

Storytelling must come from a place of empathy.  A few weeks ago, I spoke to the JK Watson Fellows, young up and coming leaders in New York, and we had a long discussion about how to tell stories about individuals you have met along your journey.  One of the Fellows asked me.  How do I know I am preserving the nuance and complexity of the person whom the story is about?  My advice to her was ask the protagonist of the story (whether they be a low income person in a slum or a wealthy philanthropist) what they think.

Finally Storytellers must uncover ways to be replaceable.  I think we are at a moment in time of interconnectivity and democratized technology that rather than telling other’s stories we can find ways to empower them to tell their own stories. To give you an example of what I mean, one of the most amazing speeches I have seen to this day was delivered by Alex Sunguti, a young man born and raised in the slums of Kenya.  Alex could easily take his story to a global stage.  I (we) don’t need to tell his story.

I am not saying we should stop telling other people’s stories because our stories are intertwined with theirs and the reality is that this is not always possible.  What I am saying is let’s figure out some levers to unlock and some new tools to use that will allow more people to tell their own stories.  Twitter, youtube, and facebook are doing this on a massive scale.  So we can see that technology is already helping but let’s remember that we must drive that technology.  We, the storytellers, need to lets some stories go so that the voices of the world can truly be heard.

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5 thoughts on “The Next Phase of Storytelling

  1. Dear Blair —

    I love what you are saying here about storytelling and the responsibility of the storyteller. Most of all I am engaged by the questions you are asking about empowering as many as possible to tell their stories. I was struck recently after listening to a NY fireman share his story on a recent Moth broadcast. The story he told was powerful, had me in tears. But what sticks with me most was what he said in the interview after the story: his life has changed since he has found an outlet and an audience for his stories. Stories he thought he would never be able to share and nobody would want to listen to. He described it as the sensation of “lancing a boil”. There is an internal pressure relieved inside of him as a result of telling his story. There is more room inside of him now.

    For years I have been “marinating” in the stories of my clients. Helping them find the stories that matter to them and those they lead. This experience has confirmed for me the message contained in this old Talmudic proverb … “What is truer than truth? The story.”

  2. Wonderful piece, Blair Emily, thank you! Your observations about dynamism, empathy, and emergence are why I prefer to talk about storysharing as opposed to storytelling. When we talk about sharing, we are reminded that story begets story; that ours is but one story, and that our listeners have stories of their own that deserve to be heard.

    You may be interested in this SSIR post: http://www.ssireview.org/opinion/entry/working_with_stories/

    Thank you again, and I look forward to hearing more!

  3. Blair, nice post. I think the tools for storytelling are already there, and from what I saw in Kibera last year (http://stryfl.com/3oa) there is certainly no lack of enthusiasm. There is a lack of connectivity, however, which hampers peoples’ ability to get their message across, as the tools for storytelling and for putting them out online are predominantly web-based. This puts some authentic, local voices with poor web connections at a disadvantage as the focus on web video continues to grow – it’s slow to upload.

    We (Storyful) are also one of a growing number of platforms that allow people pull together all the various streams of social media and weave them into narratives. Our storybuilder app (http://stryfl.com/55n) is free, available to all, and part of a movement to allow storytellers around the world, both professional and amateur, a path into the newsroom. As well as our own public site, we work with major global news networks so we have the ability to give hitherto fringe contributors some much-valued amplification. We’re searching for storytellers right now: http://stryfl.com/7fd

  4. Hi — sorry i’m reacting to this a few months after it was posted but when it comes to using technology to tell stories, I have really been struck by this app, which I first saw on a Paris blog:
    http://www.timetravelertours.com…..while it’s certainly not a first-person story (as it’s history) it provides a model for making stories accessible to a very diverse demographic — much like the movies opened a massive door for people to tell their stories, smartphones, too, can do the same…..but thanks for the post. (in case you’re wondering, I stumbled on this viia twitter)

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