One of the many things I learned at The Power of Storytelling conference in Romania, Bucharest, is that storytelling is the most democratic form of creativity. Murray Nossel, says that people can argue about politics, social and cultural beliefs, and opinions, but they can’t argue about experiences. Your story is what happened to you. I want to take a few hundreds words and tell you about my experience during this conference. I will share my experience in the form of lessons that stuck with me the most.
What is the point of storytelling?
I didn’t need convincing that storytelling is as essential to us as food and water, but often others ask me why do I so radically believe in its power. As someone who doesn’t work as a journalist or a novelist, I try and integrate storytelling deep into my business, because as Jacqui Banaszynski says,
We are them.
Sitting during her talk and listening to a Pulitzer Prize winner with over 30 years of experience in journalism, reminded me that every story is relevant. She talks about her work on AIDS and the story of Aids in the Heartland, of two men Hanson and Bert, and their struggle with AIDS and the stigma that follows it. She was afraid to show this piece of writing to her parents, which had gotten her her Pulitzer in 1988, because they never supported her choice to be a journalist, and certainly didn’t at the time agree with homosexuality. To Jacqui’s surprise, her mother’s response to her story had been “Hanson and Bert, are a lot like me and your father“. They persevered in difficult times, they had made a promise to each other just like Jacqui’s parents.
In other words,
- the more intimate your story is,
- the more personal,
- the more specific,
- the more universal.
Telling a deeply personal story pulls at our heart strings, because we can understand the emotions, the actions and reactions of the protagonists. I learnt that for my stories to be effective, I have to stay true to the story that I am telling, and let it be relevant to my readers.
A storyteller’s main task is to listen
Before we could speak we told stories, because we are Homo Narrans. Our lives are shaped by story, it’s how we connect to each other, it’s how we learn and it’s how we survive.
Ellie Gardener, a freelance photojournalist and filmmaker based in Istanbul tells Ziad’s story, a Syrian refugee who flees to Norway.
Just as she was about to quit her journalist career, because she felt like a sell out, like someone who was just chasing a story for the sake of publicity, she met Ziad, and together they embarked on a journey. Ellie and Ziad fell in love, and were able to join us together at the conference. They sat on the stage and openly talked about their feelings, and the events of traveling from Turkey to Norway. One of the questions Ellie asked Ziad, was, why did you tell me your story?
I needed to be talked to, not talked about. When you were asking, I felt someone was listening to me. – Ziad
I learnt that it’s a storytellers main task to listen, to be a sponge. Being present, and interested in others is your best asset as a storyteller, because it’s their story you are telling.
I no longer believe stories give voice to the voiceless. What we do as storytellers is listen, everybody already has a voice. – Ellie Gardener
All stories have to be foundational
When we tell stories, we are only catching a snippet of someone’s life or of an event. In order to be able to place your story you have to go back to the foundations, and understand its history. Hannah Nikole Jones, who has spent her career chronicling the story of children in segregated schools, says that her stories are always deeply routed in history.
The running joke in my newsroom is that every story of mine starts in 1619 – which is to say it’s foundational. – Hannah Jones
She tells us that no matter when you choose your story to start, you as the journalist, have to go back to the beginning. Hannah wrote a piece on why she chose to send her own little girl to a segregated school. This piece demonstrated just how deep you need to dive into the history so that your story can hold its ground in present day.
Going back to the foundations, can also mean to go back to your heritage. Hannah writes about education and segregation, because it’s close to her heart. She grew up with a white mother and black father, and has first hand seen the impact of segregation in schools. It’s important to go back to something that is a part of you.
Rather than running away from who you are, embrace it, and use it to help you become a better storyteller.
Don’t just project your story onto others
The trouble with Hollywood is that the audience is always passive. We sit and we are told what to think, feel, and how to react. It’s because movies, and TV-shows don’t let us use our imagination to make sense of what’s happening.
People tend to talk about their world but not really describe what it is, rather project it upon us – Vera Ion
Vera Ion, a Romanian playwright, who has received The Irish Embassy Award for an Emerging Playwright in 2012, focuses on teaching others how to tell their stories. Giving people tools to speak up and share. She taught us that if narrative is controlled by those who have the power, then we need to be the ones in control.
Stories are in images
Finnbar O’Reilly, photojournalist and co-author of Shooting Ghosts, wrote with a U.S. Marine, Thomas James Brennan, a unique joint memoir that shows how an unlikely friendship helped heal both their war-wounded bodies and souls. His talk focused on how images can help us tell stories.
When he started out in Africa as a reporter, he wrote about the people there and their lives. His stories were published in 100 word blurbs usually in the least visible places on the page. On the other hand, his images were getting noticed, and he decided that his stories could have a bigger reach in the form of photographs. He says, “as a form of storytelling, images could have an impact that my short dispatches couldn’t.”
Stories can be told as effectively through images.
Audio let’s you tell a visual story too
Stories can be told as effectively through audio too. Pat Walters is an editor at Gimlet Media, and has worked across various mediums in his career. He came to talk to us about audio. Previously he had hosted and produced the podcast Undone, an iTunes chart-topping documentary, and he told us a story about two blind men. He recorded and played back the interviews of the men who had both gone blind as adults. It was interesting to hear how they reacted to going blind in completely different ways.
One of them believed that the best approach was to shut down all of his visual imagination, and focus on sound. Seeing no longer was going to be part of his life, he would feel and listen to the world. The other, disagreed, and was sure that eyes were not the only way to see. He could see his wife, he even climbed his ladder to fix the roof, because he believed he could see the world around him by listening to it. Pat used these examples to show us how audio can be a powerful way to tell a story.
The rule in audio is to be selective with your details. – Pat Walter
Stories are not just in words, they are around us. They’re a way of making sense of ourselves.
Storytelling and radical kindness are what we need in the world right now
I want to finish my post with a short video from the conference written and directed by Rareș Cintez & illustrated and animated by Ioana Șopov.
All of the speakers at the conference taught me a valuable lesson, mentioning all of them would turn this post into a novella, so I picked a few that had the biggest impact on me.