A couple weeks ago, our team had the opportunity to go to STORY Gathering in Nashville, Tennessee. As far as the conference goes, it’s so unlike other conferences that it’s a bit hard to describe. In short, it’s a place for people who believe that a well-told story can change lives. As a team that believes the stories of the rural poor can open our eyes towards the importance of environmental stewardship, we wanted to meet other storytellers and to learn from the best. Speakers included the likes of Brad Montague, CJ Casciotta, and Ally Fallon. Other speakers worked on memorable stories like The Lion King, Black Panther, or Chef’s Table.
The three-day event was full of memorable moments, brilliant insights, and meaningful connections. We learned a lot. Here are a few of our biggest takeaways from the gathering.
Good stories make room for empathy
Abby Fuller, director of Chef’s Table, pointed out that in our culture there’s a narrative of “us versus them” that can easily take over everything from politics to personal relationships. However, there is an antidote: empathy. “When we create empathy,” she highlighted, “something special happens. That narrative changes. The story of me versus you falls apart.”
Moments after saying this, she then invited guest and Chef’s Table subject Cristina Martinez on stage. Martinez, a chef from Philadelphia, turned her taqueria into a center of gathering for immigrant communities through the practice of empathy.
Nearly every speaker made this point, whether directly or indirectly. Pei Ketron encouraged us to tell stories around meaning, emotion, and human connections rather than ones that simply looked good or mimicked what’s popular. Sally Koering-Zimney also urged speakers not to wish away uncomfortable moments but to turn them into opportunities for vulnerability and connection. Yoko Sen shared how empathy changed the way she told stories to further her mission.
As an audio engineer and musician, Sen had always been sensitive to sounds. After spending time in a hospital, she couldn’t help but notice how unpleasant of an environment all the mechanical noises created. After trying for a bit to get hospitals to consider this more seriously, she started telling a story and asking a question that unlocked empathy. “They say hearing is the last sense a person holds on to,” she would point out. “What is the last sound you’d want to hear before you die?”
Great storytelling requires letting go of fear
In order to tell an effective story, you need to be bold and vulnerable, connecting at a personal level. There are so many reasons why this would make anyone nervous. Maybe your story won’t be well received? Maybe it won’t be believed? There’s always a chance it could just get lost in the sea of noise that’s out there.
“Fear often comes disguised as wisdom,” reminds Todd Henry. If we allow fear to get the better of us, we’ll end up taking our most meaningful work to the grave undone.
Jason Jaggard shared an under-told story about Martin Luther King to further emphasize this point. King’s famous I Have a Dream speech didn’t debut at the March on Washington. In fact, he had been delivering that refrain for a whole summer and it never landed the way it went in his head. After a while, his team was discouraging him from using it, and at Washington, the plan was for him to omit it. It wasn’t until he got to the end of his planned speech that nothing else would work as well for the moment as talking about the dream. Against his team’s advice, he launched into one of the most memorable sermons in U.S. history.
To that effect, Lion King producer Don Hahn made us rethink our fear of failure: “You have 10,000 bad drawings in you,” he challenged, “and the sooner you get them out, the sooner you get to the good stuff.”
Wonder is the beginning of wisdom
Brad Montague reminded us that wonder can turn our daily work into a purpose-filled mission. “Work can remind you what is wonderful,” he points out. “Work is love made visible,” he quotes from Khalil Gibran.
“What gets your attention?” he asked. “What do you really care about? You have it within you to create things that fill the world with wonder.”
Among the types of stories that people crave are stories that remind us of overlooked simple truths, stories that give us faith to believe bigger things, or stories that give us a fresh point of view.
Vera Leung reminded us of the importance of good stories, even in challenging situations. “Changing culture is a matter of recognizing the wonder in people,” she emphasizes. “It is looking deeply into the darkest corners of life and seeing that people of meaning and beauty and wonder are already there.”
Our team enjoyed our time at STORY Gathering 2018. These insights will help us tell our partners’ stories in an honest, compassionate, and compelling way. To hear what we learn from our partners, go check out their stories!