The Essential Power of a Family Story

In addition to the many podcasts that I listen to regularly, I stay connected to the art and craft of nonfiction storytelling by keeping tabs on a few sacred sources of story wisdom, one of which is Nieman Storyboard.

Their articles delve into the practice of narrative journalism and highlight some of the best stories from authors and speakers who are making a noteworthy difference in a world that often struggles in that regard.

Nieman Storyboard, a publication of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, showcases exceptional narrative journalism and explores the future of nonfiction storytelling.

A recent Nieman Storyboard article by Ioana Burtea covered a keynote speech by journalist and novelist Tatiana Tîbuleac given during The Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest. The Needle and the Thread spans three generations and reveals the difficulties that Tatiana encountered in regards to how, and when, to tell a transformational and healing family story.

The Power of Storytelling 2019 Conference

Distilling the essence of a 34 minute story in 1800 words is an art form unto itself and Ioana’s article extracts impactful quotes and narrative elements which take the reader on a guided tour of Tatiana Tibuleac’s talk, including this gem that inspired me to click through and watch.

“It’s amazing how life can go on in a place designed for death.”

While her delivery is akin to an offhand comment, those 13 words carry with them a fateful measure of meaning arranged in layers of joy, sorrow, and hope. They speak about those who survived, who had a life yet to live, and those for whom a Siberian gulag became the last chapter, last sentence, and last word of their story.

“My story is a wound that took three generations to heal.”

I invite you to read Ioana’s article for a glimpse at how she tells a story about a story, and then watch Tatiana’s keynote in its entirety to see how she weaves the essence of her grandmother’s story into her own journey from being a young storylistener to becoming an adult storyteller. And the admission that she’s still a work in progress.

It’s also interesting to note that in this age of dramatic stage presentations, with an emphasis on big body movements and emphatic vocals, Tatiana delivers her talk while sitting. Yet the emotions of her story still come through in her voice and facial expressions, as well as her hands. And the narrative structure itself keeps the viewer engaged throughout, offering us a “what’s next” refrain to maintain the story’s forward momentum.

“I didn’t want to write a book like a gun,
I wanted to write a book like a hug.”

Story length is another aspect to consider. I often work with clients who need to craft a narrative which can be use in a variety of circumstances, from a TED-style talk to conference keynote, and in such cases we’ll build out a 15, 30 and 45 minute version of their talk. As Tatiana’s length hits the middle, think about what you would cut to make it a 15 minute talk, and what topics you would go deeper with in a 45 minute version.

Do you have an essential family story to share, one that transformed you in some way, one you’ve carried with you for a very long time? Is now the right moment to tell that story? If so, capture it on paper, and be sure to include your personal journey from the story’s origin, to the point of understanding its full impact. Future generations will benefit from your wisdom.

Storytelling Newsletter

An Immigrant’s Story Nearly Lost

Despite its rather modest size – the current population hovers around 1,000 – the history of Plymouth, California is something of a cultural stew that contains flavorful and contentious stories of both mining and viticulture. Its modern day persona is that of a waypoint in the middle of the Amador County wine country, but a century and a half prior, the area was a puzzle piece within the geological landscape that played host to the California Gold Rush.

Plymouth CaliforniaMy 48-hour residency there was the result of a friend’s wedding nearby at Amador Cellars. A beautiful event indeed, with the red, gold and yellow hues of the vineyard serving as a vivid palette for the couple’s nuptial bliss.

As I gazed across the acres of dormant vines before the ceremony I tried to imagine what life had been like during the mid – late 1800s when this remote region was awash with fortune seekers prospecting for gold, as well as fortune seekers prospecting for miners. At the time there were more than 100 wineries satisfying the thirst of those fortune seekers.

While most of those in the area were of European decent, there was a small contingent of Chinese who had ventured from San Francisco to seek their fortune, and during the morning hours before the wedding ceremony became the center of my attention, I took a slow stroll through town and came across a building that had been owned by one of those immigrants.

Old Ming Chinese Store Plaque in Plymouth CaliforniaThe square brass plaque told an abbreviated story that inspired far more questions than it provided answers.

So Plymouth used to be called Pokerville? Who was Old Ming, and how did he play into the Gold Rush story? What happened to him?

Returning to my hotel I was certain that a quick search would clear the air and provide me with a sense of historical enlightenment, but my grand assumption proved incorrect.

Old Ming Chinese Store Front in Plymouth CaliforniaPlymouth never had much of a Chinese population, but in 1882 Ah Ming purchased a building of stone and brick on Old Sacrament Road where he operated a store. Known to locals as “Old Ming”, he apparently kept a vegetable garden behind the store and sold firecrackers, as well as general merchandise … his store stands as the only reminder of Chinese presence in Plymouth. Excerpt from Banished and Embraced by Elaine Zorbas.

That was it. Just one fleeting mention from a single authoritative source. We can skip the chronological inconsistency (was it the late 1870’s or 1882?) and the conflicting information offered up by various online sources as to whether or not Plymouth had once been referred to as Pokerville, or even Puckerville before that.

What I found disheartening was the fact that none of the stories – Ah Ming’s or the store’s – had apparently been preserved. That Ah Ming was a proprietor in town, as opposed to a laborer in the mines, spoke volumes about the life events that brought him to Plymouth in the first place. What products did he sell, who were his customers, and most importantly, what stories were told behind that brick and steel facade?

What is known from other accounts is how difficult life was for Chinese immigrants during this time. Similar to the actions of many today who seek to vilify immigrants, anyone who didn’t come from European stock was often looked upon as something less than fully human.

So as you craft your own personal story, consider the value that your words and experiences can bring to current and future generations. I have a feeling that Ah Ming could have taught us a thing or two about honor, respect, and compassion for those who are different than us.

Storytelling Newsletter

Using Story for Persuading, Influencing, or Most Importantly, for Understanding

If you spend time, as I do, reading about the art and practice of storytelling you will often come across reference to the notion of persuading or influencing as the objective of crafting and presenting the story that you have in mind. I hear this from other speaker coaches, as well as renowned public speakers, and it’s not wrong, but it’s never been the way I see things.

Having watched a few thousand talks, and worked with a few hundred speakers, the stories which impacted me the most were the ones that informed me, expanded my knowledge, or brought forward a new way of looking at an important issue, not those trying to convince me that their way of thinking was better than mine.

Persuading
Causing someone to do something, or believe something, through reasoning or argument

Influencing
Having an effect on someone with the desire to change their behaviors, beliefs, or opinions

Understanding
The ability to comprehend based on knowledge of a subject, problem, process, or situation

When working with speakers I’ll ask them to think about what their audience will understand differently after hearing their talk. And there’s not a single answer to that question, as each person will have a different mindset before your talk begins.

And while it’s impossible to know what everyone listening understands in the moment, it’s a productive exercise to at least define a number of general categories (half a dozen or so) and then write out how you see their thinking/understanding transform.

For example, “Most people have no idea how big the refugee crisis really is, but after hearing my talk they will understand that nearly 1 in 100 people around the world has been displaced from their home.” [Watch Brian Sokol’s TEDx Talk]

Take that view a level deeper as you think about your audience by age, income, gender, ethnicity, education. How would a native understand your talk differently than an immigrant? Or a college student, as compared to a politician or business leader?

This exercise will prove beneficial while editing your manuscript. Consider your choice of words, and how deep you take your explanation of the issue. Remember, it’s not about having the audience think like you, it’s about them thinking differently than before they heard your talk.

Storytelling Newsletter