The Challenges of Story Compression

One of the most difficult challenges every storyteller faces is how to compress days / months / years / centuries when crafting a narrative. For example, the Roman Empire lasted some 500 years, yet books on the topic are typically under 500 pages, which illustrates how many facts the authors had to cut. Even when the subject is as narrow as the life of one person, such as Julius Caesar, that same page count only allows for the highlights. Volumes of data are left behind.

So imagine the difficulty in reducing an entire life – and in this case it’s quite an illustrious life – into a twenty minute podcast. Could you compress your life into twenty minutes? Rather frustrating for most folks. But such is the mastery of Nate DiMeo, founder of The Memory Palace, with his insightful story about Robert Smalls. You might call The Wheel a master class in story compression.

This excerpt from Wikipedia will give you some indication of Robert Smalls’ life, though it’s just one chapter of a saga that’s hard to fathom. Listen to Nate’s narrative and you’ll gain a much better sense of Robert’s keen ability to plan and execute. The other thing you will notice is the difference between information – as provided by Wikipedia – and narrative nonfiction – as spoken by Nate DiMeo.

Robert Smalls (April 5, 1839 – February 23, 1915) was an American politician, publisher, businessman, and naval pilot. Born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina, he freed himself, his crew, and their families during the American Civil War by commandeering a Confederate transport ship, CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor, on May 13, 1862, and sailing it from Confederate-controlled waters of the harbor to the U.S. blockade that surrounded it. He then piloted the ship to the Union-controlled enclave in Beaufort-Port Royal-Hilton Head area, where it became a Union warship. His example and persuasion helped convince President Abraham Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army.

Even without personal knowledge of the area, and few details of the historical moment, you can still imagine the scene of a blockade off the coast, of Robert’s desire to escape slavery in The South, and the impossible notion of stealing a Confederate boat in order to make his escape. There is the briefest mention of his mother, his wife and two daughters, yet you clearly see the stakes involved in his decision to take that boat, to risk it all.

Robert Smalls Photo By Brady Handy

Photo by Mathew Brady / Public Domain

With the visual references to slaves being bought and sold, to being whipped in the fields, you come to embrace the motivation, despite the stakes, to take that boat, to take the wheel, at the age of 23. The escape took hours, but in just a few seconds Nate takes us onboard the Confederate gunboat CSS Planter, where we feel the tension, the odds stacked against success.

Confederate Gunboat CSS Planter

Photo by Unknown Author / Public Domain

I’ll leave it to you to hear the story to its conclusion. To marvel at the fact that his heroic exit from South Carolina wasn’t the end of the story. How he served in the Union Navy.  How he returned to Beaufort after the war, became a politician and served in both the South Carolina State legislature and the United States House of Representatives.

By the story’s conclusion I felt as though I had been listening for hours, while being taken on a magnificent journey of one man’s incredible life. But when I checked the clock, only twenty minutes had passed. Story compression is a time warp, an experience that doesn’t leave you feeling short-changed.

If you have a desire to tell your life story – on a podcast or on a stage – if only to cover the highlights, yet feel that the challenge of compressing your story to a reasonable length is next to impossible, revisit this podcast. In fact, do yourself a favor and subscribe to The Memory Palace. Every episode is a master class in how to captivate an audience and reveal the essence of what it means to be human, and do so in a matter of minutes.

Article written by Mark Lovett – Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

 

A Social Innovation Story, Impactathon 2020

I’m not the biggest fan of social media, but I do appreciate the benefit of making connections on digital platforms, as I never know when someone will reach out with an interesting offer. Such was the case when Neetal Parekh sent me a note on LinkedIn. Having seen some of my answers on Quora in regards to my time spent organizing TEDx events, she had a few questions about the TEDx model.

It turns out Neetal was an event organizer in her own right, having produced a series of Impactathons as a way to inspire social entrepreneurs in their quest to tackle the world’s most pressing social issues. She’s also the author of the book 51 Questions on Social Entrepreneurship, the host of The Impact Podcast by Innov8social, as well as a frequent speaker, facilitator, and moderator on topics including social enterprises and social entrepreneurship.

Her next event, Impactathon for Future Flourishing, was focused on the vexing problem of global poverty, and after our deep dive into the crazy world of TEDx organizing, Neetal ask if I would like to be an Impact Catalyst and provide the participants with a few tips on storytelling. I was happy to help.

Innov8social Impactathon 2020

Preceding the Impactathon I had the pleasure of recording an interview along with Mwihaki Muraguri, an impact storyteller and Principal at Paukwa House. We had a great conversation in regards to storytelling in the social impact arena as the entrepreneurs formed teams and began crafting their pitches.

Curious About Impactathon?

Impactathon 2020 Executive Summary

What is an Impactathon®?

Impactathons are impact-focused hackathon experiences designed to engage participants in mapping problems and designing solutions that address the needs of our global society. Teams of social entrepreneurs come up with innovative ideas for creating change, and the process culminates with brief pitches before a panel of judges.

  • Designed for learning – They incorporate best practices from the science of learning including focused and diffuse learning.
  • Engaging a problem-solving mindset – Providing frameworks and incorporating design-thinking principles.
  • Co-created with local partners – Providing frameworks and incorporating design-thinking principles.

Why Engage in an Impactathon®?

  • Hear Impact Talks from thinkers and doers in the space.
  • On topics such as how to identify gaps in a system, why some social enterprises fail, how to stay aligned with a mission, how to create a meaningful career in social impact.
  • Engage in social impact through a hackathon experience.
  • Including design thinking approach, getting feedback, using concepts of lean methodology, pivoting, working in teams, pitching, using storytelling and presentation techniques.
  • Learn core concepts of engaging in the social impact sector.
  • Such as how to frame a problem (root causes v. symptom), how to adopt a social entrepreneurship mindset, examples of business models, legal structures, and ways to measure social impact.
  • Join a global community of aligned impact problem solvers.
  • Meet your next co-founder, investor, or team member during Impactathon. After the event, you will have the option to join and engage with fellow Impactathoners, including participants, speakers, and mentors and learn about emerging resources in the space.

What Do Participants Say?

“Impactathon embodies the spirit of social innovation in an organic, authentic way through programmed problem solving, real collaboration, and action-oriented ideation.”

“There is something about being surrounded by passionate, innovative people who truly want to make the world better. Impactathon is a fun and collaborative experience that is incredibly energizing.”

“What really impressed me about the Impactathon was how it offered its participants different outlets to generate ideas, or simply get the creative juices flowing.”

Hats off to Neetal and all of the social impact entrepreneurs who participated in this year’s Impactathon!

Article written by Mark Lovett – Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

 

The Three Dimensions of Public Speaking

Humans have been making public speeches for thousands of years, but until recently, the number of folks doing so has remained rather small, in single digits percentage wise. Unless you were a politician, business leader or social activist, you were in the audience listening, but much has changed in recent decades.

With the advent of venues such as Creative Mornings, the TED Conference and TEDx events now held around the world, as well as storytelling podcasts such as The Moth or The Narrators, and story conferences like the Future of StoryTelling or The Power of Storytelling, the cachet of storytelling has never been greater.

More importantly, public speaking / storytelling skills have become fundamental attributes for any employee working in the commercial and/or nonprofit sectors. If you can’t tell your story, as well as the stories of your organization, customers and stakeholders, you’re at a disadvantage. So what makes a speaker impactful?

There are many factors that go into crafting and delivering stories that inform, enlighten, even challenge a listener, but here are three dimensions that form the foundation of public speaking. (p.s. they’ve been relevant for a few millennium)

The Three Dimensions of Public Speaking

Often referred to as the KLT Factor, the marketing world has long touted the idea that consumers buy products from someone they know, and like, and trust.

But if we traveled back to ancient Greece we might hear Aristotle speak about rhetoric and his take on ethos, pathos and logos (ethics, emotions and logic) as key attributes possessed by great speakers and found in moving speeches.

The discipline of business decision making often refers to the combination of head, heart, and gut (intellect, emotion and intuition).

As you can see, these parallels point to a speaker’s credibility or trustworthiness, combined with a story’s ability to touch us emotionally, and for the narrative to make sense. It’s the combination of all three that creates story magic.

To see how it’s done, take a moment to spin up Robin Steinberg’s TED Talk that explores the bail system in America – how it works, what’s wrong with it, and her solution to the problem.

Robin’s personal story establishes credibility on the topic, as it’s her profession. She also spends time explaining how the system works, or doesn’t, and uses the experience of someone who was victimized by an unfair system to bring out the emotional side of the story. Thus, we come to believe her, and her argument.

As you craft a story of your own, make sure you address each of these critical dimensions. Will an audience place their faith in you through a bond of trust? Will they feel your story in a way they can relate to? Will their intellectual side be satisfied with the logic of your proposition? If one of these factors is missing, their confidence in your idea will be too.

Article written by Mark Lovett – Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

 

The Creative Penn Podcast Episode 500

Storytelling takes many forms, and while my focus, for the most part, supports individuals telling their story verbally, writing your story is another avenue for generating impact based on your ideas, lessons learned, and life experiences. In fact, a number of my clients have turned their attention to the spoken version of their story after having published a book.

The Creative Penn Podcast

As with speaking, learning the art and craft of written storytelling takes time, and is based in large part on seeking the wisdom of others who have made the same journey. If writing is your current profession, or simply a future goal, then The Creative Penn Podcast should be in your toolbox.

Joanna Penn is the host, and after 11 years she released her 500th episode. A milestone that few podcasters reach!

You’ll need to hear the entire podcast to discover the many pearls of wisdom that she offers from past episodes, but I wanted to share a few of them here.

Write What You Love

Are you writing what others think you should write, or what you feel the market wants? Maybe you feel that your talents are limited to only one genre, or either fiction or non-fiction. Joanna was stuck in that box until she tried her hand at writing fiction books and now has 18 novels to her credit. Don’t let the challenge of exploring new styles of storytelling hold you back.

It’s Okay If Your First Draft Sucks

Taking this idea further, it is extremely rare (like one in a million) that a first draft is the best you can do. This applies to writing books, articles, or your personal story. When Joanna interviewed Mur Lafferty, the point was made that if we can recognize this fact, and stop worrying about it, great writing is possible.

And I think, when people allow themselves to just write the story and not worry about what’s going to happen to the story afterward, that’s when they really let themselves actually improve. It’s like when they’re thinking about it too much, they hold themselves back or they put some sort of handicap on themselves. But when they just write and not worry about sucking or worrying about how good it is or where it’s gonna be published, then better things happen. ~Mur Lafferty

Realizing that you could write something terrible and then fix it up later with editing freed me from so much. My first drafts are a lot better now, but we all have to go through those first few books where we don’t know what we’re doing! ~Joanna Penn

Leverage Your Intellectual Property

Too often writers will publish their book, either through a traditional publishing house or independently, then they’ll move on to the next project. But there are international rights, audio book rights, movies, even gaming rights to consider.

It’s a subject writers need to spend time exploring, and hire a professional when there are contract related questions. Bottom line, don’t sign anything unless you fully understand what you’re signing up for.

I think authors, indies, have not given enough thought to rights. Taking a publishing rights perspective on your work is the missing link for the indie author and it’s really important to trade publishing. ~Orna Ross

I know the worth of my intellectual property assets, they are the basis of my business — as well as my art. If you understand this, you are an empowered writer! ~Joanna Penn

Develop Your Personal Brand

The concept of having a personal brand was once reserved for those who “made it” in the publishing world, who made the best seller lists and were interviewed on all the talk shows. But in the digital world, with podcasting, Instagram, email marketing and video channels, anyone can get their brand in front of thousands – and on a daily basis if so desired. How do people see you? What’s your brand?

Turning Pro

Some folks are happy being a part time writer and publishing once in a while, making some spending money on the side. But if your goal is to make a living by telling stories – and this applies equally to a writing career or a speaking career – then you should go all in and understand what it means, what it takes to go pro.

When I was trying to learn to be a writer and was falling on my face over and over and over, the reason I decided finally was that I was an amateur. I had amateur habits and I thought like an amateur and what turned the corner for me was just a simple sort of turning a switch where I just decided, I’m going to turn pro. I’m going to think like a pro.

Courage plays a lot. It takes a lot of guts to do this. Patience is also very important, to be patient with ourselves, allow ourselves to fall off the wagon sometimes. Taking the long view is another aspect of it. ~Steven Pressfield

Publishing is like a roller coaster, it’s up and down and up and down. It’s similar to the music industry. If you have one hit, don’t assume that your next one’s going to be a hit. So when you do have money, you need to save well, invest it, prepare for times when it’s going to be a crash, and just don’t think that it’s going to keep going. ~Kevin J Anderson

There’s so much more content in this 500th episode of The Creative Penn, so do give it a listen, and if you’re a writer (professional or aspiring), subscribe to the podcast. You can thank me later. Every episode is a deep dive into the world of writing, publishing, and most importantly, storytelling.

Article written by Mark Lovett – Copyright Storytelling with Impact – All rights reserved

 

Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row

I’ve spent a lot of time in prison. Not as an inmate, but instead coaching inmates, helping them craft their personal stories. Stories destined to land on a stage at TEDxDonovanCorrectional in 2017 and 2018. Donovan Correctional Facility is a California State prison, located at the very southern edge of San Diego County, overlooking the international border shared with Mexico.

To say that the experience was profound would be an understatement. Many of these men had spent the majority of their adult lives incarcerated, which in the beginning led me to question whether they had much in the way of wisdom to share with an audience. But over a two year period I continued to be impressed by the insights, the compassion, and the empathy that formed the foundation of their stories. If I had been talking to them on the phone, I would have assumed they were college educated.

The Longform Interview

So when I read the description for the Longform Podcast with Tessie Castillo and George Wilkerson, I dropped everything to have a listen. While I had heard many stories from prison, none of those stories had come from inmates on death row.

“I want other people to see what I see, which is that the men on death row are human beings. They’re incredibly intelligent and insightful and they have so many redemptive qualities…I don’t think I could really convey that as well as if they get their own voice out there. So I wanted this book to be a platform for them and for their voices.”
–Tessie Castillo

“For me, writing was like a form of conversation with myself or with my past, like therapy. So I just chose these periods in my life that I didn’t really understand and that were really powerful and impactful to me, and I just sat down and started writing to understand them and make peace with them.”
–George Wilkerson

Instead of the usual format, whereby host Aaron Lammer interviews an author, in this case Tessie Castillo, the twist to this episode was calling death row inmate George Wilkerson to bring his voice from inside prison to the outside world.

As often happens in life (I could never have predicted that I would spend time coaching inmates inside prison) Tessie had no connection to death row or the death penalty when she met someone at a Super Bowl party who happened to be a psychologist working with death row inmates at a prison in Raleigh, North Carolina.

When she found out that the new warden was permitting classes on death row, Tessie applied to teach a journaling class. Her discovery of who these men had become was similar to my own. It would behove you to spend 43 minutes listening to the interviews. You’ll come to view men on death row in a new light.

Essays From Death Row

Beyond the Longform podcast, and the basis for the conversation, was the book Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row, written by Tessie Castillo and death row inmates: George Wilkerson, Terry Robinson, Michael Braxton, and Lyle May.

Crimson Letters by Tessie Castillo

Through thirty compelling essays written in the prisoners’ own words, Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row offers stories of brutal beatings inside juvenile hall, botched suicide attempts, the terror of the first night on Death Row, the pain of goodbye as a friend is led to execution, and the small acts of humanity that keep hope alive for men living in the shadow of death.

Each carefully crafted personal essay illuminates the complex stew of choice and circumstance that brought four men to Death Row and the cycle of dehumanization and brutality that continues inside prison. At times the men write with humor, at times with despair, at times with deep sensitivity, but always with keen insight and understanding of the common human experience that binds us.

Beginning with the journaling class that she started, Tessie frames the narrative from the perspective of someone who has walked the halls and forged story-based bonds with the men. The series of essays that comprise most of the book take you inside the hearts and minds of these inmates, as well as take you back in time to share the trauma of their childhood experiences.

After spending time with these men and listening to their stories, I don’t claim to know them thoroughly or to fully comprehend why they did what they did. Nor do I defend the crimes of any many on Death Row…But I will defend their humanity because I see it every time I walk through those prison doors.
–Tessie Castillo, excerpt from the Raleigh News & Observer, May 2014

It took me back to my time at Donovan, hearing about lives so different than my own, making it difficult to predict how I would have acted in such circumstances, how my life would have turned out. It’s not a matter of blaming others, or wanting a hall pass for mistakes, but the harsh reality is that downward spirals are challenging, even for the best of us, especially when navigating through a turbulent world of drugs, crime and violence.

The spankings had started a year before our mom left. At first it was just a few pops on the butt every couple weeks or so. But as time went on, the slaps hardened and became more frequent, the bruises took longer to heal. Then he began whipping off his heavy leather belt and the slaps turned into punches that cracked bones.
–George Wilkerson

One of the most difficult aspects of spending sixteen years on Death Row is being stowed away from the outside world. Unlike other facilities, Death Row implements a measure of isolation that wedges a gap in the mental evolution of its denizens.
–Terry Robinson

Our culture was built on three main pillars: Fightin’, stealin’, and gettin’ drunk. Fightin’ was a rite of passage and it determined your position in the hood hierarchy. The better you were at fightin’, the higher your status.
–Michael J. Braxton

In prison, night’s hourglass has extra holes in it. When sleep comes, gone are the plodding daylight hours, confining walls, and thoughts of letters. Sleep is relief for most of us. With this blessed comfort comes dreams of love, companionship, and peace. Desires glow so vivid and deep that reality is a disheartening comparison. Sleep cannot be degraded, beaten or chained. In sleep lies our freedom.
–Lyle May

“I believe that little separates people inside Death Row from those outside it. We are all a complex jumble of hopes, dreams, virtues and mistakes. We strive to be better people. We often fail. Being human is learning to rise again – as these me do, despite the odds – to prove we are more than our worst crime.”
–Tessie Castillo

Time to Reflect

While there is a dark sadness within some of the pages, there is also bright joy that comes from these four big hearts. And though it may not be an intuitive conclusion, as I finished the last page the notion occurred to me that these men have learned more about themselves, and applied that learning to become far more compassionate humans than most of us ever will while we blissfully enjoy our ‘freedom’.

Death Row isn’t a place that lacks humanity, like some people say. It is where humanity is rediscovered and restored. On Death Row the meaningfulness of life tremendously exceeds the inevitability of death. We are all human beings and as such we’re prone to mistakes, but many inmates are simply paradigms of the great fall before triumph. Our humanities are not beyond repair and any judicial system that conceptualizes such nonsense is flawed. To give up on a person’s humanity says a lot about our own. We can never fully share in the humanity of others until we have recognized and repaired our own tendencies towards cruelty and unconscious bias. This means forgiveness, accountability, faith, and in many cases a second chance. No matter our personal or collective opinions, no one will ever deserve to die.
–Terry Robinson