Just Another (Storytelling) Day

It’s January 1st, 2021. In one sense it’s just another day, with another sunrise, and another sunset. But our embrace of the Gregorian calendar has a way of altering our perception of time, and we, therefore, perceive ourselves as having exited one year (past) while entering another (future) at the stroke of midnight. Never mind that there are 24 time zones, and so, two dozen strokes to mark the occasion. Time, like story, is never a simple contemplation.

This “out with the old, in with the new” mindset belies the fact that nothing has actually changed. The scourge of human trafficking and climate change, religious fundamentalism, radicalized racism, pandemic passivism, and sociopathic narcissism still ravage humanity and the planet. Millions strive to change this narrative, but these are very stubborn stories.

But if midnight serves as a reset button, a way to recalibrate, to turn the page and begin writing a new narrative, then it can be a redeeming process. As the year 2020 was coming to a close I spent a few days around Christmas with my family in Sweden and thought a lot about the impending stroke of midnight that would occur after my return to Portugal.

Morning View Outside Stockholm December 2020

The extended dark mornings reminded me of the dark reality humanity was dealing with. Having endured nearly four years of the worst American president in history. A man who has publicly turned his back on 7.8 billion people – yes, even his most loyal supporters – condemning the earth to decades of environmental catastrophe. Adding to the darkness, a pandemic that was long ago predicted, and yet criminally ignored, ravaged country after country. By the time midnight arrived on December 31st over 83 million would be infected, resulting in over 1.8 million coronavirus deaths.

Yet there were lights shining within the darkness, represented by stories that I had heard throughout the year. Stories from friends, family, and many strangers. Stories of loss and disappointment, of dreams that were put on hold, or cancelled altogether. Lives that had shifted from confidence to unnerving uncertainty. Yet each story contained the seed of a different future. One that appreciated the connectedness of humanity, one that cast a light on the illusion of separateness. Was darkness serving a higher purpose?

This consideration of how dark times shape us was on my mind when an email arrived from the amazing poet Silvi Alcivar, offering an insight into the nature, and the benefit, of embracing that which has always existed in our world – darkness.

“and i keep thinking about how all the darkness of these days is really showing us where there is light, who holds it, what we have to offer of our own, and how the darkness seems to have a necessary place too. the moon knows this. and the stars. and the roots wintering in earth. and the creatures no one has ever seen who live in depths of ocean humans will never touch. and the dark itself.” ~Silvi Alcivar

I studied my fellow passengers as they boarded the return flight to Lisbon. Everyone was wearing a mask, which on the one hand was reassuring, but masks hide the emotions that play a vital role in telling our in-the-moment story. I wondered why they were there, what their reason was for ignoring – as I had done – the advice of medical experts to stay home over the holidays. What did the season mean to them? How had their year been, and what stories would they create in 2021? Truth told, each of us lives within our own mystery.

And despite the safe practices required by the airline, the reality was that we were taking a risk vs staying at home. But at the same time we were choosing life. We had decided to include others as characters in our story, creating a richer narrative. That’s not a defense of the decisions we had made, just a raw explanation, and it posed a difficult question:

If we find ourselves in the midst of darkness, how do we choose to live life?

How will you choose to live life on January 1st, after the imagined stroke of midnight sounds and we put 2020 behind us? Will you frame the new year as a new start, or a new chapter, or maybe just another day of storytelling in your exceptional, yet mysterious life?Wheat Stalk Close Up Stockholm 2020

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Pixar Storytelling – It Starts With An Idea

If you haven’t seen a Pixar animated movie, I’ll assume you have been living on a (nearly) deserted island. Their first feature film was Toy Story, released some 25 years ago. After 22 films, $14 billion in box office revenue, and an acquisition by Disney, they’re still creating films that touch our heart and change the way we think about the world.

You can read more about the fascinating history of Pixar, but in short, they are master storytellers. And while it’s doubtful that your personal story will end up in a Pixar movie, the process they use to create their films can teach us a lot about the craft of storytelling – characters, plot, emotion, wisdom, life.

It all begins with an idea.

It’s the first thing I ask someone who says they have a story to tell. What’s the idea, or the point, or the message that is driving your story. If you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to get there?

Luckily, the creation of your story is not as complex as the Pixar process – no need to hire any simulation technical artists – but a takeaway from this welcome video is the need for revision / editing along the way. Nothing comes out perfect the first time. It’s an iterative endeavour that enriches your story, bit by bit.

The power of story is that it has an ability to connect with people on an emotional level.

Even when creating a fictional story, the writer needs to put an element of themselves into the narrative as a way to convey how they’re feeling. The same holds true in your story. It’s not just a sequence of events. That’s rather boring. The audience needs to know how the experience felt to you.

Check in next week for another glimpse into the world of Pixar storytelling!

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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.

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]

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!

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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.

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