Unraveling the Tangled Web of Slavery

One of the beautiful aspects of storytelling in the digital world involves the inclination of the story you’re reading (or watching) to magically lead you by the hand, so to speak, to another relevant and connected story, sort of like a squirrel scampering from one branch to the next.

In my case, this act of magic happens after I receive a Nieman Storyboard email newsletter. Case in point, within the December 27th edition Jacqui Banaszynski mentioned that she looks forward to magazine freelancer Barry Yeoman’s annual list of favorite longform stories.

The 2019 version is a diverse and thought-provoking list, with something for everyone, so do dive right in, there’s a special treat waiting for you there. One story Jacqui highlighted was “The Long Road Home” by Deborah Barfield Berry and Kelley Benham French of USA Today.

The 40 hour journey of Wanda Tucker from Virginia to Luanda, Angola also spans some 400 years, back to the days when Africans were taken from their homeland and forced to live in, what was at the time, the English colonies.

It’s a heartbreaking story, reminding us that certain groups of humans, throughout history and into the present day, believe that having darker skin is proof enough that someone else isn’t completely human. (although it seems more logical that the reverse is true, but I digress)

Those in power justified slavery with the values at the time – prosperity, survival, the cleansing of souls and the expansion of the empire.

Having moved to Portugal a few months ago I’m still in the very early stages of learning about the country’s history, especially those aspects which involve colonization. My naive view had limited that topic to just Brazil, but I am coming to realize the complexity of Portugal’s history.

It was the article on Wanda Tucker that opened my eyes to Portugal’s involvement in Africa, as well as their participation in the slave trade, especially the slave trade in Angola. How did I not know this? Did they not teach me this in school? Or had I conveniently forgotten? I was shocked by the brutality of it all, as slave traders would often capitalize on the dynamics of warring factions within Angola’s borders.

The Portuguese gave guns to Imbangala soldiers in return for slaves. Armed with superior weapons, Imbangala soldiers captured and sold natives on a far larger scale as every new slave translated into a better-armed force of aggressors.

Capture and Coffle of Enslaved Africans

“Capture and Coffle of Enslaved Africans, Angola, 1786-87”, Slavery Images:
A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora

Unfortunately, it is all too common to limit an understanding of history to our own, localized situation rather than fully embrace the big picture. While I knew that slaves were brought to America from Africa, my thoughts centered on the plight of these slaves once they were living in the deep south – how they were treated, how they were ultimately emancipated, how they are still treated by many – not on the point of origin, method of capture, or the participation of European countries playing ethnically superior colonial rulers. I was missing half the story.

I’m far from done with my newfound quest to better understand the history of slavery in America, as well as the lingering remnants of ethnic prejudice and discrimination that still exist within much of the population. And this quest will serve as a reminder to look beyond the immediate scope of any (every) story created within the confines of limited knowledge.

Do read the USA Today story about Wanda Tucker, and if you’re in the process of crafting a personal narrative, ask yourself what truths lie one step beyond, one lever deeper. They may help you create a more impactful story.

The Emotional Side of Storytelling

Personal storytelling is all about sharing and understanding. The sharing of your experiences, views, insights, opinions, perspectives and wisdom, in the hopes that your audience – in front of people and/or by way of video or audio production – will gain a newfound understanding of the important topic at the center of your story, as well as better knowing you, the speaker.

In order to achieve this enhanced level of understanding, and to foster positive change as a result, there are two questions that I always pose to a speaker as they develop their story:

1) What will the audience think?

2) How will the audience feel?

The thinking part is a mixture of information and logic – the facts that you offer to support your message, and the way in which those facts are arranged. (more on this in a future post)

The feeling part is about the emotional reaction(s) that your audience will have, both during and after your presentation. In most cases a great talk will create feelings of being inspired, empowered and hopeful. Despite the negative aspects and implications that you may reveal during your speech, as problems are rarely upbeat in nature, you also include a proposed solution that invites the audience to participate, thus offering the vision of a brighter future.

For example, a story about traveling to Mars in a spaceship may evoke feelings of excitement, as well as fear, pride and hope, while a talk about overcoming the challenges you faced in order to become a successful entrepreneur may evoke feelings of connection and empathy, as well as inspiration and determination.

Without an emotional reaction to your message,
an audience will simply become apathetic.

Listed below are examples of how an audience might feel during or after hearing your story. It is by no means comprehensive – it’s up to you to determine the emotions that you want to convey in your story – so feel free to add to this collection as you see fit.

Feeling wiserFeeling smarterFeeling depressed
Feeling lovedFeeling hopefulFeeling challenged
Feeling proudFeeling inspiredFeeling recognized
Feeling happyFeeling reverentFeeling empathetic
Feeling fearfulFeeling powerfulFeeling entertained
Feeling scaredFeeling liberatedFeeling determined
Feeling excitedFeeling validatedFeeling understood
Feeling humbleFeeling awestruckFeeling empowered
Feeling curiousFeeling connectedFeeling enlightened

As you draft each Story Block while working on your manuscript, think about the emotion you want the audience to feel during each point in the story. While recognizing the importance of word choice, do the words/phrases/sentences as written properly represent those feelings?

And when you enter the presentation phase and begin rehearsing, make sure your voice also matches the intended emotion. This is where vocal variation can really shine in its ability to bring your words to life. Record yourself, then play it back and listen to the tone, volume and inflection of your voice. If you’re rehearsing in front of friends or family, ask them if the emotions in your voice match the intent of your words. They’ll usually hear any mismatches.

Storytelling Emotions CollageEmotional Reaction Photos by Robin Higgins at Pixabay

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.