Sangeeta Bhatia: This tiny particle could roam your body to find tumors @ TED Talks Live

TED Talks Live were held at The Town Hall Theater in NYC, in November of 2015. I had the pleasure of attending all six nights to hear speakers present impactful Ideas Worth Spreading. This post is an analysis of a talk by Sangeeta Bhatia that explores new and smaller solutions in the fight against cancer.

Watch Sangeeta’s TED Talk. At one level her talk is rather technical, as it involves the latest, most advanced science, but her story allows the audience to see how the concept works by way of analogy, description, and visuals. If you’re trying to convey a complex idea to a public audience, this is a great example of how that can be accomplished.


(my notes in red)

In the space that used to house one transistor, we can now fit one billion. That made it so that a computer the size of an entire room now fits in your pocket. You might say the future is small.

One way to open a technology story is by making a statement directly related to your topic, but another technique is to offer an analogy that describes something completely different, but that shares a common feature. In this case, the feature highlighted is ‘small’, and it will remain a theme throughout her talk.

As an engineer, I’m inspired by this miniaturization revolution in computers. As a physician, I wonder whether we could use it to reduce the number of lives lost due to one of the fastest-growing diseases on Earth: cancer. Now when I say that, what most people hear me say is that we’re working on curing cancer. And we are. But it turns out that there’s an incredible opportunity to save lives through the early detection and prevention of cancer.

The focus pivots from computers to cancer, and Sangeeta lets the audience know that she’ll be exploring how miniaturization may play a role in the detection and prevention of cancer. We see that connection in another way, by saying she’s an ‘engineer’ and a ‘physician’.

If you click on the link to her bio, you’ll see that’s true, but in a short story there is rarely the time to go into any greater detail. And that’s something to remember. Two details change how we think about her, and yet it only took seconds to do so. Brief can still have impact.

Worldwide, over two-thirds of deaths due to cancer are fully preventable using methods that we already have in hand today. Things like vaccination, timely screening and of course, stopping smoking. But even with the best tools and technologies that we have today, some tumors can’t be detected until 10 years after they’ve started growing, when they are 50 million cancer cells strong. What if we had better technologies to detect some of these more deadly cancers sooner, when they could be removed, when they were just getting started?

Sangeeta uses two statistics to describe characteristics of tumors that few people outside the field of medicine would know. In this case, they point to the need for early detection. Before 10 years have passed, and before there are 50 million cancer cells. This type of framing applies to a range of scientific topics, as well as social problems. It follows the logic of, ‘the sooner we know, the better’. Consider whether this technique might apply to your story.

Let me tell you about how miniaturization might get us there. This is a microscope in a typical lab that a pathologist would use for looking at a tissue specimen, like a biopsy or a pap smear. This $7,000 microscope would be used by somebody with years of specialized training to spot cancer cells. This is an image from a colleague of mine at Rice University, Rebecca Richards-Kortum. What she and her team have done is miniaturize that whole microscope into this $10 part, and it fits on the end of an optical fiber. Now what that means is instead of taking a sample from a patient and sending it to the microscope, you can bring the microscope to the patient. And then, instead of requiring a specialist to look at the images, you can train the computer to score normal versus cancerous cells.

Sangeeta comes back to the concept of smaller (miniaturization) as a potential solution. And using a story block about someone else – one of her colleagues – she is able to highlight a solution that improves the detection of cancer. The framing of ‘instead of…’ with ‘you can…’ illustrates the notion that an existing process can be improved by implementing a new idea.

Now this is important, because what they found working in rural communities, is that even when they have a mobile screening van that can go out into the community and perform exams and collect samples and send them to the central hospital for analysis, that days later, women get a call with an abnormal test result and they’re asked to come in. Fully half of them don’t turn up because they can’t afford the trip. With the integrated microscope and computer analysis, Rebecca and her colleagues have been able to create a van that has both a diagnostic setup and a treatment setup. And what that means is that they can do a diagnosis and perform therapy on the spot, so no one is lost to follow up.

Once a new technology (or a solution of any sort) has been developed, can your story talk about how it worked? If you don’t have a story block that validates your idea, then it remains theoretical. Which is sometimes the case. Your story’s narrative can take us to the present moment with a desire to take the next step in the future. Probes have been to Mars, but humans haven’t, so your story may end with your vision of the future.

That’s just one example of how miniaturization can save lives. Now as engineers, we think of this as straight-up miniaturization. You took a big thing and you made it little. But what I told you before about computers was that they transformed our lives when they became small enough for us to take them everywhere. So what is the transformational equivalent like that in medicine? Well, what if you had a detector that was so small that it could circulate in your body, find the tumor all by itself and send a signal to the outside world? It sounds a little bit like science fiction. But actually, nanotechnology allows us to do just that. Nanotechnology allows us to shrink the parts that make up the detector from the width of a human hair, which is 100 microns, to a thousand times smaller, which is 100 nanometers. And that has profound implications.

Having taken the ‘smaller’ idea to one level, Sangeeta takes us to place that, as she admits, ‘sounds a bit like science fiction’. In this case, ‘smaller’ is not just some smaller device, but something so small that we can’t even see it. This is common for science related talks, as processes which occur at the the molecular or nano level, can only be imagined, which means the responsibility falls on the storyteller to bring their audience into that world.

It turns out that materials actually change their properties at the nanoscale. You take a common material like gold, and you grind it into dust, into gold nanoparticles, and it changes from looking gold to looking red. If you take a more exotic material like cadmium selenide — forms a big, black crystal — if you make nanocrystals out of this material and you put it in a liquid, and you shine light on it, they glow. And they glow blue, green, yellow, orange, red, depending only on their size. It’s wild! Can you imagine an object like that in the macro world? It would be like all the denim jeans in your closet are all made of cotton, but they are different colors depending only on their size.

And the way Sangeeta does that, is to compare a property that exists at such a small scale to something that everyone can relate to – their denim jeans – different size equals different color. While jeans are completely different than nanoparticles, we still get the picture.

So as a physician, what’s just as interesting to me is that it’s not just the color of materials that changes at the nanoscale; the way they travel in your body also changes. And this is the kind of observation that we’re going to use to make a better cancer detector.

So let me show you what I mean. This is a blood vessel in the body. Surrounding the blood vessel is a tumor. We’re going to inject nanoparticles into the blood vessel and watch how they travel from the bloodstream into the tumor. Now it turns out that the blood vessels of many tumors are leaky, and so nanoparticles can leak out from the bloodstream into the tumor. Whether they leak out depends on their size. So in this image, the smaller, hundred-nanometer, blue nanoparticles are leaking out, and the larger, 500-nanometer, red nanoparticles are stuck in the bloodstream. So that means as an engineer, depending on how big or small I make a material, I can change where it goes in your body.

In my lab, we recently made a cancer nano detector that is so small that it could travel into the tumor body and look for tumors. We designed it to listen for tumor invasion: the orchestra of chemical signals that tumors need to make to spread. For a tumor to break out of the tissue that it’s born in, it has to make chemicals called enzymes to chew through the scaffolding of tissues. We designed these nanoparticles to be activated by these enzymes. One enzyme can activate a thousand of these chemical reactions in an hour. Now in engineering, we call that one-to-a-thousand ratio a form of amplification, and it makes something ultrasensitive. So we’ve made an ultrasensitive cancer detector.

Once again, we have an example of how the idea becomes real, and we also come back to more of Sangeeta’s personal story, of what is happening in her laboratory. Instead of an ultra-technical description of what the tumor’s enzymes actually do, she uses a visual metaphor of how they ‘chew through’ the ’tissues’. They don’t have teeth, of course, but listeners make the connection and realize that the enzyme has a way to get through, and that’s all the audience needs to understand in order for Sangeeta to continue with the narrative.

OK, but how do I get this activated signal to the outside world, where I can act on it? For this, we’re going to use one more piece of nanoscale biology, and that has to do with the kidney. The kidney is a filter. Its job is to filter out the blood and put waste into the urine. It turns out that what the kidney filters is also dependent on size. So in this image, what you can see is that everything smaller than five nanometers is going from the blood, through the kidney, into the urine, and everything else that’s bigger is retained. OK, so if I make a 100-nanometer cancer detector, I inject it in the bloodstream, it can leak into the tumor where it’s activated by tumor enzymes to release a small signal that is small enough to be filtered out of the kidney and put into the urine, I have a signal in the outside world that I can detect.

The use of visual images is critical here, as they show, in graphic terms, what is happening. If the audience had to figure that out on their own, most of them would be lost. One of the most important uses of static or motion images is to say more than the speaker is saying.

OK, but there’s one more problem. This is a tiny little signal, so how do I detect it? Well, the signal is just a molecule. They’re molecules that we designed as engineers. They’re completely synthetic, and we can design them so they are compatible with our tool of choice. If we want to use a really sensitive, fancy instrument called a mass spectrometer, then we make a molecule with a unique mass. Or maybe we want make something that’s more inexpensive and portable. Then we make molecules that we can trap on paper, like a pregnancy test. In fact, there’s a whole world of paper tests that are becoming available in a field called paper diagnostics.

Alright, where are we going with this? What I’m going to tell you next, as a lifelong researcher, represents a dream of mine. I can’t say that’s it’s a promise; it’s a dream. But I think we all have to have dreams to keep us pushing forward, even — and maybe especially — cancer researchers.

I’m going to tell you what I hope will happen with my technology, that my team and I will put our hearts and souls into making a reality. OK, here goes. I dream that one day, instead of going into an expensive screening facility to get a colonoscopy, or a mammogram, or a pap smear, that you could get a shot, wait an hour, and do a urine test on a paper strip. I imagine that this could even happen without the need for steady electricity, or a medical professional in the room. Maybe they could be far away and connected only by the image on a smartphone.

Now I know this sounds like a dream, but in the lab we already have this working in mice, where it works better than existing methods for the detection of lung, colon and ovarian cancer. And I hope that what this means is that one day we can detect tumors in patients sooner than 10 years after they’ve started growing, in all walks of life, all around the globe, and that this would lead to earlier treatments, and that we could save more lives than we can today, with early detection.

Related to the previous comment about people going to Mars, Sangeeta takes the narrative beyond the laboratory and tells us her ‘what if’ story, which is a type of ‘better future’ story block. Anyone proposing a solution to a problem is, in effect, saying, ‘what if we implemented my solution? if we did, the world could be better for the following reasons’.

Many times speakers will conclude their story with an emphatic statement, along the lines of, ‘the world will be better’. You have to decide whether to frame your statement as a ‘could’ or a ‘will’. Just know that the audience may have their own opinion on the topic.

By using words such as ‘dream’ and ‘hope’, Sangeeta is clear on this point.

Thank you.

[Note: all comments inserted into this transcript are my opinions, not those of the speaker, the TED organization, nor anyone else on the planet. In my view, each story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these analytical posts is to inspire a storyteller to become a storylistener, and in doing so, make their stories more impactful.]

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Sam Kass: Want kids to learn well? Feed them well @ TED Talks Live

TED Talks Live were held at The Town Hall Theater in NYC, in November of 2015. I had the pleasure of attending all six nights to hear speakers present impactful Ideas Worth Spreading. This post is an analysis of a talk by Sam Kass about the connection between proper nutrition and success in childhood education.

Watch Sam’s TED Talk. The issues related to proper nutrition and the quality of a child’s education are complex, but Sam provides us with an example of one such solution that has seen positive results. But this talk is also about the choices that storytellers must make in regards to focus and impact.


(my notes in red)

I am a chef and a food policy guy, but I come from a whole family of teachers. My sister is a special ed teacher in Chicago. My father just retired after 25 years teaching fifth grade. My aunt and uncle were professors. My cousins all teach. Everybody in my family, basically, teaches except for me.

They taught me that the only way to get the right answers is to ask the right questions. So what are the right questions when it comes to improving the educational outcomes for our children? There’s obviously many important questions, but I think the following is a good place to start: What do we think the connection is between a child’s growing mind and their growing body? What can we expect our kids to learn if their diets are full of sugar and empty of nutrients? What can they possibly learn if their bodies are literally going hungry? And with all the resources that we are pouring into schools, we should stop and ask ourselves: Are we really setting our kids up for success?

We know about chefs, and teachers, but the phrase ‘food policy guy’ is a bit unusual, and that has the audience wondering where his story will take them. Leveraging what he learned from the teachers in his family, Sam asks a series of questions which outline his narrative. Beyond serving as a precursor for his story, the technique of opening a story with questions can also engage the audience and get their cognitive wheels turning.

Now, a few years ago, I was a judge on a cooking competition called “Chopped.” Four chefs compete with mystery ingredients to see who can cook the best dishes. Except for this episode — it was a very special one. Instead of four overzealous chefs trying to break into the limelight — something that I would know nothing about — (Laughter) these chefs were school chefs; you know, the women that you used to call “lunch ladies,” but the ones I insist we call “school chefs.” Now, these women — God bless these women — they spend their day cooking for thousands of kids, breakfast and lunch, with only $2.68 per lunch, with only about a dollar of that actually going to the food. In this episode, the main-course mystery ingredient was quinoa. Now, I know it’s been a long time since most of you have had a school lunch, and we’ve made a lot of progress on nutrition, but quinoa still is not a staple in most school cafeterias.

Many people will have seen Sam on television, but for those that have not, his quick mention of that fact tells us that he’s not just a chef (he told us that in his opening line) but a chef who is good enough to be a judge for a cooking competition. Often times you can provide a single sentence that says a lot about who you are in connection to the story you’re telling.

So this was a challenge. But the dish that I will never forget was cooked by a woman named Cheryl Barbara. Cheryl was the nutrition director at High School in the Community in Connecticut. She cooked this delicious pasta. It was amazing. It was a pappardelle with Italian sausage, kale, Parmesan cheese. It was delicious, like, restaurant-quality good, except — she basically just threw the quinoa, pretty much uncooked, into the dish. It was a strange choice, and it was super crunchy. So I took on the TV accusatory judge thing that you’re supposed to do, and I asked her why she did that.

Cheryl responded, “Well, first, I don’t know what quinoa is.” (Laughter) “But I do know that it’s a Monday, and that in my school, at High School in the Community, I always cook pasta.”

See, Cheryl explained that for many of her kids, there were no meals on the weekends. No meals on Saturday. No meals on Sunday, either. So Cheryl cooked pasta because she wanted to make sure she cooked something she knew her children would eat. Something that would stick to their ribs, she said. Something that would fill them up. Cheryl talked about how, by the time Monday came, her kids’ hunger pangs were so intense that they couldn’t even begin to think about learning. Food was the only thing on their mind. The only thing. And unfortunately, the stats — they tell the same story.

This story block is about someone other than Sam. In this case, it’s someone that he has met and interacted with, so he could tell it from personal experience, but we are basically in the shoes of this other person. Think about the people you have met that could be part of your narrative. Capture those as current or future story blocks. Some speakers have dozens of such stories to draw on.

So, let’s put this into the context of a child. And we’re going to focus on the most important meal of the day, breakfast. Meet Allison. She’s 12 years old, she’s smart as a whip and she wants to be a physicist when she grows up. If Allison goes to a school that serves a nutritious breakfast to all of their kids, here’s what’s going to follow. Her chances of getting a nutritious meal, one with fruit and milk, one lower in sugar and salt, dramatically increase. Allison will have a lower rate of obesity than the average kid. She’ll have to visit the nurse less. She’ll have lower levels of anxiety and depression. She’ll have better behavior. She’ll have better attendance, and she’ll show up on time more often. Why? Well, because there’s a good meal waiting for her at school. Overall, Allison is in much better health than the average school kid.

So what about that kid who doesn’t have a nutritious breakfast waiting for him? Well, meet Tommy. He’s also 12. He’s a wonderful kid. He wants to be a doctor. By the time Tommy is in kindergarten, he’s already underperforming in math. By the time he’s in third grade, he’s got lower math and reading scores. By the time he’s 11, it’s more likely that Tommy will have to have repeated a grade. Research shows that kids who do not have consistent nourishment, particularly at breakfast, have poor cognitive function overall.

Here we have two more stories of other people – both designed to illustrate the connection between educational success and healthy nutrition – with one having a positive outcome, while the other outcome is negative. The use of contrasting stories is a common technique, used to show what happens when one path is taken over the other.

Sometimes these paths are imposed – in this case we’re dealing with children who don’t really have a choice – but in other situations the path is chosen – an adult who chooses to eat too much, or drink too much, or smoke cigarettes. In either case, the audience knows which is the better path, but they also know there are challenges to taking that path. This dilemma sets up the next phase of the story.

So how widespread is this problem? Well, unfortunately, it’s pervasive. Let me give you two stats that seem like they’re on opposite ends of the issue, but are actually two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, one in six Americans are food insecure, including 16 million children — almost 20 percent — are food insecure. In this city alone, in New York City, 474,000 kids under the age of 18 face hunger every year. It’s crazy.

On the other hand, diet and nutrition is the number one cause of preventable death and disease in this country, by far. And fully a third of the kids that we’ve been talking about tonight are on track to have diabetes in their lifetime.

Now, what’s hard to put together but is true is that, many times, these are the same children. So they fill up on the unhealthy and cheap calories that surround them in their communities and that their families can afford. But then by the end of the month, food stamps run out or hours get cut at work, and they don’t have the money to cover the basic cost of food.

Sam offers a statistical story block to demonstrate the magnitude of the problem. It’s very shocking to hear that nearly a half million kids in New York City face hunger every year. Are there statistics that can help support your narrative, that can highlight the importance of your message? You can use static numbers, or present a trend line if the numbers are going up or down.

But I would also like to mention Sam’s use of the phrase ‘diet and nutrition is the number one cause of preventable death and disease in this country, by far’. I found it equally shocking, yet it didn’t ring true for me. I’m not saying it was a false statement, but it seemed to be such a serious claim that it needed an explanation. What are the categories of ‘preventable death and disease’ that he’s talking about? What are the relevant statistics?

The point is, when you’re making a serious claim – about anything – consider whether you need to explain it further, or provide statistics, or quote the source of your claim.

But we should be able to solve this problem, right? We know what the answers are. As part of my work at the White House, we instituted a program that for all schools that had 40 percent more low-income kids, we could serve breakfast and lunch to every kid in that school. For free.

This program has been incredibly successful, because it helped us overcome a very difficult barrier when it came to getting kids a nutritious breakfast. And that was the barrier of stigma. See, schools serve breakfast before school, and it was only available for the poor kids. So everybody knew who was poor and who needed government help.

Now, all kids, no matter how much or how little their parents make, have a lot of pride. So what happened? Well, the schools that have implemented this program saw an increase in math and reading scores by 17.5 percent. 17.5 percent. And research shows that when kids have a consistent, nutritious breakfast, their chances of graduating increase by 20 percent. 20 percent. When we give our kids the nourishment they need, we give them the chance to thrive, both in the classroom and beyond.

The story now pivots from problem to solution, and we get one more slice of information about Sam – that he was working on this project at the White House. If he was to expand this story from its short 12 minute format to keynote length, these few words could become a significant story block of its own. The beauty of story blocks is how they can be expanded or contracted based on the time allowed.

Now, you don’t have to trust me on this, but you should talk to Donna Martin. I love Donna Martin. Donna Martin is the school nutrition director at Burke County in Waynesboro, Georgia. Burke County is one of the poorest districts in the fifth-poorest state in the country, and about 100 percent of Donna’s students live at or below the poverty line. A few years ago, Donna decided to get out ahead of the new standards that were coming, and overhaul her nutrition standards. She improved and added fruit and vegetables and whole grains. She served breakfast in the classroom to all of her kids. And she implemented a dinner program. Why? Well, many of her kids didn’t have dinner when they went home.

So how did they respond? Well, the kids, they loved the food. They loved the better nutrition, and they loved not being hungry. But Donna’s biggest supporter came from an unexpected place. His name was Eric Parker, and he was the head football coach for the Burke County Bears. Now, Coach Parker had coached mediocre teams for years. The Bears often ended in the middle of the pack — a big disappointment in one of the most passionate football states in the Union. But the year Donna changed the menus, the Bears not only won their division, they went on to win the state championship, beating the Peach County Trojans 28-14.

And Coach Parker, he credited that championship to Donna Martin.

This is a fun story block about how the football team improved their performance after the food program was improved, but it feels off topic to me and takes away from what I feel is the more important story of the link between nutrition and education. It’s a stylistic choice, of course, but when you want your story to have the most impact possible, carefully consider what content you will include, and what content to leave out. Especially when you have a very limited time to tell it. Some points that work in a long talk can be cut in a shorter talk.

When we give our kids the basic nourishment, they’re going to thrive. And it’s not just up to the Cheryl Barbaras and the Donna Martins of the world. It’s on all of us. And feeding our kids the basic nutrition is just the starting point. What I’ve laid out is really a model for so many of the most pressing issues that we face.

If we focus on the simple goal of properly nourishing ourselves, we could see a world that is more stable and secure; we could dramatically improve our economic productivity; we could transform our health care and we could go a long way in ensuring that the Earth can provide for generations to come. Food is that place where our collective efforts can have the greatest impact.

I think we would all agree with Sam that proper nutrition is linked to a wide range of global issues, but it’s unusual to begin on one topic – education – then expand it – athletics – and expand it further still – economics and health care. On the one hand, it speaks to how important the topic of nutrition is, but on the other hand, it strays from the opening topic. In the end, such decisions are up to the storyteller. I would simply suggest that you never stray from the intent of maximizing impact.

So we have to ask ourselves: What is the right question? What would happen if we fed ourselves more nutritious, more sustainably grown food? What would be the impact? Cheryl Barbara, Donna Martin, Coach Parker and the Burke County Bears — I think they know the answer.

Thank you guys so very much.

[Note: all comments inserted into this transcript are my opinions, not those of the speaker, the TED organization, nor anyone else on the planet. In my view, each story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these analytical posts is to inspire a storyteller to become a storylistener, and in doing so, make their stories more impactful.]

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The Country Doctor on Snap Judgement

America has had problems with discrimination from day one. Look no further than the death toll of Native Americans, often deemed to be heathens, as settlers pushed onward from sea to shining sea. And with the invention of the cotton gin, wealthy landowners sanctified an increase in slavery, economically justifying the practice of kidnapping, shackling, and selling Africans to the highest bidder.

Then we have the egregious treatment of Mexican citizens. You know, the folks who owned a significant chunk of the Western U.S. until they exited south at gunpoint. And let’s not forget about the treatment of immigrants from China, South America and the Middle East. These are not simple histories. In fact, quite the opposite, as there have always been Americans who were welcoming to people of any country, ethnicity or religion. But discrimination has been, and continues to be, a shameful truth in the land of freedom and justice for all.

It was encouraging to see America make progress on this front during the late 60s into the 70s and 80s, but backsliding on the ideal of equality was evident from the 1990s onward. Slowly at first, but rapidly accelerating over the past 3+ years with public displays of hate and prejudice seen in many parts of the country. Displays without remorse of apology.

But all is not lost. Hearts can soften and open with grace whenever people resist stereotyping and instead rely on the power of human connection to speak truth to hate. Whenever we remove the wall of discrimination long enough to forge meaningful relationships, a space for the miraculous appears. A space where healing and justice coexist alongside internal struggle.

Snap Judgement recently broadcast a story that I highly recommend listening to. It was one of those rare podcast episodes that stopped me in my tracks, as I needed to hear the story of Dr. Ayaz Virji until the very end. Give it a listen.

Dr Ayaz Virji on Snap Judgement

Artwork by Teo Ducot | Snap Judgment | WNYC Studios

When Dr. Ayaz Virji first set foot in Dawson, Minnesota, he didn’t know what to expect. He was a brown Muslim man walking into a predominantly white rural town. But much to his surprise Ayaz and his family fit right in. Dawson quickly became home and his neighbors became like his extended family. Then came the presidential election of 2016.

Dr. Ayaz Virji was aware of the positive impact he could have on a small rural town serving as a clinic medical director and chief of staff. And while the community embraced his family upon their arrival, and he enjoyed working with his patients, an abrupt change in the national political climate upset his view of the world, and his place in it.

The narrative follows Dr. Virji’s journey of self-discovery and reflection, of confrontation and conversation within the town after the 2016 election. As you listen to his story, think about the decisions made along the way, by all parties, but especially by Dr. Virji. How did each decision alter the plot of the story? How would you have reacted?

With my white, middle class background, living a life free from discrimination, it’s hard for me to wear his shoes (or anyone else in similar circumstances), to understand his decisions, to feel the pain and frustration that I clearly hear in his voice. What would I have done?

I continue to struggle with recognizing and dealing with the rifts of hate and discrimination in society, but as all impactful stories do, this podcast has altered my frame of reference, and I now view my own story through a new lens. And hopefully it will also make me a better storylistener.

Nancy López on Snap Judgement

Image credit: Snap Judgment | WNYC Studios

Nancy López is a senior producer at Snap Judgment. She started in radio in 2006 when she joined Soul Rebel Radio, a collective of novice storytellers in Los Angeles. Since then, she’s worked as a producer for Radio Ambulante and Making Contact. Her stories have been featured on PRI’s The World, KALW in San Francisco, and Radio Bilingue.

The Country Doctor – Season 11 – Episode 18 – Produced by Nancy Lopez, Original score by Renzo Gorrio, Artwork by Teo Ducot – Snap Judgement founded by Glynn Washington.

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Why Storytelling Matters via Patrick Moreau

“Why storytelling?” It’s a question I’ve been asked many times, often preceded by the phrase, “Out of all the career paths you could have pursued.” The standard answer has always been, “Because it matters, because it expresses our humanity, because it can change the world.”

For me, it’s something that I have witnessed in my own life, and in the lives of many others. An accumulation of experiences over many years that led to a profound understanding, built like the pyramids, one block at a time. Though it’s a reality constantly evolving, never finished.

I would venture to say that Patrick Moreau‘s experience is similar in that he has spent many years honing his own craft of storytelling as the founder of Muse Storytelling, but in his case there was a pivotal moment when the telling of stories took on new meaning and purpose.

Every story is the opportunity of a lifetime and we just rarely realize it.

Many personal stories involve tragic events or circumstances that cause a shift in perspective about the world and our place in it. We come away changed, as well as conflicted and confused, yet clarity can also manifest. Take a few minutes to watch this video about Patrick’s journey, then reflect on your desire, and maybe reluctance, to share your story with others.

Transcript (with minor edits for readability)

Amina Moreau: So, I just came back from interviewing Patrick for our launch film, and I’ve got to say, we had a really great plan going into this thing. We knew exactly what we wanted our story to be. But every so often, when you’re in an interview, something so amazing, or so unexpected happens that you know you’ve got to pivot your story.

Here’s what happened:

Why does it matter to you so much that you live a life of purpose?

Patrick Moreau: That was my mom. She took her own life, and my sister and I had to go back to Midland and pack up her apartment.

I mean, for over a decade my mom struggled with bipolar, which means she’d have these manic phases where she’d fly to places like Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan and then would often come crashing down into a depression and somebody’d have to go and try and bring her back.

I went to Lebanon to try and bring her back when she became depressed, and I’ve sat on an airplane next to her for eight hours and she pretends to read, you know, because then it looks like you’re normal.

I can’t imagine the reality of somebody going through their life trying to hide their pain so that people don’t try and bother them, you know? And so, it just came to a point where she felt like she was more of a burden.

A lot of people would probably tell you that the depression killed her, but it was not having purpose anymore. It was not being able to follow her purpose. It was not being able to find it in herself to do anything that she felt would really make a difference for anybody.

It’s incredibly hard to lose somebody you’re that close to, but what allowed me to survive was having a purpose, was believing that what we’re actually doing really does matter and makes a difference.

So it’s a very deep-seated sense that purpose not only matters, it not only drives you forward, but it also keeps you going, and it also will help see you through, and it is one of the most fulfilling things that you can have. You know?

I don’t think a lot of us realize that being a storyteller truly is the greatest job out there, because not only do we get to do something, it can really make a positive difference, that we can really take things and share them with people in a way that’s gonna open their minds, let them see something different. But that we are also changed by those things.

If I have the ability to extract something from our experience and to bring together an incredible team of people who can come up with a repeatable way that different people, wherever they are in the world, can use this structure and these ideas to do what they do better and to love it more, I mean, it feels like a crime not to.

How do you not share that? How do you not take the opportunity to try and do that? I don’t know, I guess it seems bizarre ‘cuz people come up to you all the time and they go, like, why are you sharing this?

Like, why do you just give away everything you know? And I have such a hard time understanding that question. Why would I keep it? Are you gonna go and tell your best story and then go lock it in your bedroom and go, “No, no, this is for me!”

No, you share it with people. You want it to make an impact. Well, you know what? Muse is my story. It is something that I believe in that deeply, that it can be your journey, that can help you actually make a difference and that’s all it is. And so of course, I want to share that with as many people as I can. And I want them to be able to use it and take it and take whatever works for you and just do what you do a little bit better and I’m happy.

Every story is the opportunity of a lifetime and we just rarely realize it. You rarely realize that we have an opportunity to really let somebody be heard, to allow them to see themselves in a different way, and to share something with other people that could make a difference for them.

One of the last things that my mom really wanted was to share her story. It was to have it matter to somebody else other than her. For people to take her pain in her experience with bipolar and to learn something from it, to be able to live their own lives a little bit better.

And I will one day tell that story in a bigger way. And when I do, I want it to be the best damn story I’ve ever told. You know, I want to make sure that I’m not missing anything, I haven’t left anything on the table, and that’s why we’re building this. You know? Because that’s what matters to me, this story.

But everybody else, they have something that matters to them, and it’s just about creating something that allows us all to make the most of every story we tell.

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You Matter – Your Story Matters

Over the years I’ve talked to thousands of people about storytelling, especially the impactful niche of personal storytelling, and the most common reason many folks are reluctant to tell their story is that they don’t feel their story matters much, that their experiences and lessons learned over the years wouldn’t be of interest to others. When I hear such explanations it can sound as though they’re saying they don’t matter, so why would anyone listen to them.

When I mention this view they quickly counter that they do, in fact, matter to their inner circle of family and friends, that they are loved and listened to. But in the grand scheme of things, to society as a whole, they don’t feel they have much wisdom to offer. That’s a belief I have never subscribed to, which is why I enjoy the process of working with these individuals to uncover the pearls of wisdom they have to share, and to build a narrative around them.

Working with entrepreneurs and business leaders, students and academics, immigrants and refugees, inmates and military personnel, I’ve seen how powerful these personal stories can be once they understand and believe that their story can positively affect the lives of others.

Which brings me to an insightful book that preaches the gospel of recognizing how much we matter and the benefits which can be derived at the individual level, and within our society. You Matter: Learning to Love Who You Really Are by Matthew Emerzian offers insights into the topic of why each of us matters, how acknowledging that fact empowers us, and why that newfound understanding and perspective ultimately benefits the world around us.

You Matter.: Learning to Love Who You Really Are by Matthew Emerzian

I had the pleasure of meeting Matt in 2012 after he gave his TEDxSanDiego Talk. It was hard to square up the man with a smile that exuded such happiness, positivity and charm, with the narrative he had just shared on stage.

From his perch atop the entertainment world as a senior vice president working on projects for artists such as U2, Coldplay, and Black Eyed Peas, Matt’s world crumbled around him as he fell into a deep abyss of depression and chronic anxiety disorder. A place of darkness and despair that could cripple the best of us.

I believe that self-and social transformation are first cousins and they happen interchangeably at the same time.

But thankfully Matt’s story is one of personal transformation and revelation as he came to understand the principles of living a life that recognizes the value each of us possesses, and the inherent value of service to others. Coming out of his ordeal Matt founded a non-profit, Every Monday Matters, committed to helping individuals and organizations understand how much and why they matter – to themselves, the community, and the world.

If you read his book (please do, it will transform you) you’ll experience a degree of openness and vulnerability that few storytellers dare to share. In doing so he illustrates the fact that the only way a story of change can have impact is for the audience to understand the full extent of the highs and lows, the doubts and rebirth. Such stories can’t be sugar coated, or stay on the surface. Authenticity must be front and center. They need to spend time in your shoes.

Judging is much easier to do than taking the time to invest in others, to learn their stories, and to understand why they might be different from us.

Along the way Matt also came to embrace the need for empathy and compassion, to hear the stories of strangers, as well as his friends and family. To ask questions. To see the value in experiences different than his own. I’m a big proponent of storylistening for just this reason, as our stories become more impactful when we listen to and respect the journey that people we meet have endured. Storytelling wisdom is gained when we listen more than we speak.

We cannot let anything get in the way of serving one another. So always be ready to serve – every day, in every way. Remember, you matter, but it’s not always about you.

The most impactful stories are those crafted with the audience in mind and formulated to resonate in a way that will alter their perception of an important issue. To that end I always tell speakers, It’s your story, but it’s not about you. When change is what matters most, the essence of your story should take the audience on a journey, leading to a new place of understanding, but do so with a sense of service, not with an objective of accomplishment.

When we all show up in a grateful and giving way, we help dreams come true for one another, and that’s a life well lived and a world well served.

As you come to embrace how much you matter, how much we all matter, and how much more we matter when thinking of each other, take a moment to consider how your personal story can exemplify this impactful paradigm of humanity. How it can reveal more of who you are, and create more profound connections. Remember. You Matter. Your Stories Matter.

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