Storylistening and the Covid-19 Pandemic

It’s Saturday, March 14th. I’ve been traveling for the past nine days, from Lisbon to San Diego by way of London and Los Angeles. At the moment I’m visiting a friend in Orange County, California. From the balcony I look out across the upscale community, an enclave of posh condos and apartments intermixed with office buildings built of glass, steel and stone. Patchy gray clouds drift above the rain soaked streets as the occasional BMW or Tesla zips by below. (This is quite different from my lifestyle in Portugal, but the world comes in many variations.)

Apartment Balcony View Orange County

It’s a peaceful day, and it’s obvious that folks live rather well in this part of the world. But the world has changed radically in recent days as Covid-19, Coronavirus as it’s commonly called, has been rewriting life for everyone, even those who are accustomed to the pleasurable stories that money can conveniently purchase. Write a check, problem solved, life is good.

But Covid-19 is something of an equalizer. If you spend time with someone who is infected with the virus, whether they have obvious symptoms or not, you may be the next in line for a trip to the hospital, or spending a few weeks under self-quarantine. You can’t bribe a virus, or hire a bodyguard to protect you. A virus just doesn’t care. Your behavior will write your story.

Woman Wearing Face Mask Coronavirus Covid-19

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

With large gatherings now banned and the sports industry on hold, it’s no surprise that more people are turning to social media to stay connected with friends and family. It’s a time for personal storytelling, and an opportunity for heartfelt storylistening. A time for empathy and solidarity, for sharing and understanding.

And I’m seeing a lot of that, thankfully, as friends and strangers band together to weather the viral storm with offers of help for those who are under quarantine, or who are at risk and don’t want to venture out. But sadly there are voices out there claiming the situation is a hoax, or is being overblown, even as the infection rate soars and the deaths mount daily.

That’s why it’s important during such times to continue our storytelling, so that others know what is actually happening. But just as important, we should spend more time storylistening. Listening to the stories of those who are affected, listening to the scientific and social experts (not the politicians) who understand the complexities of how this virus is spreading, how it’s impacting individuals, and how those effects ripple out through all societies.

Group Taking Selfie

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

By sharing stories we gain a better understanding of the issues that each of us is having to deal with, and by do so we become more empathetic toward others, especially those at great distance. It’s about the old adage of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, of thinking about what they must be going through, and how that situation would feel if it were us.

It’s also about recognizing that we will never know the whole story. That there are unknown elements in play that can further complicate the narrative. If we’re in dialogue, then we have an opportunity to ask clarifying questions, and I encourage you to do so, but if not, if you’re just reading, hearing or watching someone’s story, don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t assume.

Though we don’t know when, life will ultimately return to some sense of normalcy, and when it does, we can take more group hug selfies. Until then, be safe, and listen to the stories that manifest from these difficult times. It has the potential to change us, and thus, humanity.

Is Climate Change the Most Important Story of the 21st Century?

There will be many world-changing stories throughout the 21st century. Artificial intelligence and genome science are two that will alter the very nature of how humans exist and interact. But it may well be the story of climate change that is the most important of them all, as it’s a story which describes how the nature of our entire planet will be changed in ways that make it much less hospitable to life itself.

It’s difficult to find a metaphor that properly parallels climate change, but there’s one I often use that’s close. Like a car traveling at 100 mph towards a brick wall, when you apply the breaks, and how hard you push on the brake pedal, will determine the outcome. Too little, too late is not an approach that works well in this scenario.

Some say the wall doesn’t exist, others see the wall yet feel we still have plenty of time to react. I’m in the group who believes that no matter how hard we brake, a collision of some sort is inevitable. We have long since passed the point at which a safe stop can be executed. (I truly hope that I’m wrong in my thinking, but many trends are going in the wrong direction)

Hands Earth Climate Change Protection

How that story ultimately plays out is dependent upon all of us, but I have my doubts that the story will have a happy ending without honest and committed leadership. On that front, many leaders have chosen to ignore reality, but others are making heroic efforts to create a different outcome, one that turns the CO2 tide and ensures a vibrant future for humanity.

At the 2016 TED Conference, one of these heros took the stage to tell her story of challenge and of hope on the topic of climate change. Having served as the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christiana Figueres understood the topic well, having played a pivotal leadership role leading up to the Paris Agreement in 2015.

In her TED Talk, Christiana observes that perspectives and mindsets need to shift if we are to address the critical issues that climate change represents, and uses the shift from failure at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to the success achieved six years later in Paris to illustrate what can happen when decisions are based on a shared vision of the future instead of protecting one’s own turf.

As inspiring as Christiana’s talk was, it left me wanting to know more about her background, passion and motivation. That’s often an issue with developing a short presentation – this was under 15 minutes – as there’s only so much information that can be included. The fact that she worked on the Paris agreement lends credence to her qualifications as a speaker, but I knew there was so much more to the story and was therefore left a bit unsatisfied.

Which is why The TED Interview Podcast is so brilliant. Debuting in 2018, the format allows Chris Anderson an opportunity to get behind the interviewee’s talk as a way to understand more of the speaker’s background, their motivation, and how their talk is playing out in the months or years since.

After you’ve had a chance to watch Christiana’s TED Talk, pour yourself another cup of coffee and listen to the podcast interview. You’ll gain a much better understanding of who she is, why she ended up in such a critical position, and how her desire for a sustainable world continues to feed her passion.

And here’s the challenge: Were there parts of the interview that you felt should have been included in her TED Talk? If so, what parts of the TED Talk would you have pulled out, assuming the length had to be the same? You will face the same issue when trying to determine what events, feelings and insights you want to put into your narrative, and which ones to leave out. Narrative impact will vary greatly based on this selection.

While creating your story blocks you will need to determine how long each one is, and which ones to leave in the final version. If you’re creating multiple versions – 15 minute short talk vs. 45 minute keynote – those decisions will be different, as will also be the case when addressing different audiences. Before speaking, understand who is listening.

TED Countdown Project

p.s. For those of you interested in being part of the climate change solution, check out TED’s bold initiative – Countdown – that is bringing the world’s foremost experts and thought leaders to the table as a way to create impactful solutions while also encouraging grass roots, community-based movements to support the goal of environmental stability.

The Essential Power of a Family Story

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

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

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

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

The Power of Storytelling 2019 Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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