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.

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.