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.

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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.

Storytelling Newsletter

The Secret that Almost Killed Me – Kirsten Johnson at TEDxSDSU

Students that enroll in my Storytelling with Impact course at UC San Diego Extension are generally looking to improve their storytelling and public speaking skills, but one of my students had been accepted to speak at TEDxSDSU 2018 (held at San Diego State University) and she had a specific goal in mind – crafting a narrative for her upcoming TEDx Talk.

Right up my alley, I thought, as my work with TEDxSanDiego and TEDxDonovanCorrectional involves coaching speakers for the TEDx stage, and other clients have given TEDx Talks.

But this was special, as Kirsten wanted to discuss a personal issue that is never easy in front of an audience – her experience with sexual assault, and the resulting trauma that negatively affected her life for years – all the more important as she was speaking on a college campus.

As she worked through each draft of her talk and rehearsed in class, the discussions varied between “how much to tell” and “which narrative to use”. To her credit, Kirsten wasn’t afraid to experiment, to see what felt right, and to revise accordingly. Not saying enough could come off as lacking in depth, glossing over important topics, while providing too much detail could turn off an audience. This is the reality of delivering a talk with an emotional core.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure which version of her talk would end up on the TEDxSDSU stage, as she was still revising after our class had ended, but I was pleased to see how she presented this difficult subject – with heartfelt passion and resolve – to an audience that needed to hear about her experience and the lessons she learned along the way.

Kirsten Johnson is a life coach, YouTuber and author of the upcoming book Elephant. Johnson makes videos on anxiety, addiction, shame, spirituality and living your life purpose. She is also the creator of The Elephant Heard, an online community composed of people rising up to their full potential after the trauma of childhood sexual abuse.

Kristen is passionate about teaching people how to transform their relationship with fear so that they can live an empowered life.

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