Last Tuesday, I had the privilege of producing and hosting the first Changing the Story: An Evening of Conversation, Community, and Inspiration for People Who Give a Damn event at NationBuilder. I’d expected to feel a deep sense of accomplishment at the end of the evening.
And I did.
But even more: I felt that the evening had started what will be an ongoing conversation between diverse members of a wide community of change-makers in Los Angeles.
The event grew out of several conversations I’d had with friends, clients, and colleagues all over the world. We all believed in, and had direct experience with, the power of story to drive change. And we had all found that ‘storytelling’ got short shrift at many panels and events. The speakers would say something like ‘story is the most important element of your work,’ before going on to dive into nuts-and-bolts strategy or other matters.
This approach led to people understanding the power of story at a broad level, but without a structure within which to explore, discuss, and otherwise deepen their understanding.
The goal of the evening was to bring a diverse group of people together for the purpose of exploring the power of story to create change. To help facilitate the conversation, I enlisted the help of three amazing social leaders and storytellers based in Los Angeles: Steve LePore (founder, 1in6), Rachel Sumekh (founder and CEO, Swipe Out Hunger), and Karla Vaszquez (founder, SalviSoul).
From the outset, all four of us set the intention of creating a dynamic that invited the audience to participate fully in the conversation. Instead of positioning ourselves as ‘experts,’ we would offer ourselves as resources and guides for the evening.
NationBuilder agreed to host and partner with us for the event. With the container set, all we needed was an audience. It’s somewhat unusual for an event like this to take place outside of a conference or official ‘networking’ event and I was concerned that no one would be interested.
The opposite turned out to be true and, on the night, we had almost 50 people join us. As the event started, I was thrilled to see that they encompassed several generations, ethnicities, and fields of work. This was an audience composed of people who usually do not get to be in the same room with each other!
Over the course of the evening, the conversation evolved organically as different members of the audience shared their experiences and questions. A few themes wove their way through the discussion:
Storytelling as a Cultural Value
Far from being just a ‘communication tactic,’ storytelling can reflect and create the core values of an organization’s or community’s culture. By their nature, stories put people on a more level playing field and, while we can argue over facts or tactics, we cannot argue each other’s lived experience of the world.
Because story speaks so deeply to who we are as people and communities, crafting powerful stories takes dedication, space, and time. It’s worth the investment to let a story simmer and to let storytelling become a cultivated practice that evolves.
Storytelling as a Form of Service
When it comes to telling stories that promote change, it’s important to understand the audience you seek to reach. What kind of story will meet them where they are in their own journey and help them become a part of yours? What call to action will you make based on the story you share?
A well-told, powerful story earns you the right to ask your audience for their stories. As such, it should be about them just as much as it is about you, if not more.
This idea of using stories strategically balances against the idea of ‘taking time’ and giving stories space. It is matter of embracing both as opposed to choosing one approach over the other.
Listening is Just as Important as ‘Telling’
Listening deeply to the stories of others can open unexpected doors and connections. All too often, we are so enmeshed in our own agenda or priorities that we miss the opportunity to connect, collaborate, and partner deeply with others. Sometimes being quiet, asking open, vulnerable questions, and sharing space with someone with a story to tell is even more powerful that sharing a story of your own.
As these themes surfaced and built throughout the evening, the conversation turned from storytelling to impact. How could stories move audiences to a place of concrete, effective action?
This part of the evening moved into sometimes uncomfortable territory as we, as a group, grappled with tough questions about working within the context of systemic inequity and deep communal wounds. As a facilitator, I found myself leaning deeply into the discomfort and working towards a feeling of greater inclusion where all stories are valid and valuable to the broader, co-created story of a future that’s in the sometimes all-too-slow process of emerging.
At the end of the night, we closed the event by taking three deep breaths together. We had run a few minutes late, but instead of darting out, most of the participants stuck around to continue the conversation. That, to me, is what ‘changing the story’ really means. It’s less about tactics and strategy and more about strangers from different generations and background sharing and listening deeply to each other as they weave a new story together.