This post was originally published on the Acumen Fund Blog.
For the past few months, I have been reflecting on the role of the storyteller in the context of the non-profit sector and more broadly across sectors and geographies. The most obvious example of the elevated role and importance of storytelling in recent years is the famous TED Conference, which invites leading thinkers across sectors, geographies, and backgrounds to share their stories and insights about the world.
To speak from personal experience in the non-profit sector, we place tremendous emphasis on developing one’s ability to tell powerful stories. Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools we have to create empathy, raise capital, and connect people. We, the ones who travel back and forth from the slums of Kenya to the conference halls of Aspen (I just returned from the Aspen Ideas Festival), are seen as the carriers of these stories. While I have been a storyteller most of my life, my current work leads me to ask: What are my responsibilities as a storyteller?
Storytellers bear an enormous responsibility to acknowledge the world’s endless complexities. I have had the privilege to travel extensively in emerging markets (Pakistan, Senegal, Kenya, South Korea). When I travel in developed countries, I often find myself as the only one in the room who has extensive experience in the developing world. Sharing stories from these parts of the world can be an intimidating hat to wear. My advice before you tell any story is that you remind your listener of the “Danger of a Single Story.” Your experience and perspective is just one of many.
Storytellers must be dynamic. When I am in an environment where few people have been exposed to the things I have been exposed to, I am constantly observing reactions, listening to questions, and repositioning my story and tone. I have to challenge myself to continuously re-imagine the different sides of one story, and craft my message in a way that pushes others to question their perspective – but in a way that is not so jarring that they will unable to really hear what I have to say. This balance is critical. You must push your listeners at a rate they can absorb.
Storytelling must come from a place of empathy. A few weeks ago, I spoke to the JK Watson Fellows, young up and coming leaders in New York, and we had a long discussion about how to tell stories about individuals you have met along your journey. One of the Fellows asked me: “How do I know I am preserving the nuance and complexity of the person whom the story is about?” My advice to her was ask the protagonist of the story (whether they be a low income person in a slum or a wealthy philanthropist) what they think.
Finally Storytellers must uncover ways to be replaceable. I think we are at a moment in time of inter-connectivity and democratized technology that rather than telling other’s stories, we can find ways to empower them to tell their own stories. To give you an example of what I mean, one of the most amazing speeches I have seen to this day was delivered by Alex Sunguti, a young man born and raised in the slums of Kenya. Alex could easily take his story to a global stage. I (we) don’t need to tell his story.
I am not saying we should stop telling other people’s stories because our stories are intertwined with theirs and the reality is that this is not always possible. What I am saying is let’s figure out some levers to unlock and some new tools to use that will allow more people to tell their own stories. Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook are doing this on a massive scale. So we can see that technology is already helping, but let’s remember that we must drive that technology. We, the storytellers, need to let some stories go so that the voices of the world can truly be heard.