June 27th, 2012
I’m kinda tired of lecturing about the power of storytelling. But just as I was starting to doubt myself I watched two very skilled storytellers ply their trade at the Aspen Environment Forum. Which just made me sit back and think, THAT is what I’ve been talking about. When it works, it’s so powerful.
THREE GREAT STORYTELLERS AT WORK. George Divoky who for nearly three decades has been studying the birds of Cooper Island which is waaaay up at the top of Alaska, Chris Reij who has done a lot of work in Africa and told amazing stories of some kinda water pits or something in Niger — I don’t know, I only know he told the amazing story of having sat next to the assistant to the President of Niger’s wife, and ended up ghostwriting the President’s speech. Amazing stories from both. Unfortunately I missed the third speaker, National Geographic photographer Nick Nichols, who gave an evening talk I couldn’t attend that was a sort of career-encapsulating presentation in which he showed some of his best photos over the years and told stories that were apparently packed with humor and emotion. People the next morning were raving about it, and I felt like a dummy having missed a presentation that exemplified the very principles I espouse.
THE ASPEN ENVIRONMENT FORUM
I spent the weekend at the Aspen Environment Forum. Lotsa talks. Lotsa “networking”. Some doses of the same stuff that made Juliette Eilperin of the Washington Post say rather sad things about the Rio + 20 Summit last week (yay for her honesty!). But overall an amazingly powerful event where I met at least 5 characters that were a real treat to speak with. Make that 6. Or 7. Whatever. The experience that had the biggest impact on me was listening to two very effective storytellers who solidified my convictions about the power of telling good stories.
A VISUAL PUNCH LINE IN THE THAWING ARCTIC
The first amazing storyteller was George Divoky. I met him in January at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage. At the time my brain was largely shut down from temperature shock — it was literally minus 20 the first evening and I walked about five blocks from a restaurant to the hotel and thought I was going to die from hypothermia. He introduced himself shortly after that, saying we were both going to speak at the Aspen event. I kinda said “yeah, whatever, I may not survive this place.”
So as he started his talk this past Saturday I began to realize, “oh, this is that guy,” then I heard a truly great story.
It was relatively simple. 27 years of visiting the same island at the top of Alaska, just off of Barrow. 27 years of following seabirds called guillemots that make their nests in a bunch of wooden boxes left behind by the navy. Twenty seven years of spending summers alone walking about the island counting birds and telling stories to himself. Then a twist in the story… Suddenly no ice.
Starting about 10 years ago the Arctic ice that normally surrounded the island started vanishing, and eventually completely vanished. The talk he gave was mostly standard natural history stuff — pictures of birds, facts about their feeding, ecology of the ice sheet, all set up, and then … BOOM. Two photos. One of “what it looked like” (a beautiful shot of the ice sheet, stretching to the horizon, pockets of open water, fields of snow). And then a second shot of … nothing. Just brownish open ocean with a few cresting waves. No ice fields, no snow, nothing but seawater. You could hear people in the audience gasp at the second shot.
Set up, pay off. As simple as that. A whole bunch of set up, and then two photos that told the entire story VISUALLY.
After that it seemed to just enter in to this wacky world as he talked about the birds being forced to switch their diet from highly nutritious cod (that hang out under the ice sheet) to scruffy sculpins (that live down on the bottom). Then out of nowhere polar bears start showing up on the island. Really hungry polar bears, and they start knocking over the wood boxes and eating the guillemot eggs. He’s got amazing video of the bears pounding on the boxes and all you can think is whoa, something is really wrong here.
Talk about a picture of climate change. There it is. Plain and simple. Beautifully set up. Stunningly paid off. Really good storytelling. How do I know? Because I can remember so much of his talk. That’s what storytelling does for you. It makes it really easy to remember and tell your friends. That doesn’t happen with a bunch of graphs.
PLANT AND PAY OFF IN NIGER
The second great storyteller was Chris Reij. He’s Dutch with kind of a funny, friendly accent. And he was on an excellent panel about the future of agriculture around the world. All of the members of the panel were amazing (including Dan Glickman, former Secretary of Agriculture under Clinton and long time congressman from my home state of Kansas, yay!), but he was the only true storyteller. Which became evident when the moderator asked all of them to “tell us a couple of stories,” and he was the only one who really did and didn’t even have or need any visuals. The others were also good, but they just cited facts and elaborated on them.
Chris told two stories that were about farming things in Africa, particularly in the country of Niger. His stories were mostly interesting but a little hard to follow (combined with his accent and I was having trouble hearing everything) — something about pits that farmers dug for some reason which ended up collecting rain water and turning into gardens and altering the water table over time … overall, the two stories weren’t that amazing, but were at least specific stories. The amazing part came later in the discussion.
He finally saw his opening and went for it with a third story. He told about taking a flight to Niger and sitting next to this attractive young woman who eventually ended up in conversation with him about something and finally at the end of the flight he asked what she does and she said she was the assistant to the President of Niger’s wife and that she wanted to invite him over to the palace (or wherever the President lived). Which she did. And he met the President. And the President ended up asking him if he could put together a Powerpoint talk for him about farming in Niger for him to present at the Rio + 10 Summit. And he did. And central to the whole presentation he assembled was that story he had told earlier about the rain pits and their importance.
Well, not only did the President end up using the Powerpoint for his big talk in Rio, he also stopped in Paris and a bunch of other cities on his way to Rio and gave the same talk to a bunch of other audiences.
Chris did such a great job telling the last story he had the crowd roaring with laughter, and what was most impressive was that he had “planted” the rain pits story at the start of the session, which was a moderately interesting story, but with the final story he was “paying it off” because that story ended up being the content of the Powerpoint he made for the President. I guarantee you I will remember the rain pits information much longer because of this context it ended up in the third story.
THAT is brilliant storytelling — innocently planting a topic early on, then paying it off by having it be the center of the later story. You could hear the audience laugh with satisfaction when he talked about what the content of the Powerpoint presentation was.
I don’t think either of these two guys ever really got trained in how to tell a story — they just have a natural instinct for it. But the basic techniques are accessible to anyone. You just have to appreciate the power of a well told story. And here’s the real demonstration — I heard probably 25 presentations, all really good, but … these two are really the only ones I could retell. Its just easier to remember when its built around a good story.