The STORY 2016 conference has come and gone! Those of us who attended the two-day gathering are now left to stew in the myriad of motivational messaging.
What is STORY? I’m actually still trying to figure it out. I suppose it is like Ted Talks aimed at creatives/artistically-minded folks, presenting them with an extensive lineup of speakers from various creative bents who share about their experiences and lessons they’ve learned so far in their work. The talks ranged from 10 minutes to 30 minutes or so, and were tightly packed with anecdotes to uphold the conference’s name. All told, the conference amounted to a serious pep talk for people doing creative work. Creatives sometimes (all the time) need that.
As I am constantly on a quest to learn more about story and storytelling, and because the conference this year was 15 minutes from my house, I made sure to attend. I collected many takeaways from the 20 different presentations and wanted to share them with you.
…on Motivation and Validation.
The first speaker, Brad Montague, filmmaker behind the Kid President sensation, really stole the show (almost too bad he went first). He talked about a line from one of the videos where Kid President asks, “What if Michael Jordan had quit? He never would have made Space Jam!” For Brad, this line started funny, but took on an insidious flavor when the video’s sensational popularity prompted Brad to ask, “Was this my Space Jam?” The idea haunted him. He knew he would crave more validation for his work to feel good. What he discovered, though, was that this was true of anyone…anyone…even Beyoncé…even Obama…both of whom finished their interviews with Kid President and asked, “Was that ok? I can do it again…” Brad is motivated by the idea that we each don’t just have one Space Jam, but can focus on our entire body of work over the course of our life. We can approach life with child-like wonder and enthusiasm and be better off for it. He asked, “Why does a child pick up a box of crayons? Because they like it. They want to make a present for their mom. They want to see what happens when they blend colors.” They create out of joy, and so should we. As Fred Rogers said, “We were all children once.”
…on Empathy and Experience.
Two ideas emerged from many of the speakers in what makes for better stories: the need for empathy and the need for personal experience. As Rick Rekedal, creative guru at Dreamworks, said, “The best stories are not just stories I like, but stories that are like me.” Hannah Brencher, a writer, put it this way:”Loneliness is at large today—we all need ‘me, too’ moments.” Stories work wonders for creating empathetic connections with audiences, but empathy requires personal knowledge of the experience being shared. Therefore, storytellers need to live life and not just talk about life. Casey Neistat brought this idea home with his story about getting fined $50 for riding his bike outside of the bike lane in New York City. The subsequent viral video resonated so deeply with so many people it even led to city-wide policy changes regarding bike use. Casey found an audience for this story because it was based on a real experience and created those “me, too!” moments.
…on Process and Getting Out of Our Own Way.
Writer Hannah Brencher has no illusions regarding romance in being a writer. Her message was clear: creative work is a fight. It’s not personal, it’s business. “Your voice,” she says, “is not something that you find; it is something that is birthed.” This means that there is struggle involved, and that it will take time. I appreciate it when people acknowledge this, instead of glossing over the tough parts of creating to glory in the final product. Of course, it is easy to understand why they do that. They do not want to remember how much of a struggle it was, how much they got in their own way. Jason Jaggard, an executive coach, talked about the dark side of imagination, or the ways in which our mind can become extremely imaginative devising ways to tell us that we can’t do things. We have, as he described, somatic markers or instincts that protect us from the unknown. These keep us safe from danger, but they also keep us safe from opportunity. He suggested that we need to address these instincts and counteract them purposefully:
a) We all long to look good. We overcome this by being willing to look foolish.
b) We all want to feel good. We overcome this by accepting pain as inevitable, and focusing on making something useful with those experiences.
c) We all want to be right, even when it means being right about our own perceived lack of abilities. We need to realize it might be good to be wrong about this.
Overall, I can say I’ve come away from this conference motivated to work harder and strive for better focus. I will also say though that the conference content ended up being different than I had hoped it would be. Like I said, I am constantly on a quest to learn more about story and storytelling. Very little of the conference actually focused on narrative craft. How to become a better storyteller, and why the great stories we know and love are the great stories we know and love…this is what I crave. Please, readers, let me know if you have resources for me in my continued quest.