It was 8 a.m. on a frigid Saturday morning when I got off the bus from New York and started the lonely walk to the training. The streets of Fish Town were still heavy with quiet. I sipped a huge coffee and wondered what the hell I was doing in Philadelphia -- I had no clue what would happen that day. The organizer, a good friend, had asked me to join 36 hours before, and I'd gotten on a 6 a.m. bus with the thought that he could help get me a job at The Huffington Post.
"A workshop about storytelling?" I thought. "I'm a journalist for christ sakes. I don't need this. People pay me to do this. But maybe I can help them refine their teaching model."
So it was that I arrogantly wandered into a room stacked with free bagels and a baker's dozen idealists, all as lost as I. There was a staff member to Philly's city council, founders of small non-profits, employees of large nonprofits, a receptionist looking to take a new leap. Few knew each other. Morning conversation was timid, the room absent of hubbub. A few spread cream cheese on their breakfast with intense care, so as to avoid eye contact or forced conversation. Then Mark, the training leader, strode to the front of the room with so much energy it looked like he was skipping.
"Good Morning, everyone! My name is Mark, and today I want to challenge some of your views on leadership, and teach you how to build a public narrative."
The next eight hours were a whirlwind dive into a single story telling technique. It had one purpose: movement building. It was hard. And it was novel, at least to me, though it bore stamps of approval from the likes of Chavez, King, Mandella. Mark had skipped up with a single lesson in mind: True movements are leaderless. They are tidal waves of human energy, propelled by a desire for change and directed by a powerful story. The day was about learning to tell the stories that direct them.
The method was structured. Each story answered three questions: What's your story and how did the problem affect you? What's our story as a group and how do we share on this problem? Why do we need to act now? The day was divided into four pieces: an introduction, then one for each part. We'd get a lesson on how to put the story together, then break into focus groups to craft our own little segment. The goal was to be able to tell an effecting public narrative by the end of the day.
It was an effective and I nailed it, no problem. I was good at finding protagonists, identifying intriguing conflict, weaving the two together. That is what I aspire to do for a living. But there was a catch: For the public narrative to work, the protagonist had to be me. To motivate people, you have to dig into your own pain, you have to be vulnerable. You had to tell people why you cared enough to get up on a podium, or in front of a webcam, and ask them to join you for change.
When Mark gave us a demonstration of his public narrative, before we broke into groups, he shared parts of his life that were so difficult he broke into tears in front of us. He told us of failed business, divorced wives, of the horrible sensation of wandering without direction after loss. He talked about how long it had taken him to find his calling as an organizer, and he made me understand why he was standing in front me that day. (My critique: "you cried. That was awesome and effective." My thoughts: I don't really feel like dropping trow in front of all these people.)
Time and time again, when I gave my presentation, my narratives were structurally sound, my energy level redlined with engineered enthusiasm. All I got was blank stares. The receptionist, by contrast, told a story about hardships with her father that nearly had me bawling, even though she stumbled through her two-minute talk. Another spoke about how the collapse and death of his young brother at a soccer game made him rethink his life, how it had taken him years to dig himself out of the dark hole that it had tunneled him into, and how that had ultimately given his life purpose as a non-profiteer.
Damn, I thought. That's a guy I want to help. The best I did was the story of someone else's blight -- and poor kid I met in Thailand. It drew only more critiques and blank stares. When Mark pushed me on my own story, I rebelled. Questions like "Why do you do journalism?" drew out of me strong and sarcastic rebukes.
I left late that night badly in need of a beer. I had three. The feeling of being unsettled stayed with me for days after the training. Why was it so hard for me to move people? Why was my personal story so difficult to tell?
So I called a friend and just decided to tell him how I was feeling. Which was: pissed at the organizers for making me feel so awful. My friend laughed at me.
"If you'd talked liked this at the training you wouldn't have had any issues," he told me.
That made me laugh. I decided to try it. I called another friend I hadn't seen in a while and told her that I wish we spent more time together, how badly I missed her. She came to see me two days later. I sat in an interview and told them exactly where I was in my life: We figured out in five minutes it wasn't the right place for me, and I made a new friend in the process. Little by little, I adopted telling the story of my emotions, and their source, into my daily life. The results never stop blowing me away.
I have not yet engineered the new willingness to be vulnerable into a complete "story of me" -- a compelling reason that I would make personal sacrifices to drive change. That will take time. But now, at least, I know to look for it and where.
If you want to make change in the world, spend a few days at an upcoming Ignite Good workshop in LA or Philadelphia. You may leave unsettled, unsure, but that's the point. It will force you to ask a critical question: Why am I so passionate about bringing change? (Even if you think you know, can you vocalize it?) Once you know the answer, it will give the tools to tell a story that moves people. Because in the end, it is the power of a good story that will motivate the change you want to bring.
Apply here for Ignition LA April 25-27
Apply here for Ignition Philly May 2-4
WATCH The Ignition Experience here.