How to Create a Vulnerable Storytelling Event
Using Storytelling to Share the Universal Experience (in this case: resilience after failure)
Storytelling is powerful. Studies show that we retain information and experience better when presented to us in the form of a story. Are you a person that has empathy, do you care about raising people up? Those are special leadership qualities! Storytelling spaces are sacred and magical – and if conditions are right, it can feel like opening a portal of transcendence around your collective humanity. How should you go about doing it? Here are some tips from an event called CANR Rising – a storytelling session put on by me, a graduate student, and told by a set of high-level administrators and deans to graduate students and above in our college. It was, in fact, a temporary rift in time where we came together as a community of support – and deans became just “regular” people, albeit tremendously inspiring through their vulnerable courage.
Ask yourself: Why? What?
Do you have a group of people that could benefit from experiential learning, and learning from each other? Do you have a universal experiential theme that speaks towards bringing out your inner humanity – like resilience, rising from failure, work-life resilience, empathy? Are folks around you stuck in silos where they don’t share their inner lives at all, and life seems plastic?
Do you, as a facilitator feel comfortable getting vulnerable with these people? Are you qualified to facilitate this event? Are your speakers vulnerable in ways they might not be fully aware of?
Our population for CANR Rising was graduate students, post docs, faculty, administrators and staff in the college. We kept it closed to undergraduates and people outside the college to maintain our sense of community. These boundaries are fluid.
When planning an event with graduate-student speakers in 2020, we contacted the MSU counseling center about having a trained counselor on site, and having that counselor participate in how storytelling can be therapeutic and ways to keep it healthy for the storyteller.
Ask yourself: Who?
You need to recruit a set of speakers. These folks are the backbone of your event – their ability to both tell stories and be vulnerable is critical. You don’t want a jokester, you don’t want someone who will be inappropriate for your audience, and you don’t want someone who tells a story but leaves a wall protecting their vulnerability.
Unless you are a social unicorn that has lived within your community of interest for a long time – you are probably bad at knowing who would be a good speaker. You’ll need to find a unicorn to help you feel out potential speakers. This would be someone who knows people well, and really understands your cause from a. above. This person would probably be a good storyteller.
Ask the appropriate people – i.e. not people who could be marginalized if they are vulnerable at your event. We asked higher level administrators to speak at our event, because there was no power dynamic above them to affect their job. This is something to think about with vulnerability.
Ask in the appropriate way, make sure that you convey exactly what the event is about, the seriousness of it, and the difficulty of it. Tell them they have creative control as long as they are appropriate. Make it very clear that they can back out at any time, and to really think about it before responding.
Ask yourself: Where and How long?
Usually a 2 hour event is about as long as folks can take. We did 1.5 hours with food afterwards. We had some great food catered in from the Wilson Talent Center, Culinary Hospitality Vocational Program in Mason High School.
Choose an intimate setting that can hold enough people. We chose to have our event in a room that was shaped like an arena, as our theme was resilience – as described by Theodore Roosevelt’s famous quote, popularized in part by Brene Brown’s work (check her out).
Coach your speakers
Meet with your speakers on their terms, but at least once, in person, to make sure that their story aligns with the goals of the event, will be appropriate, and to lend your support. This is a huge ask for your speakers – be encouraging and overcommunicate with them, send them reminders. They should not have to worry about anything but showing up and being themselves. Give your speakers creative control of their stories! Ask them how much time the will need. Our storytellers were comfortable with 15 to 20 minutes.
Ask your college (months ahead of time) to help create fliers to be sent on appropriate list servs and on campus. See if your community has appropriate social media outlets to share your event. We put fliers up in every building, on every floor, for our entire college, shared via social media, and sent out repeatedly 1 month, 1 week, and 1 day before – but this did not seem like enough advertising. I would have added another email.
Consider recording the event as an artifact – making sure you have permission from speakers if you choose to do it.
Prepare opening and closing remarks
How will you introduce the session? Make sure your remarks tie the whole thing together, and really share the purpose of this unique event.
Prepare your room
Find and reserve a spot for your event 6 months in advance.
Make sure you have a microphone, and ability for speakers to use slides if they prefer.
Enjoy the event and wonderful space you have created!