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August 2014

Storytelling: Vulnerability and the Courage to Talk About Failure.

The Irish Times has a good, short piece on The Moth, the not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. The Moth started in George Dawes Green's living room in 1997, but soon the storytelling club founded by Green started hosting events in cafes and clubs throughout New York City. The name "The Moth" came from the idea that people are attracted to stories the way moths are attracted to a flame. From The Moth website: "Each show starts with a theme, and the storytellers explore it, often in unexpected ways. Since each story is true and every voice authentic, the shows dance between documentary and theater, creating a unique, intimate, and often enlightening experience for the audience." The storytellers are usually novice storytellers who have something interesting to share. Yet, The Moth directors work with the speakers before each show to help them find their stories and shape them. The focus is on meaning and quality but also on naturalness and authenticity, therefore, no notes or scripts are allowed.

Below is a wonderful story presented at The Moth in 2009 by Malcolm Gladwell. It's well worth your time watching.


The Times article quotes the New Yorker writer and essayist Adam Gopnik as to what makes for a good story. “A good story has to be extremely particular and peculiar to your life. It has to have an element of singularity and yet – and this is the alchemy and paradox of storytelling – it has to be something immediately universal, part of something that we all experience,” Gopnik says. A great story is never just about you or something that happened to you, no matter how seemingly interesting the characters or events may be. A great story, no matter the subject, is always really about them (the audience) with a universal appeal. The theme must get at something truly human. A cautionary tale of greed and excess or an inspiring narrative of resilience and persistence. The plot of your story — the events and the order in which you arranged them — are important but only to the degree that they illuminate your message or theme and illustrate clearly the arc of change.

Vulnerability and the courage to talk about failure.
Some of the best stories are about failures and defeats. The Moth founder and writer George Dawes Green says in the Times article, "Nobody wants to hear about your triumphs. We want to hear about what a fool you are, because that’s what we are." Most people, however, do not want to talk about their failures or their struggles with their weaknesses. But your honestly and willingness to be vulnerable is what draws your audience in. Though the stories are well planned and have a solid structure, The Moth's Lea Thau says in this Nieman Storyboard interview that the delivery is more about sharing than performing. "The one demand is that you are willing to step out there and be completely present with the audience and say, 'I am not performing something to you, for you, or at you, I’m sharing something with you in this moment that is true for me.' When people do that, the audience becomes so invested in them. The audience understands how inherently terrifying it is. Most people say it feels like they’re standing naked." The naked approach is what connects with audiences.

Your own storytelling situation may be very different from being on stage at The Moth, but there are some things we can takeaway. Here are just a few things to remember when crafting and delivering your story. Your story must:

• Be Particular to your life
• Be Peculiar
• Have a universal theme
• Expose a vulnerability or a weakness
• Illustrate a transformation
• Be naturally told with energy, engagement, and presence

No struggle, no story. No obstacles to reach your goal? Who wants to hear about that? Where is the lesson in that? Moth is a great storytelling resource. People are indeed attracted to story the way a moth is attracted to the flame...and we can all get better at telling our own stories.

A Story of courage: Hiro Fujita on ending ALS (TEDxTokyo)

HiroWith all the attention the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is receiving this past week, it is a good time to share with you the most touching and most important presentation I saw at TEDxTokyo back in May of this year. The presentation was by a young Japanese man named Hiro Fujita. In November of 2010, Hiro was working happily as Planning Director at McCann Erickson in Tokyo when he was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). His TEDxTokyo talk is his story and a moving call to action.

Perhaps we throw around the word "inspiring" too much. But Hiro inspires me...and thousands of others. After Hiro's talk in Tokyo, which was voiced largely by his boss Dave McCaughan, I felt an odd mix of inspiration from Hiro's courage and spirit but also sadness at the great difficulties he faces everyday just to survive. "I am 99% grateful for all that has happened in my life," Hiro says, "but 1% angry." Hiro is angry at the disease and at the government regulations which are slow and burdensome. His END ALS movement is taking concrete measures to make a difference. As Dave McCaughan said in the TEDx talk, "The END ALS movement is about getting the government and medical authorities to realize the desire and the need of the people who have this terrible, terrible disease to help solve this problem themselves." Hiro's story and the END ALS movement are important. Please watch Hiro's story below. And please pass on his video to others.

Please share Hiro's story
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is admirable. It's good that so many people are getting into the spirit about raising awareness of ALS, and making a donation. The videos I have seen are all well-intentioned, but many videos—including those by celebrities—often do not educate the viewer much at all about what ALS is or how we can help. Please do not misunderstand: the bucket challenge is a very good effort and it has indeed thus far raised millions of dollars. That's all good. I have been "called out" to do the bucket challenge and I have  made a donation in response. Sometimes, though, the spectacle of pouring water over one's head can take away from the actual issue. (Besides, me pouring cold water over my head in the sultry weather we have here in Japan is hardly a challenge—it would simply be refreshing. Instead, please watch Hiro take the challenge here.) However, instead of pouring water over my head—which would not be interesting to anyone—I do have a challenge for you of a different sort: First, would you please share Hiro's TEDxTokyo talk with your own network? Second, please go to the END ALS website and checkout the important work they are doing. You can donate there directly and donate by purchasing an "END ALS" t-shirt as well. And read Hiro's blog too.

Hiro lost his voice, but not his will to communicate and to make a positive impact in the world. Hiro's friends and coworkers have rallied around him to help him start a movement and to make a difference. Let's all be at least a small part of it. Thank you.

Important links
END ALS website
Donate to the END ALS movement
END ALS Facebook page
Hiro Fujita's blog
ALS Association (donate)


Robin Williams on the TED stage

At the 2008 TED Conference held in California, the BBC's "The World Debate" set up a panel discussion to be broadcast worldwide from the TED stage. When they went live with the show there appeared to be a major technical problem followed by several moments of dead air. As my friend Patrick Newell recalled the incident to me today (Patrick was in the audience that day), someone in the back of the room started heckling and dropping f-bombs, wondering why they can't get the technology to work at a technology conference. At first the audience was stunned but then broke into uproarious laughter once they realized that the "heckler" was Robin Williams. Williams continued his comical rant as he walked down toward the stage (nothing else was happening due to the tech glitch, so why not?) From there Williams ad–libbed for about ten minutes on stage. Fortunately the BBC kept recording and put together about three minutes from William's improvised bit. This seems to be very typical of Robin Williams. This was not just a celebrity taking another chance to be in the limelight. In stead it was a man who used his talents to actually make the situation better. The panel surely benefited from it. Chris Anderson appreciated it. And the audience loved it. This seems to have been done very much in the spirit of contribution. This one was recorded, but from what we hear, Williams did this kind of thing all the time when the camera's were not rolling. Norm Macdonald has a great story that exemplifies the spirt of Robin Williams.

A message to TEDxTokyo
Patrick Newell, co-founder of TEDxTokyo, ran into Robin Williams at that same TED Conference in 2008 and asked him if he would mind saying a few words regarding the first TEDxTokyo to take place the following year. Being the kind man that he was, he said "sure," and proceded to riff for about 45 seconds. He also mentioned the other similar TED event which was called "BOB." Watch below.

Williams was brilliantly funny and a great actor. Obviously. But more importantly he was kind and generous. This came across in his standup performances especially. His authenticity and his vulnerability were visible to all. This was one of the things that made him such a wonderful performer and human being.