Storytelling advice from Akira Kurosawa
Steve Jobs on communicating your core values

Using storytelling to make a case for social change

I asked TEDxKyoto founder Jay Klaphake which of the many good talks at TEDxKyoto was a great example of storytelling, he replied immediately that it was the 2014 talk by Sahel Rosa. Sahel’s presentation is a wonderful example of a presenter using their personal story to (1) shine a spotlight on a social issue, and (2) to make a pitch for people to support her cause. Sahel takes us on a journey that begins with her own harsh childhood spent in an orphanage in Iran. She overcame impossible odds thanks to the love of a nurse who adopted her and moved to Japan. She also received help from a Japanese lunch lady from her school who rescued her and her adoptive mother who were living in a park at the time. Her presentation ends by building on the remarkable love and support from her mother and others in Japan to ask all of us to remember the thousands of orphans in Japan, many of whom are waiting for adoption. And she asks us to get involved in orphanages as much as we can to help improve the lives of the children there. She also mentions that her dream is to start a home for Orphans called “Sahel’s House.”

The aim of good storytelling is to make people feel deeply and empathize with your situation. Many times while analyzing this talk I had tears in my eyes. Some of the things Sahel recalled will make anyone feel deeply moved, moved even to tears. Such as when Sahel recalled a time when she was bullied in school in Japan for being an orphan and another child said “You kids are living off our tax money!” That’s such a hurtful thing for a child to hear. Any audience member would feel great empathy for her. Or the time Sahel returned after twenty years to her orphanage in Iran. Children were so happy to see her success and hear her story, but when she asked a child what his dream was, his reply was “Ummm...I don’t know. I just want a mom.” This speaks to the helpless children often feel in orphanages, not in an abstract way, but in a concrete way that tugs at the heart.

For the personal stories like this — “Telling Your Story”—there is another simple way to visualize the arc of the story. Most classic stories start in what’s called the “World of Perfection.” Then because of some incident, there is a descent into the “World of Imperfection.” In this latter world—which is often the biggest part of the story—our character struggles to overcome obstacles. If we put this on an X/Y axis, we can think of anything above the horizontal axis as Good Fortune (Positive, happy, normal life, etc.), and anything below the horizontal axis we can think of as Ill fortune (negative, unhappy, difficult, etc.). It is a simplification, but almost all storytelling arcs start near or above the horizontal axis, descend below, and eventually rise back to the “World of Perfection.” In Sahel’s case, you can see clearly how she starts positively in the current world and then descends into a world where there was some difficult to hear things about her personal story and the state of orphans and orphanages in Japan. By the end she ascends back up to a more positive world where there is hope for a solution and asks for three specific things from the audience.


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