David Sidwell Q and A
Like many of my recent Q&A finds, Dr. David Sidwell popped up in one of my Scoop.it curations. I’m always intrigued by folks who are using story in higher education, but David Sidwell’s story work cover far more territory than just teaching. I’m delighted to learn of his many story-related pursuits.
Bio: [From his blog’s “About” page:] Dr. David Sidwell, one of the few Renaissance men in a compartmentalized world, has devoted his life and his professional expertise to making the show of life grand and worthwhile in the various institutions for whom he has worked. He is a consultant who is ready to help your organization succeed in many ways.
He is not content to simply have a job; he wants a cause to fight for.
Q&A with David Sidwell:
Q: You describe yourself as a “Renaissance Man,” and the diversity of your career certainly supports that claim. To what extent do you use storytelling in your various incarnations? Do you have a favorite professional role among the many you’ve played in your career?
A: Though I have a pretty stringent definition of storytelling, I also feel that not all storytelling events or activities need to comply with this definition. One can say “It’s the Big Bad Wolf at the door” and we have just alluded to a story that most of us know. While it’s not storytelling per se, the allusion is often strong enough to do some good.
I have found storytelling to be an extremely useful tool in all sorts of ways. I think this has been the most surprising thing to me as well — just how many uses storytelling, or the allusion to storytelling, has. As program director of a nonprofit cultural arts center and living-history museum, I was able to use stories in staff meetings to inspire my staff — and they used stories to inspire me and each other. The sharing of stories became a vital tool for improvement and reflection as we told each other of successes and failures. This was real storytelling. I’ve heard it said that the only reason for an “open door policy” is so that the director doesn’t smash his face on the way out to see his or her staff, and this proved to be true in this context as well. Some staff, in their living-history duties, would often cook a lovely lunch that was shared amongst the volunteers and staff that were active on those days. If I ever joined in the lunch, I always earned it by washing dishes afterward — the job no one wanted. But in so doing, I was able to share stories of my personal life with the staff and volunteers present, and I listened to their stories, too. This simple sharing of stories made for a lot of camaraderie that helped us get things done faster, better and with more productivity.
I also used stories in marketing and public relations, and in fundraising. I discovered that the best way to raise money for your organization is to have your Board of Directors tell positive stories often to their friends, many of whom either have funds, influence or other resources that can be called upon.Of course, it’s important to feed your Board of Directors great stories regularly, too.
As a university professor, I use stories when I want my students to actually remember something. The images found in stories embed themselves in the brain better than data or facts, so I end up going from story to story rather than from concept to concept or fact to fact.
As a nonprofit business consultant, I am currently being much more deliberate about using storytelling in organizational contexts. I have a natural knack for helping nonprofit organizations succeed, whatever the problem. I’m able to help them raise money, further their cause, plan strategically, come up with curriculum materials and help in their marketing. But being more deliberate about using storytelling in these contexts has really helped me sharpen and hone my skills and communicate to my clients how interconnected everything is — through story.Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/ narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: I come to storytelling first as a performer. I’m a professional storyteller, and I actually make a few dozen dollars a year telling stories at conferences, concerts, festivals, and the like. I’ve told stories across the U.S. in New York, several cities in California, Chicago, New Orleans, and many places in between. I enjoy it. In college, one of my professors, also a storyteller, invited me to tell stories to a bunch of Boy Scouts. With no microphone, I was glad I was trained the old way where performers actually had to project! There were about 500 scouts there, all spread out on the grass before me, and I began to tell some stories. I got all caught up in the telling, seeing the images and really getting into the story and the characters, and when I came out of my reverie about 30 minutes later, all of the scouts were crowded around me in a tight bunch, listening to my story with rapt attention. I was hooked!
I’m a theatre guy: playwright, director, producer, auteur. But I’m not an actor. However, I love the stage and I love being in front of people. I’m a popular keynote speaker and I love it. Storytelling fills the gap; I get to be a performer, but I also create my own text, direct myself and am in charge of all aspects of what I do. From a performance perspective, it’s an art form that attracts me deeply.
One thing I really love about storytelling is that it is a sharing of images rather than information. Images have so much power that data will never have. I like to say that when we say we “see” things in a story, we are actually using “see” as a metaphor for using any or all of our seven senses: (1) seeing, (2) hearing, (3) touching, (4) tasting, (5) smelling, (6) seeing dead people, (7) emotions; I’m always surprised at how often the sixth sense is used in storytelling! In my various career paths, I’ve found storytelling to be of central importance in my fine art photography, as a program director of a nonprofit museum, marketing/public relations/branding director, teacher, and now as a nonprofit business consultant. Each of these fields use images as their primary means of influencing and motivating people, and storytelling is both a practical and theoretical foundation from which to work.Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?) What definition do you espouse?
A: I’m actually pretty specific when it comes to what a “story” is and what a “telling” is. Storytelling is a performative sharing of an oral narrative through words that evoke images in the minds of the teller and the audience. This “telling” can be formal, such as when a storyteller performs for an audience at a storytelling festival, for instance, or it can be informal such as when friends tell stories to each other over lunch. It is always live, though, and there is ideally a personal connection between the teller and the audience. It can be complete, as when a full, well-made-story is told in a concert setting, or incomplete, as when one might allude to a familiar story through a quotation or situational quip.
We like to call people “storytellers” if they are effective at communicating with images, even if they make videos or movies or video games. When we do, we are actually referring to the live storytellers that bring images to life so effectively on a stage or around a campfire. Charles Dickens, for instance, has a real knack for writing that evokes similar feelings when reading as a good storyteller evokes from an audience during a live performance. He is therefore referred to as a “master storyteller.” “Digital storytelling” is a field wherein, through video, feelings are similarly evoked. In both of these cases, “storytelling” alludes to that primal event in which a teller is orally creating images and narrative in the minds of an audience. I think it is important to realize this allusion and connection so that the event archetype can always be looked to in its purity for inspiration.
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: As an art historian (I teach art history in higher education, among other things), I can see various artistic movements through time as waves coming after another. My views on this subject begin at a literal, historical level. In the 1950s and 60s, a folk movement began that really got going with folk music. Suddenly, folk music — which has always been around and will always be with us —became pop music, too. We began to see singer-storytellers arise, too. In the 1970s, a few folks influenced by the folk-music movement formalized the movement along storytelling lines with the creation of the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling. This organization has now become the National Storytelling Network, but back then, a few folks interested in folk stories gathered together and began organizing themselves into a kind of storytelling club of performers.
I don’t know how storytelling jumped from these troubadours into the business world and elsewhere, but I’m glad it did, and I’m glad it is still growing. In fact, I see it in its fledgling stages right now. Only a few books have been published on the subject, and I see many more coming and many being tailored more and more to specific applications. I do not believe it is a fad that will fade away. Even as our culture becomes more and more digital, we are also seeing a great democratizing of our society. Anyone now can post a YouTube video or write a blog or have a voice in one way or another, and I perceive that storytelling is spontaneously arising in our cultural awareness simply because it captures so eloquently and so clearly the communications that are coming from us as individuals. With the world going more and more digital, it is also growing more and more social. Social media is changing our lives just as much as the printing press changed lives hundreds of years ago. I see this social movement parallel to how our ancestors shared stories. Our front porches now are computer and smart phone screens. Our banter has become our tweets and Facebook updates.
There are also some key individuals that have really pushed applied storytelling forward into a more prominent position in our society. Stephen Denning, for instance, is a very successful organizational storytelling proponent who has had a strong voice. His work has influenced and inspired others to continue exploring this path. It is difficult to find a book or article on organization storytelling that does not quote or allude to Denning. Above all, however, is the simple fact that storytelling works, and it works in all the authentic and honest and powerful ways we want things to work. Being image-based sharing, it also has the power to motivate and inspire people on so many different levels. We are probably smart enough now as a society that when things work well, we are able to communicate that success, and we can begin to use these effective tools more and more and in different situations as required.
Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?
A: When I was first hired to be program director at the American West Heritage Center in Wellsville, Utah — a cultural center and living-history museum — the place was in a bad way. It has lost respect from the community, or was simply ignored, and was struggling to stay afloat. As a storyteller and storytelling teacher, seeing how story can influence an organization came naturally to me, and I immediately began studying what stories the Heritage Center was “telling” about itself, even if unintentionally. In practice, then, this was a very important branding issue for the organization. Unfortunately, little effort had gone into branding of any kind, and the stories circulating from the Heritage Center were uneven and unclear at best and very negative at worst.
Most of the images emanating from brochures, posters, and on the internet were of gunfighters and “wild west” folk. However, the largest audience living around the Heritage Center were families with young children. I knew we had to begin telling new stories about ourselves. With my team, we made several goals and several rules to get us where we wanted to go. First, I wanted to be in the media at least once a week with extremely upbeat, positive press written in a quirky, attention-getting style. We invented activities and events and news so we could get into the paper — some of the events we knew would “fail” by not having large attendance, but that didn’t bother me, because the larger goal was to get in the forefront of people’s minds. After only a few months of this, our attendance increased sharply, and we even began to get calls from local businesses who wanted to help sponsor events so they could be associated with us. We heard people begin to say, “You’ve got so much going on out there!’ and so much of their attitudes were now positive instead of negative.
Some of the rules we created were simple. In our photos, we wanted at least one child represented, having a great time. Additionally, if we could get an animal in the photo, and a costumed living-history presenter as well, that was even better. Our brochures and media materials began to be attractive to families, and as we “told our story” across the region, the American West Heritage Center suddenly became a well respected cultural center and living-history museum.
Within four years, our attendance had quadrupled, and ticket revenue suddenly became a significant factor in our budgets. Additionally, with this rise in interest, other products we offered such as building rentals for weddings and meetings and large group meeting opportunities dramatically increased as well.
In my mind, it was all storytelling. We simply told a different story about ourselves, and we told it loudly and clearly so people couldn’t miss it.