MaryLou Wakefield Q and A
I discovered MaryLou Wakefield through my Scoop.it curation of organizational storytelling and was later delighted to find her in attendance at the recent Reinvention Summit 2, where she contributed enormously to the conversation with insightful comments and questions.
Bio: [in her own words] My professional experience is in communications, marketing and public relations. I’ve worked in health care, the arts, tourism, post-secondary education, ad agencies and for many small businesses. I created and develop content for a blog about storytelling at STOrythatMatters. I’m working on a new blog about my husband’s second solo circumnavigation attempt. I’m working (with my husband) on a book, and I’m hoping to get some interest in a documentary. I’m especially interested in helping organizations discover, develop, and share their stories.
Q&A with MaryLou Wakefield:
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 grew up with stories. They were the soundtrack of my childhood. My mom and I listened to stories on CBC radio and on weekend jaunts with my Dad to a farming area outside Vancouver called Lulu Island where we went for fresh fruit and vegetables, I listened to him tell fantastic stories — about growing up in a family of 10 kids, about being in London during the war, and about some of the immigrants who worked in his watch-repair business. In the late 60s, I was utterly transported by the stories of folk and rock and roll music. These were stories that made me feel connected to something bigger, and important. And since then, these stories have become part of my own story.
What attracts me to story and intrigues me, is its power to evoke emotion, first and foremost. I’m very interested in how the form and structure of story seems to plant an idea in our consciousness and take hold. In that way, story seems to “stick,” is more indelible and easier to remember, which adds to its power. I’ve always felt that stories have the power to connect people in profound ways — to a common experience or idea. Perhaps that connection is made because our emotions are fully engaged and able to process information in a different way. More recently, I’ve come to know, through telling my own story, that the act of sharing a story has tremendous power for both the storyteller and the listener. It’s in the telling of the story, orally or in one of the many ways we have available to us in the digital space, that is also transformative. (More on that later). Lastly, I love that storytelling is grounded and deeply rooted in our collective past; it’s not the latest shiny thing or flavor of the month. Having worked across the communications spectrum for many years and having seen trends come and go, storytelling feels right to me, like I’m coming back to myself. In that way it feels very natural and comfortable to be part of the art and craft of storytelling.
What I love about storytelling is its infinite capacity to teach us things we sometimes don’t even realize we’re learning until much later and upon reflection. In 1997-98, I spent a year sailing across the South Pacific with my husband and our two daughters who were 9 and 11 at the time. We sailed into some of the South Pacific’s most storied bays — Cook’s Bay in Moorea, the lagoon in Bora Bora, the Island of Niue, and Neiafu in Tonga. After 4 months, we arrived in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand and from there went to Australia and South Africa. It was a year like no other.
We made fast friends with people from all over the world and, even though we were strangers at first, we shared a common understanding of what it took to step out of our everyday lives and take a leap into the world of offshore sailing. Naturally, we shared our stories. I remember sitting in a cafe in Tonga with a fellow sailor, a charming, French woman who, like me, was on the adventure of a lifetime. I’d heard she’d fallen overboard while she and her family were under sail and I wanted to hear her tell that story. I was curious about how she reacted and what she thought about while she “watched her whole life slowly sail away” as she put it. I wanted to know how the experience changed her and how it changed her family. It was an amazing story, and full of surprises. On the surface, I learned that appearances are almost always deceiving and that petite, elegant, French women can be every bit as resilient and courageous as anyone I’ve ever met. On a deeper level, her story taught me this about survival. It’s difficult for someone else to rescue you. Always keep your wits about you. Keep your head above water. Treading water won’t get you where you need to go. When you lose touch with what’s most important to you, swim like hell towards it.
Q: I get the impression that Wakefield Communications’ focus on story and storytelling is somewhat recent. What inspired you to shift to a storytelling focus for your communications firm?
A: I’ve been telling stories in my work for two decades. I just didn’t call it that. It’s where my passion is. It’s where I come from, and it’s where I feel the most energy and commitment. I’ve experienced the impact of stories firsthand, personally and in business and I’m excited about sharing what I’ve learned in the process. I know the business (and non-profit) communities stand to benefit immensely from discovering and sharing their stories to connect and build meaningful relationships. It’s an exciting time to be in the storytelling business.
Q: Can you explain why you capitalize STO in your blog name, STOrythatMatters?
A: Initially when I was playing around with names for my consulting business, I landed on Story that Matters because I really liked what the words meant. I knew I wanted to show up in a more interesting way (within the limits imposed by the digital space), so I worked out a few variations and decided on STOrythatMatters. I sat down with a few friends and colleagues who knew me and understood my passion, to brainstorm what STO could stand for.
Collectively, we arrived at S is for Significant, T is for True, and O is for Original. It was a great way to collaborate, and in the end I got three words that express what I feel are the essential characteristics of a story that matters.
Q: In the very first entry in your blog last year, you wrote about the blog describing your husband’s effort to complete a solo non-stop westward circumnavigation: “I was part of an amazing story-telling blog a few years ago that did change lives. Mine for one.” Can you talk a bit about how the experience and the blog changed your life?
I’d love to. It’s a big story (we’re working on a book), but I’ll try to keep it short. It was one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever been involved with for a lot of reasons. In 2007, my husband Glenn set out on a very personal journey to fulfill what was his lifelong dream. He attempted a single-handed non-stop circumnavigation from Victoria, B.C., Canada. I created a website and blog named after our boat, Kim Chow, called www.kimchowaroundtheworld.com. It was a way to keep family and friends up to date without having to send dozens of emails.
Glenn was adamant from the outset that he didn’t want a media frenzy so we kept the details of his departure quiet until a few days before he left. On departure day, the media showed up and the story made the local TV, radio and print news. The story went national, and the day before he left (Sept 23, 2007), an astonishing thing happened. I got dozens of emails from complete strangers across Canada who wanted him to know they supported him. Glenn was astounded that so many people took the time to reach out to him with personal, heartfelt messages.
Every day, I posted to the blog about his progress. This was straight-up stuff about what he was feeling out there on his own, the hardships, the weather challenges, the exhilaration, the loneliness, the daily challenge to keep the boat going, etc. It was honest and heartfelt. Within weeks we had hundreds and then thousands of people following, asking questions about him, the boat, the preparations, what he was eating, his motivation, his family, me, etc. I found myself, unexpectedly, at was the hub of this global communications wheel in addition to my full-time day job and family responsibilities. It was often overwhelming and at the same time inspiring. I got email from kids in Saskatchewan who were following his journey as part of their geography curriculum. There were requests from the media around the world wanting interviews and stories, which I was happy to provide. I posted questions, and when he wrote back, posted his answers. More blog posts, more questions, more answers and a lot more drama. In the end we had about 50,000 hits to the site from people in 109 countries. Most of them checked in every day to follow him, and many took time to write an email to me to tell me how his journey had made an impact on their life and their family’s life. That drama unfolded for seven and a half months (220 days) until his boat capsized off Cape Horn after five days of severe, relentless storms. He was injured, rescued by the Argentinian navy, and, in the end we lost our boat. So, how did all that change my life.
I was tested in more ways than I could have ever imagined, and on so many levels, not just as a storyteller. It was an emotional roller coaster from start to finish. And here’s the thing that has stayed with me. I was fully engaged every step of the way and felt privileged to be on the receiving end of the most honest, heartfelt messages from hundreds of strangers around the world who told me Glenn was an inspiration to them and that I was the bravest person they knew. Messages from kids who called Glenn their hero, and folks who wished they could somehow help Glenn after he abandoned his dream, and who have since told him how much his courage inspired them to do things they thought they couldn’t possibly do. Because of all that, I now know more than ever before and in the most personal way, that story has immense power and that the human spirit is truly amazing; never to be underestimated.
(Footnote: Glenn is planning a second attempt at a solo non-stop circumnavigation from Victoria, BC, Canada, in the summer/fall of 2012 and I’ll be here telling the story online).
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: A great question and a great metaphor. I’m not a scholar who’s studied the literature, or written in academic journals about this subject; I’m just a keen observer and active participant in the changing cultural landscape. A lot seems to be exploding at this time in history. We’re in a period of huge upheaval and massive change. People are literally rebelling in the streets against what isn’t working for them — corrupt political regimes, unscrupulous media moguls, and the world economy, come to mind. Broken political, economic and entrepreneurial systems are being discarded all over the world. On the other side of the equation — art, music, writing, and publishing are also exploding and in ways we haven’t seen before. Independent producers of all forms of art are using new tools and new channels of distribution to get their work out into the world. They’re sourcing funding from fans, producing their own art, recording their own music and sharing it with the world on their own. Incredible.
But there’s a paradox. We’re seeing an unprecedented explosion of information on the Internet and through social-media platforms, but more information doesn’t equal more intelligence, more meaning, or more connection. And that’s what people seem to be hungry for. Meaning through context, and connection through emotion. So, perhaps story and storytelling is enjoying popularity at this particular time in history because of its ability to connect us to each other. And in a world gone mad with explosions of all sorts, perhaps what we’re all searching for is to simply feel a visceral connection to another person, to relate to their struggle and celebrate their journey.