As discussed in Evan Baehr’s insightful post, the fast-food restaurant Chick-fil-A is thinking deeply about how to use story to create better experiences for its clients. The following ethnographic piece captures its intentions around story impactfully, as it parses through the different pathways that each customer took to visit this one Chick-Fil-A restaurant.
As my description of my self-designed MBA internship faded into the walls, a pregnant pause filled the room. And as I looked at Professor Pitts-Wiley’s giant and gentle face, I saw a thoughtful grimace appear, and spread across the surface of his vast dome to include his prodigious ears, his salt-and-pepper mustache, and the whites of his heavy, purposeful eyes. And as that moment gave way the Professor leaned his massive torso onto a black-lacquered desk, set his large brown eyes on mine and posed, gravely: Are you on a journey? Or are you wandering?
A journey, he would go on to explain, has purpose, whereas wandering does not.
It’s been four months since my meeting in Professor Pitts-Wiley’s office in April, the same month that I decided that I was going to create my own summer internship as a storyteller. And in that time I feel that I’ve learned a lot about my purpose. From coffee chats with designers to interviews with retirees in New Mexico, I’ve found that my passion lies in what I call “performance ethnography.” I define performance ethnography as the act of extracting stories from my environment, through interviews and observation, and sharing them with others in a compelling way, through film and public speaking.
And yet I have my moments of self-doubt. As I face the coming year I’m struggling with basic questions: do I practice performance by continuing my stand-up comedy or by being the spokesmen for a social movement? Do I practice ethnography through self-funded interviews or within the context of a private company? And even more pressing, as I read an invite for a welcome-back party on campus, how does my MBA education serve my passion?
As I struggle with these questions at the tail end of my summer internship, I think to advice that my sister once gave me: make your decisions from a place of confidence, not fear. And as I visualize my career in performance ethnography in front of me, one thing that is clear is that the most purposeful path leads through a period of practice, of creating content, and of immersing myself in its form.
And so in the following year I will take a leave of absence from MIT Sloan and delve into my craft. And as I find a part time job to finance my creative ambitions and create a community of similarly inspired folks, I feel nervous, but also confident. Confident that I’m one step closer to the moment when I can lean in over that black-lacquer desk, look Professor Pitts-Wiley squarely in the eyes, and reply with all of the conviction in the world: I’m on a journey.
How much can a blind woman teach you about filmmaking? Turns out, quite a bit.
As I reflect on my Buffalo Walk piece, and prepare to dive into the rest of my footage from my cross-country drive, I’m grappling with how to create a short documentary that’s both hopeful and gripping. How do I tell a story that’s positive, yet doesn’t fall into the trap of being naïve?
At yesterday’s National Storytelling Conference in LA I had the pleasure of attending Wendy Edey’s excellent talk on hopeful storytelling. Wendy, a blind “Hope Specialist” from Alberta Canada, counsels those who struggle to find hope in their lives, be it because of an illness, addiction, or another circumstance that’s weighing on their lives.
Wendy shared the following insights on how to tell a hopeful story:
– Organize your story around a symbol of hope, be it an object or a person.
– Don’t tell people what to hope for; empathize with what’s possible for them and what they’re ready to hope for.
– Create hope with the language of yet and when, e.g. He had not yet discovered that people with disabilities can win battles / I look forward to the day when the day after chemo will be as good as the day after taking an asprin.
– Create hope by playing with time; make the time span as long as it needs to be.
– A hopeful story is a lot more about how bad it gets in the middle than how well it resolves in the end.
– Make the hope obvious: literally call it out to the audience.
– The element of doubt makes hope significant.
With Wendy’s advice ringing on my ears, I’m curious to see how I will be able to weave her guidance into a film narrative. Thank you for your thoughts Wendy, and here’s to weaving positivity.
Last Tuesday my workshop mates and I each took the stage at the Improv Hollywood and delivered a five minute stand-up routine. As we worked through our sets, I marveled at the fact that in an era of smartphones and instant gratification, an audience of people willingly unplugged from the world and for one hour focused all of their attention on one stage, one microphone, and one voice. Storytelling lives, I thought. Or is stand-up comedy really a form of storytelling?
Fresh off of a four-week stand-up comedy course, my answer to this question is yes, it is. However there are subtle differences between the two: Traditional storytelling tends to be longer form; stand-up tends to be shorter. Traditional storytelling tends to focus on one journey; stand-up is often about several disjointed experiences.
That said, the similarities far outweigh the differences. Both forms of expression are delivered without technology: just a stage and a mic. Both can be formulaic in their structure (traditional storytelling: beginning – middle – end; stand up: premise – opinion – act out). Both are inherently funny – and more gripping – when the performer is vulnerable with their audience.
I’ve always defined storytelling very broadly — from a tale told around a campfire to an epic projected onto a theater screen. That said, my stand-up experience was a neat reminder that storytelling, in its purest most basic form, can still cut through the most modern distractions and capture the imagination of a room full of people.
I have yet to meet a person who has thought more deeply about how story is constructed than Barbara Barry.
A former PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, Barbara’s research focused on developing systems that can understand story and assist in its creation. Building such a system, it turns out, is really really hard. Take the sentence, “She ran down the street with a wet cat in her arms.” When a person hears this they know, intuitively, that a dramatic event is unfolding. They imagine the scared, cold cat digging its claws deeply into the woman’s hand. They imagine the women, running from or towards something with a sense of urgency. A machine, on the other hand, will have great difficulty extrapolating such storylines. Barbara has done extensive work on tackling this problem by creating storytelling platforms that draw on paradigms in artificial intelligence, psychology and the archetypes of story.
Potential applications of Barbara’s research includes:
– A decision engine built into a videocamera that asks you what scene you wish to film (say a birthday party), and then suggests a potential shotlist (birthday cake, candles, presents, balloons, etc). This system could also analyze your previous shots and suggest what shots to take to make the story more compelling.
– A custom documentary builder that allows you to pick an event (say Election Night 2008), a subject (say the 2nd generation Cuban diaspora), and then automatically outputs a powerful, compelling video on the story of (in this example) the Cuban disapora during the Obama/McCain election.
– A healthcare platform that develops a customized narrative that can soothe a patient who is in pain or feeling anxious. This is based on the premise that A: not everyone relates the same way to the same stories (e.g. to imagine floating in the sky would be scary to someone with a fear of heights); and B: story and narrative can have a real impact on managing physical stresses.
Barbara also pointed me towards some super helpful resources:
– On the archetypes of story: Georges Polti, 19th Century French writer who described 36 basic types of story; Aristotle’s Poetrics: earliest-surviving work of dramatic theory
– On understanding compelling story structure: Robert McKee, screenwriting instructor whose former students have won 26 Academy Awards and 125 Emmys.
– On the concept of conceptual dependency: Roger Schank, who developed a markup language based on the principle that verbs of all languages can be expressed using a small number of primitives.
– On Story at MIT: The Common Sense Computing Initiative is studying how to use story and narrative as a tool for problem-solving.
I’ve heard from several folks about the power of storytelling, but my meeting with Barbara left me in awe of both the complexity of story and its influence on fields ranging from healthcare to problem-solving.