Fire up the power of storytelling

On Wednesday, the 14th of October 2015, the power of storytelling was alive in one conference room from one hotel in Cluj-Napoca.

The Power of Storytelling — the Romanian conference where the stories behind the stories are told. This year in Cluj-Napoca was its second edition.

I happened to be there and luckily not missed it. Because for weeks since I got my ticket, I was under the impression that is going to take place on a Thursday. So, yes, checking Google Calendar on the weekend pays off.

There are a few things you can do ahead your event to familiarize everyone with what’s going to happen. The team that puts all this together created such a sense of anticipation for me that I could imagine my experience before actually living it. Moving, daring, knowledgeable.

Not being a storyteller, but thinking about it and looking for ways to learn and practice, I believe this is a great place to start. In a room with award winning international storytellers. Professionals that try to master their craft daily. And create work that matters.

Here are my notes on what I think it will help if you are in the business of telling a story: journalism, communications, events, corporate, etc.

We begin our journey with our hosts. Each one introduced their guests with meaning. Short stories, facts from own experience or even fast-t-shirt-ready lessons. This is how you can tell who cares.

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Jacqui Banaszynski

I saw pictures of her and noticed her eyes and her white hair. She came dressed all in black, so all the attention would be on her words. What pictures can’t do, yet, is don’t talk out loud. When hearing her talk, you could discern a certain confidence that comes after living a life rich in powerful experiences and a lost patience for sugarcoating.

Structure, theme, character, scenes, details.

She asked if you have listened before to a Beatles song called „Eleanor Rigby”. My answer was no, because I have no memory of it. This Beatles song is a perfect (and short) example of a great story. You have all the mechanics in it. Listen.

Theme that rises above.

Simple structure (don’t try to find new ways to build a house); theme: loneliness; character(s): Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie; scenes: the rice, the window, the grave; details: „wiping the dirt from his hands”.

Moments that give you the crack open to the story.

When there’s a car crash in the States it appears in the newspaper. When reading about one of these accidents that took place on Christmas, Jacqui was interested in the story because it involved a 9 year old girl walking 1 mile to call for help. Dad died, mother was stuck, older brother (11) had his leg broken and she had her arm broken. She usually was fearful and it was difficult for her to even walk alone to take the bus to school. This is where you find the opening crack of the story. Only knowing this will make you understand what that little girl went through to get help for her family and that it’s not just „girl walked alone during the winter”.

on the map, on the clock, on the scale

These are ways to write a story. On the map: going from house to house to find out how an event was perceived by each family. On the clock: narrate an event on key moments. On the scale: the story of one person’s journey to lose and gain weight.

Listen to the stories because they will tell how they want to be told.

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Dragoș Bucurenci

Working as a Communications Strategiest, he is meticulous with his appearance and calculated with his presentation. You can also pick up on that by how well he understands the life cycle of a story. He combined pop culture references with relevant, but simple explanations on why stories stick with us. Add humor and respect.

Religion. Politics. Showbiz.

What they have in common and what they can teach us about the communications industry.

  • idols
  • they all have their fair shares of worshiping (eg. concerts) and trashing
  • they tell stories about exceptional people, gone viral
  • the stories they tell are heavily edited (eg. doctrines)

The stories that stick with us are the ones that confirm previous narratives.

President Bush Sr. was caught on video while trying to scan a product at the cash register. He was campaigning at the time and his image was kinda sloppy. So when they’ve seen the opportunity, NY Times wrote „Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed” (1992). It did not matter if the story was true or not. It confirmed the previous ones, his reputation and public image. His PR workers tried to explain what actually happened, so NY Times changed the title to „On Tape, a President Intrigued by a Scanner”, to be more accurate, but still tell the story they wanted to publish.

As a life and personal branding note:

Try not to create stories in which you don’t want to be, instead multiply the ones you want.

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Starlee Kine

She was „a stranger comes to town” for me at this conference. She walked us through the story behind the story about how she payed 2.500 dollars to ask Britney Spears 3 questions in 30 seconds. But most importantly — why.

Her friend, Andreea wrote a second book called „To feel stuff”. She was sure that only 12 people in the entire world bought the book. Not very exciting news for Andreea. Or the book. Until she randomly saw a picture of Britney Spears carrying her book.

How did Britney Spears got Andreea’s book?

One mystery solved in her podcast — „The Mystery Show”

The whole reason why Starlee wanted to solve this mystery was because her friend really, really, really likes Britney. The quest began.

  1. Calling every bookstore in California. Ending up making jokes and connecting with complete strangers over the phone.
  2. Calling her staff to see if she could ask her this one question. Not getting anywhere.
  3. Finding out there is a meet-and-greet with Spears. Getting your employer to pay for the ticket. As seen before: 2.500 dollars.
  4. Calling customer care to find out details about the meet-and-greet. Denis, who picked up the call, had no idea about how much time will Starlee have with Britney or how many questions was she able to ask. But they connected. They start sharing stories. He opens up in a very unusual way about his family, relationships, why he feels unworthy, making mistakes and the dogpiles he used to make with his brothers. Sometimes you’re on top. Sometimes you’re at the bottom.
Life is like a dogpile.

How to make connections?

Like Starlee and Denis did — from Starlee herself

  • approach open mined. don’t be stiff.
  • people are natural storytellers when they’re talking about what they know. Hence: write what you know.
  • establish common ground
  • there is power in knowing exactly what you are „there” for
  • don’t focus to much to not take side trips

Case #2: Britney solved.


First photo ever taken | wikipedia

Alex Gâlmeanu

Attached to a camera. He introduces us to some key moments in the history of photography. Some key shots in his own history with photography. And why some photographers refuse to „learn” the new technology available and get lost on the way, while others have fan bases larger than a magazine circulation.

Some fun facts:

  • It used to take 24 hours for exposure to take one photo.
  • Nicolae Bălcescu had only one picture taken. The process was so expensive that he paid with several hectares.
  • The equipment used to be so large that it need a whole wagon to carry it.

The best camera is the one you have with you

Photography is now officially a democracy. Everyone can do it.

Technique vs. Art

Old photographers hide behind the technique. But the question of art is more complicated. For instance, Mona Lisa is just paint on canvas. Our mind makes it art and „sees” a face, a smile, a body, a background.

What is art? One artist famously singed on a trivial object and called it art. Discussions emerged. For 20 years.

In all this fast moving, fast changing conditions of our own work and life, Alex said „I choose to think”. And this is how he decided to keep on making a living as a photographer.

It’s not about technique anymore.
It’s about ideas and experimenting. To decode life.
It’s not about photography. It’s about life.

He carries everywhere a camera with him. Like a writer should carry a notebook and pen. Or a book.


Chris Jones

I don’t actually get invited anymore, I just show up.

He went up on stage starting with one of his classic Andreea stories. I know this, because I listened to his speech from 2014 in Bucharest. Apparently Andreea said he gave a bad talk this year in Bucharest. „My sense of humor — the more uncomfortable it makes others.”

He showed us a trailer of „The beast of Turin” — the Fiat S76 saying that it describes the creative process.

The engine firing up it’s what people see. Everything else is the process.

At this point, (almost) everyone took out their notebooks. We each got one in our gift bags.

  • You need to know the rules, so you can break them.
  • You need to know the laws you can not break.

A friend of his wanted to learn to play the guitar. But he said he’s not going to do it the usual way, by learning chords. He will just play what sounds good.„The chords sound good.”

At this point his voice sounds like Baz Luhrmann from the „Wear sunscreen” video. Maybe this is how I see Chris Jones. As the voice who gives reality a twist of wisdom.

  • You have to consume EVERYTHING.

But don’t forget, „garbage in, garbage out”. Koci

  • Find the time and place that get you in the… zone.

Night time. Early morning. Coffee shops. In the dark. What works for you.

  • Discipline.

At this point he remembered something that Jacqui said.

Writing is magical, not magic.

He then made a gesture with his hand, kissing his fingertips, having no words to say how much he agrees with this. Even the writers sometimes have to relate on other means of communication.

  • Fuck everyone else when you know you created something meaningful.

Now watch the trailer again. Notice how after spending 10 years working on this car, Duncan Pittaway, the owner, still has something to adjust. So, now you know. Your work will never really be finished. There is always something you can change. But the deadline is an important muse that doesn’t like to be disturbed.

The Power of Storytelling is a factory that manufactures belief.

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