“It has been said that next to hunger and thirst, our most basic human need is for storytelling” – Khalil Gibran
Occasionally, you meet someone who can truly tell a story. Someone who can turn the briefest observation into a lasting epiphany, transform a mundane incident into a gripping adventure, take the smallest detail and unravel a web of wisdom, excitement, and emotion. Everything that happens to the storyteller seems significant enough to share with others. Whether discussing a shark attack or a subway ride, the storyteller has the ability to make almost any experience interesting to an outside audience—the ability to make their life interesting and share that interest with the rest of the world.
Storytellers are craftsman, and their material is human experience. They mold the shapeless clay of their private feeling into a sturdy, common emotion that can be shared with a general audience. Writing a story is different from telling a story. The writer is concerned with capturing their individual, isolated experience while the storyteller is concerned with communicating their experience to a specific, immediate audience. In short, storytelling crafts a communal emotion from a personal experience, transforms a private feeling into to a public sentiment.
Why do we feel such an acute need for storytelling now? Oddly, the term “storytelling” has recently become a prominent topic in the business and design world. In 2016 alone, storytelling conferences swept across the globe from 5th Avenue to Pikeville, Kentucky, from Wisconsin to Waco, Texas, from Bucharest to Mount Timpanogos in Utah—the appetite for story is not a local fad but a contemporary phenomenon. The hunger for storytelling taps into an essential need in an increasingly electronic world. Every glance at a screen, an iPhone, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram reflects the increasingly narrow, accelerated picture of our daily life. Our reactions outrace our emotions. Our capacity to relay our experience has outpaced our capacity to feel it. The current rise of storytelling represents the digital culture’s need to reconnect with our analog emotions and recapture our human experience.
McSweeney’s is an independent publisher dedicated to championing strange, uncategorizable work and telling unexpected stories in inspired, unexpected ways. In the original email looking for writers, our founder Dave Eggers described his aspiration for McSweeney’s to be “a place where odd things that one could never shoe-horn into [the] mainstream . . . might find a home.” For the last 18 years, McSweeney’s has been a home for some of the best experimental books and literary projects in the country. We’ve published stories on a bookspine and in a copyright agreement. We’ve designed issues as a cigar-box, a telephone book, a deck of cards, a bundle of junk mail, and a box that looked like a sweaty human head. We’ve run a daily humor site publishing articles such as “Sparknotes: Goodnight Moon,” “Nate Silver Offers Up a Statistical Analysis of Your Failing Relationship,” and “Let’s Have a Meeting to Plan Our Next Meeting.”
Stories are everywhere—you just need to know how to find them. Stories are not just reserved for heroes and grand plots, but can be discovered in the most ordinary items and tasks of daily life. They can be embedded in objects, experiences, and even PowerPoint presentations. The McSweeney’s ethos is grounded in the power of surprise. We believe there is more to be gained by doing something delightful and unexpected than there is to be lost by doing it inefficiently. We have found that by the challenging conventional boundaries of the story, reimagining traditional formats, and playfully manipulating expectations you earn the special attention and devoted audience that is increasingly difficult to find.
Now, McSweeney’s has partnered with Cooper to create a joint workshop to share insights about the art of storytelling with you. In the upcoming workshop, Daniel Levin Becker and I will share techniques and methods from literature and publishing to tell compelling, distinctive stories in creative, unexpected ways for a wide range of professional contexts. The workshop will share a framework to discover, clarify, and synthesize an original story and deliver that story in bold, imaginative ways specifically designed to impact your audience. We’ve developed an inventory of editorial tips for injecting surprise, emotion, and humor into ordinary formats and custom-designed a series of hands-on exercises for participants to apply these lessons to business scenarios.
We don’t know what your story will be, but we are excited to help you tell it. Let’s tell a story together on December 6th.