What do professional mountain climbers, scientists, and reluctant ‘social media influencers’ all have in common? Turns out they all have valuable lessons to share about the importance and power of authenticity in storytelling.
That was an exciting realization to come to after my first full day at SXSW this year. That morning, my session itinerary couldn’t have looked more disunified, as it consisted of the following:
- “Biometric Social Storytelling on Mt. Everest”
- “Leveraging Film and Entertainment to Advance STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics)”
- “From YouTube Star to Media Company Co-Founder”
However, it was the through these sessions that I arrived at a lesson in storytelling that I will carry throughout my career: the best stories invite others into your world so they can better understand their own.
Authenticity is boring, long live authenticity
The images that come to my head when I think of Mt. Everest are always harrowing and action-packed. A team of brave climbers are fighting against the most difficult elements, culminating in a life-or-death situation that leads me to question my own bravery. It is a story that certainly belongs in your Netflix queue, but not one that shows what it is actually like to climb Everest.
That is why Adrian Ballinger set out to tell a different, more authentic, story. He and his climbing partner Cory Richards are no strangers to Mt. Everest, making the trek up the famous mountain for the last nine years running. And on top of that, they have been doing it without the use of supplemental oxygen, something that Ballinger said has only been completed 193 times.
They are two people behind the #EverestNoFilter project. Using a satellite to upload images to Instagram and Snapchat, and to upload health metrics to Strava, the two hope to share the full Everest experience. So instead of life-threatening avalanches, followers get to see how to brush your teeth or prepare a meal on Everest. And people tuned in en masse. The first post to the #EverestNoFilter project, a photo of Mt. Everest taken from a plane, garnered less than 100 views. But by the end of that first trip, they were getting millions of views, likes and comments on every post.
Before they started using social media, Ballinger worked with traditional television producers to tell his stories. He found that working with a huge production team was too intrusive, and he would constantly have to re enact moments for the camera. “We want our climbs to be about more than ourselves,” he said, “and social media today is a less intrusive way to tell stories.”
That is an interesting thought. Not only is social media a less intrusive way to tell stories. It is also a less intrusive way to consume stories. Think about it. Most of what I see on social media comes from people I know personally or connect with because of common interests. If “slice of life” moments from Everest happened to be part of my daily stream of snaps, I would become much more interested in the climb’s progress than if I simply watched a documentary. Social also allows people to express their support for storytellers. Speaking on the engagement they got from viewers, Ballinger said, “if there wasn’t a community sending us love, there was no way we would have kept going. We would have stayed home and watched Game of Thrones. That two-way aspect of storytelling is really powerful.”
So why is this kind of authenticity important in storytelling? For me, that realization came from how the climbers used Strava during their ascents. We can all agree that climbing Mt. Everest is extremely hard. But the story told by Strava data, which tracks things like distance traveled, heart rate and other health metrics, wasn’t one of unattainable human achievement. It was a story of regular people (well, mostly regular, Ballinger is definitely what I consider a “super athlete”) trying really hard to accomplish something. And that is a story anyone can understand. Now, I have no pretenses that I can go climb Mt. Everest any time soon. But hearing and seeing their story through an authentic lens at least inspired me to run a little further.
Changing the Image of Intelligence Through Storytelling
The second session I attended that day focused on how film and television can be used to encourage more diversity in STEAM fields. The session was a panel discussion led by Dr. Knatokie Ford, a Media Innovation fellow at the Simons Foundation and former Senior Policy Advisor for the White House Office of Science and Technology. She was joined by Kamau Bobb of the National Science Foundation, Google engineer Angela Navarro, and film producer Jacob York.
The conversation started with the hit movie Hidden Figures, the until recently woefully under-told story of the brilliant women who got the United States to the moon. While the extraordinary achievements chronicled in the story are important, so is the ordinary depiction of those women responsible for them. One of the first points, made by Navarro, is that too many of the depictions of STEAM work in movies look more like hacker thrillers than normal life. And for a lot of people, that is an image they can not relate to.
Some of the work Navarro is doing to fix this is to act as a consultant on television and film sets. When a plot line calls for the use STEAM skills, she helps writers create full, authentic characters that reflect what the work is really like. There is no reason why the teenager who is interested in dance can’t also learn to code. The hope is that through authentic storytelling, more people from diverse backgrounds can begin to see a path for themselves in STEAM.
The value of leveraging authentic storytelling to advance STEAM was further illustrated by Bobb. While his work is not directly involved with media, he has a unique perspective on the state of STEAM education, and thinks a lot about how to extend the opportunity for such an education to everyone. The power of authentic storytelling comes in its ability to change the imagery of what it means to be smart. For instance, the women portrayed in Hidden Figures were certainly smart, but they were also human. They struggled not only to gain the competence to succeed as NASA scientists. They struggled, just like everyone else, to gain the confidence to know they could. And showing that struggle is important. As Bobb put it, “confidence is something you arrive at.”
The Work of Authenticity in Storytelling
Up to this point, I was already having a very authentic day. I had learned how new mediums used images to create authentic stories. I learned how stories can themselves change images of ourselves. And then I went to see Casey Neistat, whose YouTube videos have gained millions of followers from around the world, share his stories of storytelling.
What I learned explicitly from his talk, which looking back were implicit in the previous two, was that yes, I and anyone else has the competence to create authentic stories. But you have to just do it. And you have to work at it. Just like confidence, authenticity is something you arrive at. And it takes work.
Neistat told the story of what is probably his best known video, a promotional piece he made for Nike called “Make it Count”. For the video, Neistat was given his full budget upfront (a move the immediately warned against). But instead of following the tried and true formula for Nike commercials, he tried something completely different. What if, instead of making a scripted video, he use the money and travel the world. Until the money was gone. And film it.
What resulted was a ten day trip to nearly every continent and what I can image was just as many days worth of footage. Now he was faced with the task of compiling all of his experiences into an authentic story. For Neistat, any authentic story, whether it is audio, video, written or on any other medium, starts as a “gross, rusty lump of steel”. The act of storytelling, then, is to “start hammering on it, until it starts to take shape. And you don’t stop until your pile of steel turns into an Excalibur sword that you can use to take on the world.”
In the conversation of how to achieve authenticity in storytelling, Neistat brings a perfect blend of optimism and practicalism. He is a big believer that anyone can be a content creator and storyteller. But there is work in getting there. You have to hone your craft. It takes years to build the technical competence to succeed. But it can take even longer to build the confidence that that competence is even possible.
I am still struck at how powerful the idea from Bobb is. “Confidence is something you arrive at.” If that is the case, then authenticity must only be a few stops further down the line.