Sunday, September 11, 2011

Using storytelling to stand out: What speakers can learn from 9/11

(Editor's note: Freelance writer Becky Ham is a regular contributor to the blog. She approached me about doing this piece after listening to one of the stories noted below in her car, and arriving at her appointment with tears in her eyes. Stepping back, she observed that it "seems like there's always one very vivid mention in each [story] of something that was worn, some private joke, etc, that (strangely enough) makes the tragedy more bearable and human-sized...the story becomes necessary, and worth adding to our big conversation about all this." I couldn't agree more, and hope speakers will use these lessons to shape their storytelling, today and every day.)

When the flood of news coverage about the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks began a few weeks ago, I headed for higher ground. I wasn't sure what--if anything--I wanted to hear about that terrible day, and how--if at all--I wanted to reflect on the years since.

I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the coverage, which made me wonder how those speaking and writing about the anniversary could hope to make their particular part of the conversation stand out in a meaningful way. And then I turned on the radio.

Retired New York City firefighter John Vigiano Sr. was talking about his sons, firefighter John Jr. and policeman Joe, who had lost their lives on 9/11 at the World Trade Center. Vigiano recalled that John Jr. had worn his grandfather's badge number: "We had the boys for...John for 36 years and Joe for 34 years, ironically. Badge number 3436."

Vigiano shared the story of his sons with StoryCorps, a nonprofit oral history project often heard on National Public Radio. Although StoryCorps didn't set out to collect stories from 9/11, founder Dave Isay said the project was a natural fit when the 9/11 Memorial and Museum asked them to collaborate on a memorial to lives lost on the day.

In less than two minutes, Vigiano's remembrance had broken down my resistance to listening. Storytelling had opened me up to the conversation in a way that the speeches and analysis and retrospectives couldn't do, using a few powerful techniques:
  • Storytelling offers an experience. In a Twitter chat about storytelling and 9/11, writing teacher Roy Peter Clark noted that stories are not about information but are instead a "mode of experience." Effective stories contain an inciting incident, he said, where normal events are interrupted by or crystallize around something out of the ordinary. Even when the inciting incident is well-known, as is the case with 9/11 stories, the mention of it immediately transports the listener to a specific time and place and prepares them for the details to follow. It's those details that create a compelling experience. The things I'll remember most from the 9/11 StoryCorps collection are the neatly folded clothes on the bed of Azucena de la Torre, killed at the World Trade Center; the enviably long eyelashes of Johnny Doctor Jr., killed at the Pentagon; or the fact that Michael Curci and his co-workers stopped at a Snapple machine as they carried their quadriplegic colleague John Abruzzo down 69 flights of stairs at the World Trade Center.
  • Stories find the right level. Clark said one of the strategies learned by journalists covering 9/11 was "the bigger, the smaller." The larger and more incomprehensible the news event, they found, the more important it is to focus on the experience of individuals. Storytelling, often intensely personal, is one of the best ways to bring the focus to a significant level. Nearly 3000 lives were lost in the 9/11 attacks. Do you know 3000 people? Richard Pecorella knew one person who died in the World Trade Center: his fiance Karen Juday. When he described how she had gently turned him away from his gruff New Yorker ways, I felt pain in a size and shape I could recognize.
  • Stories evolve over time. It took Kurt Vonnegut more than 20 years to write about the horrific World War II firebombing of Dresden, finally figuring out the right way to tell the tale in 1969's Slaughterhouse-Five after reminiscing with soldier friends against the backdrop of a new war in Vietnam. There can be something powerful in the immediate telling of a story, especially for accessing and sharing vivid emotion. But the StoryCorps contributors show that distance from events can lend perspective, distilling a chaotic event into its key points or even lessons. "I wouldn't have changed anything," Vigiano said. "There's not many people that the last words they said to their son or daughter was 'I love you,' and the last words that they heard was 'I love you.' So that makes me sleep at night."
Learn more about storytelling from these online resources.

(Photo by Larry Bruce /

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