Storytellers Welcome: IX Cities Tour Begins

by Julie Anixter

Storytellers Welcome: IX Cities Tour BeginsLet’s Recap: We began last Monday night in New York City. Here’s what happened and what we’re taking away…(Peter Thum, founder of Fonderie47 and Liberty United tells his story above.)

One of our storytellers, Communispace's Jeff Meleski

300 people showed up at Material ConneXion’s amazing midtown digs and material science library, and thanks to a whole host of sponsors and partners – Ommegang beers and Deep Eddy Vodka’s Moo-tini’s and Moo-politans – the mood and conversation flowed. And so did the stories.

This is the first in a series of reports about what we’re doing and learning on our Innovation Cities Tour and it starts with four rather startling things we’re discovering through our Story Exchanges about the role of stories innovation.

Storyteller April Hattori, Expeditionary Learning

1. The Power of Stories and the Practice of Storytelling are Different

The drumbeat around the idea of storytelling isn’t going to quit any time soon. But there’s an interesting gap between knowing and doing here. Between being packaged for prime time, and the stuff of prototypes. Being a brand storyteller requires a coherent narrative and a lot of checks and balances. Being an innovator-storyteller requires something different. It requires guts, an ability to be uncomfortable and while we all kind of know that, we truly like being reassured.

Rabbi Irwin Kula tripped the switch on the evening when he remarked that one of the foremost kinds of innovation happening right now is innovating identity.

Judging from the overwhelming response we had to the Story Exchange, people are very hungry to talk in a non-political, higher-on-the humanity environment about what and how others are doing what they’re doing. There was a palpable sense that identities were being shaken up along with the cocktails.  In an inspired kind of way. HBR editor Sarah Green’s tweet following The Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards on Friday, @skgreen describes how we felt:

“Most awards shows make me feel like I haven’t achieved anything. #TDIA makes me feel like I could achieve anything.”

The Stories Exchange had a buoyant Macy’s Float kind of optimism. And it’s optimism born of experience, not just naivete. Craig Hatkoff talked about thinking initially, in 2001, that founding the Tribeca Film Festival was “a mistake” and being delighted to be wrong… (Thirteen years later, not!)  One of the first things MakerBot founder Bre Pettis uttered Monday night was “Innovation requires doing foolish things.  Thingiverse might have looked foolish, might even still be an expensive platform to maintain…but…it’s the community’s place to come and share their 3D designs.”  You could just feel the room relax.  Speaking of relaxing…

L-R, Rabbi Irwin Kula, CLAL, David Keyes, Advancing Human Rights, Craig Hatkoff, Disruptor Foundation, and Judith Glaser, Author, Conversational Intelligence

2. Stories Reduce Stress

We brought 25 amazing storytellers, and invited an audience of 300 to wander, listen, talk and share. And share they did. Peer-to-peer it turns out, is a turn on.  The kind of Story Exchange we just held seemed to resonate with our innate curiosity to explore, to know more, go deeper, and discover on our own terms — have our own Q&A.

With all due respect to the amazing TED franchise, and conferences of all stripes, we abandoned the idea of a stage and the “one to many” brilliant-thought-leader-as-hero driven framework, and instead invoked the first principal of Dr. Vincent T. Covello’s lifetime of work on high concern communications, which is this: if you want to build trust and rapport faster, and reduce stress, go peer-to-peer.

Judith Glaser would call it a Level 3 conversation — where we ask questions we don’t have answers for and experience a flood of oxytocin when we co-create answers with the “other.” And she says that the essence of the storytelling rhythm, Situation-Complication-Resolution (Duarte) or the colloquial version, Guy rides into town. Something Happens.  Guy rides out of town (NPR Storytelling Project) actually serves as brain food. More on that coming soon.

MakerBot founder, Bre Pettis

3.  Innovators Want A Special Kind of Story – the Back Story, or Maybe One Big Q&A

If we wanted just the facts we could go to our two best friends (to paraphrase Jack Andraka) Google and Wikipedia. But we don’t. We want the texture, the background, the color, the grit, the insight of what it actually took Peter Thum to launch Fonderie47 and acquire those guns, or how Gregg Breinberg had the instinct to stand up to the school board and post PS22 on YouTube against their protestations. Innovation Excellence is an amazing network of people, and many were willing to give the authentic unvarnished version — and many friends and new friends offered to show up and share their back stories. But it’s a big world out there, and so we put the network effect into effect. Uber-story- curators filled out the rest of the roster for us, and what a roster they delivered:

Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founder Craig Hatkoff connected us to Disruptive Award Winners Bre Pettis, Peter Thum, Gregg Breinberg, the Agrawals of Thinx, absent because the White House took precedent, Jim Woods from the Brooklyn Bowl and the Fos, aka Dick Fosbury (who couldn’t be there but may come to San Francisco.) Sarah Miller Calidcott brought in Dr. Paul Israel from Rutgers Center for the Thomas Edison Papers, Judith Glaser connected us to Expeditionary Learning and Opportunity Lab. Kim Pucci brought Francis Battista, pioneer of the No Kill movement, whose work at Best Friends, reducing needless deaths for dogs and cats, should put him right up there with the two pontiffs getting sainthood today.

You get the picture. The diversity of innovators in the room was heady. Getting to hang out with them in such a simple way just made sense.

PS22 Chorus Alum, Clive Baird, and Gregg Breinberg, PS 22 Chorus Director

4. The Best Storytelling Integrates Digital, Physical, Spreadable

Our goal is collect 100 Innovation Teaching Stories and help them spread. We started the process Monday night.  We trust they’ll spread digtially, thanks to our partners at HYPE Innovation and our HypeGo Storytelling Platform – where you can post, share and collaborate on your story. We’re exploring some other interesting digital tools and platforms like Ticky Tocky and One Note.

Since we didn’t go with a stage, we needed to anchor the storytellers visually in the space. We ‘painted’ their pictures….think watercolor portrait meets backdrop with (often with one of their) bold declaration or questions. And then we turned those paintings into banners – way stations on a road map of visual stories — so you knew where you were standing in the space and who you wanted to seek out next. The images created their own visual ecosystem, complete with the excitement of seeing some of the storytellers walk off the page.

And, here’s a simple but clear insight – when they had concrete deliverable, like Peter Thum’s gun parts and corresponding Liberty United jewelry, Bre’s MakerBot printer, Judith’s Conversational Intelligence book…it deepens the story, the experience, when you can show and touch, along with tell, the story.

Material ConneXion's MakerBot

The magic of having any one of our storytellers standing in front of you could not be beat. But in reality, we will most likely not get our New York storytellers like Gregg Breinberg, Peter Thum, Expeditionary Learning, Fahrenheit 212, Kite, Sputnik, to all of our cities (they have kids to teach, guns to turn into jewelry, business models and futures to create…) So we’re bringing their likenesses, with some of their hand selected digital media, to help spread share and spread their stories.  And…

We’ll be bringing the Story Exchange to Boston on May 12. It’s the next stop on our Innovation Cities Tour – followed by San Francisco on June 17.

We’d love to have you join us and you can sign up here.

images: Andrew Federman Photography

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Julie Anixter is the executive editor and co-founder of Innovation Excellence. She also serves as the Executive in Residence for the Disruptor Foundation. The co-author of three books, she’s working on a fourth on future innovators. She worked with Tom Peters for five years on bringing big ideas to big audiences. Now she works with the US Military, Healthcare, Education, Manufacturing and other high test innovation cultures that make a difference.