When’s the last time someone listened to you? Really listened carefully? A time when the person listening wasn’t trying to get something out of you? How did it feel?
Maybe you felt understood. Appreciated. Noticed. Chances are, it felt pretty good.
It’s a special experience, especially for people who have been made to feel that they don’t matter. And it’s at the heart of StoryCorps, the nonprofit that “provides people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.”
That mission got a boost last month when the organization launched the first version of its mobile app. The tool enables users to record an interview, take a picture to accompany it, and then tag and share the story. And like the rest of StoryCorps’s more than 50,000 recordings, stories uploaded using the mobile app during its first year will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. They will also appear on the new storycorps.me website.
The app was announced when StoryCorps founder Dave Isay was awarded the 2015 TED Prize by the global ideas nonprofit, granting him $1 million and the support of the TED audience to carry out a wish. He asked for help so that “anyone, anywhere, can easily record a meaningful interview with another human being, which then will be archived for history.”
Within two weeks of the app’s release, it had already been downloaded more than 100,000 times, and Mr. Isay encourages nonprofits to use the app to support their missions.
“Every organization is trying to tell the truth about whatever issue they’re so passionate about and dedicated to,” he says.
Storytelling can be a part of that truth-telling.
As it is, StoryCorps works with more than 500 nonprofits a year to conduct interviews, and the mobile app expands the possibilities exponentially.
“Imagine,” Mr. Isay said to the audience at his TED Prize talk, “that people in your community go into retirement homes or hospitals or homeless shelters or even prisons armed with this app to honor the people least heard in our society and ask them who they are, what they’ve learned in life, and how they want to be remembered.”
The app offers simple guidelines about getting ready, recording the interview, and sharing it – but the lessons of StoryCorps have to do with more than just the technicalities.
Mr. Isay says that a StoryCorps recording is a “by-product,” of sorts. What’s really important is the interaction between the people talking. The experience of listening and being listened to makes “authentic” conversations possible.
Whatever truth an organization is trying to tell can’t be forced, he says.
“If you’re looking for specific answers and trying to guide people to say certain things during an interview, then it won’t work,” he says.
Nonprofits have an ethical responsibility in the process.
“You want to be transparent with the people who are doing the storytelling for your organization,” Mr. Isay says.
That means speaking plainly about how the story will be used: “If the [interviewees] are not benefiting from it, then they shouldn’t be doing it.”
“So much of media today is sucking the life out of people,” he says. “In nonprofits, we should be doing the opposite.”
A lot of nonprofit storytelling aims to persuade people to do something or give something. Donate money, volunteer their time, buy green products, boycott other products, or support an issue.
That’s advocacy communications, and it’s essential.
But StoryCorps’s model indicates that a more organic exchange is valuable as well.
Several years ago, I interviewed an elderly friend, David, at the StoryCorps booth in lower Manhattan. The sounds and stresses of the city quieted instantly as we entered the booth and were greeted by a facilitator. She set us up at the table in front of the microphones, and made tissues available if we needed them.
The cozy space, the bottles of water we were given, the tissues, the microphones, the recording we received later, and the knowledge that this would be archived at the Library of Congress all made the interview a special experience.
Maybe no one would ever listen to it. But that didn’t matter so much. David properly told a story that he’d wanted to share, and he had an attentive audience of one.
The mobile app is more informal. It can be used on a couch or a porch or anywhere else. But the intimacy and the sense of the sacred can be preserved so long as the people in conversation are dedicated to it.
Mr. Isay ended his TED Prize talk this way: “Together, we can create an archive of the wisdom of humanity, and maybe in doing so, we’ll learn to listen a little more and shout a little less. Maybe these conversations will remind us what’s really important. And maybe, just maybe, it will help us recognize that simple truth that every life, every single life, matters equally and infinitely.”
How different the world would look if more of us recognized that, thanks to the practice of telling and – vitally – listening to stories.
• Paul VanDeCarr writes once each month about some of the best nonprofit storytelling and what others can learn from it. Readers can submit examples for consideration in this feature using this online form or e-mail Mr. VanDeCarr at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mr. VanDeCarr is the managing director of Working Narratives, an organization that collaborates with advocates, artists, policy groups, media-makers, and others to “change the story” on the big social justice issues of our time. He is also the author of “Storytelling and Social Change: a Strategy Guide for Grantmakers” and is working on a second edition to be released this year for nonprofits, advocates, and storytellers.