University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Everybody’s a Storyteller

Personal narratives have become the currency of the moment for eliciting sympathy and goodwill toward noble causes. But what about when they're used to sell software and sweaters?

Illustration by Suharu Ogawa

The trial was years ago, but Mary Moriarty (J.D. ‘89) still remembers the puppy. Moriarty is Hennepin County’s chief public defender; she’s telling me about a case where she represented a client who had been convicted of murder and was being tried for a related robbery.

Moriarty knew from interviews with her client that he’d been in a taxi when he was arrested. He’d teared up when he told her that, in the blur of police cars and officers with guns, he’d been holding his puppy.

It was a detail Moriarty thought would help her client—she believes he is innocent of the murder and the robbery—convey a side of himself that jurors might not otherwise see. So she used it to help him tell his story. While he hadn’t testified in the first trial, this time Moriarty put him on the stand.

“When he testified, we went through that sequence, and he started to cry,” Moriarty remembers. “He was talking about being so frightened and not knowing what was going on and how he was holding his puppy. He never knew what happened to that puppy after he was arrested.”

“Stories resonate.”
Mary Moriarty

Public defenders are increasingly using storytelling techniques to advocate for their clients, whether it’s to set more advantageous bail terms, negotiate sentencings, or plead their cases in trials. Where in the past, a defender might have focused exclusively on relevant legal issues, part of the job these days is building sympathy and human connection so juries and judges don’t see defendants as mere “others.” The formidable Gideon’s Promise organization in Atlanta, where Moriarty teaches, trains public defenders nationwide in the art of storytelling. In Texas, defenders have recruited creative nonfiction writers to tell life stories of people facing the death penalty—using standard plot devices and character development—with positive results.

Hennepin County trains its lawyers in storytelling techniques, from how to actively listen—Moriarty admits that interrupting people is an occupational hazard—to spotting key details that will give judges and jurors a more nuanced understanding of their clients.

I’m talking with Moriarty in her 14th floor office, across the street from the Hennepin County Courthouse in downtown Minneapolis. I’m here because as a journalist and author, I’ve noticed that my stock-in-trade—weaving anecdotes and memories and accounts together to create narratives—has become a trend. From Snapchat to TED Talks to marketing campaigns, these days, everybody is a storyteller.

Stories have existed since cave painting, of course. But this new iteration is different. The primacy of social media has created a moment where personal narratives—often self-relayed—have gained new potency, becoming one of our culture’s most precious currencies.

Companies from Nike to Microsoft employ “chief storytellers” who do what marketing people used to do, but in a new way that’s focused on personal experiences, which, they insist, boost transparency.

A few years ago, at a creative technology conference in Calgary, a prominent designer told attendees, “I’m actually quite critical of the storytelling theme—I think all the storytellers are not storytellers.” He told of a roller coaster designer calling himself a storyteller. His response: “No f***head, you are not a storyteller, you’re a roller coaster designer!” Do I sound like I’m guarding my turf when I say I agree?

Because let’s face it, there is no denying the power of the story. When Moriarty describes her client’s almost childlike response to being arrested, I cannot only feel his vulnerability, I want to know more about him—where he grew up, what he likes to eat for breakfast. And I suddenly want to know more about Moriarty, too. I know from my research that she grew up in New Ulm, where her father was a public defender. I want to know why she chose to enter the profession. And, I want to understand why I now care.

Moriarty has the answer. “Stories resonate,” she says. “They provide empathy … an understanding of dry facts.”

THAT STORYTELLING PROVOKES an intense emotional response is an insight backed up by brain science. Research by Claremont Graduate University professor Paul Zak shows that stories produce oxytocin in the brain, which then triggers empathy and a desire to help others. If you are fundraising for a good cause, according to Zak’s research, people will be more willing to open their wallets if the ask is accompanied by a specific person’s experience.

Traditional storytellers like U Creative Writing Assistant Professor V.V. Ganeshananthan, a fiction writer and journalist, have always instinctively known this. Literature, which springs from the desire to enlighten and entertain, uses the personal to surface hard truths and explore dark but important cultural corners in a way that’s more nuanced and complex than a sales pitch.

In her novel Love Marriage, Ganeshananthan fictionalizes the Sri Lankan Civil War, giving voice to opinions and viewpoints that had been silenced. “None of the stories will be absolutely complete,” she writes. “But their tellers will be absolutely certain. This is how we make war.”

“Native American people can change what is spoken about us, who can speak for us, and what stories are told about us.”
Jillian Fish

She explains to me what she means. “Authenticity can be deployed for many things, including misinformation,” she says. “Stories that don’t acknowledge the existence of other stories seems to me to be a kind of propaganda.”

Yet, personal stories can also correct misinformation. Jillian Fish, a Ph.D. candidate in the U’s counseling psychology program, was working on a storytelling project at the U’s Immigration History Research Center when she realized that asking Native Americans to tell their own stories was a way to reclaim history. “For most of my life, whatever institution I’ve been in, from as far back as middle school, I realized that the people who were telling the stories of Native Americans were not native people,” says Fish, who is from the Tuscarora tribe and grew up on a reservation near Niagara Falls.

Fish launched the Native American Digital Storytelling Project, which is also the topic of her dissertation. “Native American people can change what is spoken about us, who can speak for us, and what stories are told about us,” she says. “It gives us the power to be the author of our own life instead of other people, to go from biography to autobiography.”

THE CURRENT VOGUE for nonliterary storytelling was jet fueled by the founding of StoryCorps, a digital initiative that encourages average people to share con-versations they’ve had about meaningful events in their lives. StoryCorps started in 2003 as a booth in Grand Central Terminal in New York City. By 2005, their stories were being aired weekly on National Public Radio. Five books, a MacArthur award, and a $1 million TED prize later, StoryCorps has launched initiatives to collect LGBTQIA stories, conversations between people of different political persuasions, and experiences with the criminal justice system. 

“The magic of StoryCorps is that it’s just us being ourselves and speaking as we do in a conversation,” says Emily Janssen, StoryCorps’ associate director of community training. “That’s something we don’t take time to do in our lives, without the distraction of a dog, or a phone ringing, or kids asking for something. It’s the intention to honor each other with our time and questions and curiosity.”

StoryCorps has branched out to conduct trainings. For Maggie Dreon (M.S. ’11), a 2015 course convinced her that storytelling could help her make a greater impact in her job as a genetic counselor at the Minnesota Department of Health. “In newborn screening, parents have a moment where life changes, regardless of what their baby’s diagnosis is,” she says. “I felt like this way of capturing stories would be a powerful way to bring the community together, rather than continuing to separate them according to a baby’s specific diagnosis.”

The result is MinneStories, a series of audio recordings of parents talking about the moments they received news of their babies’ diagnoses. The voices are raw and natural—these are not professional actors. But they are also drenched in love and a determination to advocate for their children. In that way, they are calls into the dark, a resource for other parents who need to know they aren’t alone.

“There is that opportunity to realize that you have a shared experience that is so much more than the specific disorder that your child or children have been diagnosed with,” says Bridget Busacker (B.A. ’15, M.A. ’17), an educator in the health department’s newborn screening division. Her team is exploring options for using digital storytelling in additional public health campaigns that go beyond technical terminology and online resources. 

WHILE THE IDEA that stories can make a difference to people in need is certainly inspiring, I wonder about the role of storytelling in other endeavors, like advertising and the shaping of corporate images. Does motive matter?

I decide to meet with Steve Rudolph (B.A. ’92), who was the chief storyteller at the Carlson School of Management before he became director of marketing and communications at the U’s School of Nursing in 2018. Rudolph came to the Carlson School in 2010, assuming his job would build on his experience in media relations, which he’d honed working for Twin Cities advertising and PR companies. There was just one hitch: “Newsrooms were getting so much smaller. Press releases weren’t working anymore.”

At the same time, the rise of the internet meant that anyone could create their own content, a trend that only accelerated with the rise of social media and crowdsourced recommendations. Why, Rudolph wondered, did the school need others to write its story when they could tell it themselves?

That epiphany led to a shift in how Rudolph saw his role. Instead of marketing Carlson in the same old way, he let students, faculty, and administrators directly share their experiences with potential students, including real-life tales of business majors who became CEOs, complete with missteps along the way. “There is the trust factor to stories that are authentically told,” he says. “You can reach people directly.”

It’s hard to argue with Rudolph, who is, after all, promoting education, which most people believe has societal value. But what about when companies use storytelling to sell alcohol or designer handbags? Certainly it’s a problem when companies try to paper over scandals or bad business practices with authentic personal stories.

I’m about to write off corporate storytelling when Rudolph points me to the outdoor gear giant Patagonia—a company driven by strong ethics—as the gold standard. Out are the short, highly edited promotional videos of yesterday. In is a YouTube channel stocked with environmental advocacy films, including a 37-minute documentary on an old-growth rainforest in Tasmania and an F-bomb-laced profile of a photographer’s exploits in the actual Patagonia. To be sure, these stories aren’t home movies. But they also don’t feel like they’ve been finessed to death by a Madison Avenue firm.

“I'm sure the company would not be surprised that after watching a few of the videos, I went to their website to buy a new polar fleece jacket.”

Patagonia is no doubt aware of the brain research that explains the films’ appeal. And I’m sure the company would not be surprised that after watching a few of the videos, I went to their website to buy a new polar fleece jacket.

Patagonia’s use of first-person narrative is done in the service of its bottom line. But success has allowed the company to become an advocate for the environment in a way that transcends greenwashing. They use their popularity to spread what they see as urgent, if not inconvenient, truths.  

Maybe corporations have caught on to something that’s true and good: At a time when people feel increasingly lonely and polarized, stories humanize our world. And it’s not just professional storytellers like me who get to provide those vital connections. 

Which brings us back to Mary Moriarty and her client sitting in the back of that taxi cab clutching his dog. After offering his testimony, he was acquitted of the robbery charge. Recently, the Innocence Project, an advocacy organization that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted though DNA testing, announced they will take up his murder case. Our stories matter.

Elizabeth Foy Larsen (M.F.A. ’02) writes for many local and national publications. She is Minnesota Alumni’s senior editor.

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