The first person to share a TED Talk with me was my best friend Jeremy when we were still freshmen in college. Until this week, I couldn't remember anything from that talk beyond the man who gave it: a Doc Brown doppelganger named Clifford Stoll who moved around the stage like a human bouncy ball.
It was 2008—the early days of YouTube. TED Talks, which originated in Silicon Valley and initially focused on technology, entertainment, and design issues, were ideally suited for the platform. They soon exploded in popularity.* Today, I listen to TED podcasts in my car. I watch the videos on YouTube while I'm in the shower. I have several, like Stoll's, a rambling talk about curiosity and learning, saved on a playlist labeled "Good for my brain."
In the past year, I've been doing much more of my own public speaking on the art and craft of storytelling.** My hope is to one day be asked to give my own TED Talk.
In early August, I settled for a PechaKucha presentation at my university's fifth annual communications conference, which I co-emceed last year and helped to organize the year before.
If you're not familiar with PechaKucha, the format is much stricter than a TED Talk: 20 slides, 20 seconds each slide—no pausing, rewinding, or forwarding through. For the presentation to go smoothly, you need to get your timing just right.
Instead of following the traditional guidelines, I colored a bit outside the lines. The resulting presentation, which I called "A People-First Approach to Storytelling," was a TED Talk adapted for the limitations of a PechaKucha.
The recording is available at the link below. I've included a script for those of you who, like me, prefer reading over watching. But, if you've got 6 minutes and 40 seconds, have a look and tell me what you think at briancanever (at) gmail (dot) com.
Presentation begins at 1:00
One of my favorite movies is the Motorcycle Diaries.
I first watched it when I was still in high school, and then in my college dorm room. A few years ago, I watched it alone at home, and I posted this photo with a quote on Instagram:
“How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?”
I loved that line.
The Motorcycle Diaries, like most great stories, is about a journey. A medical student takes a motorcycle trip throughout South America with his best friend. Along the way, he witnesses exploitation and suffering and it changes him. His life isn’t the same. He can’t go back to who he was before.
This is just one story. There are millions just like it captured in art, video, and literature from around the world.
I’m here today because I’ve spent years trying to answer a question always at the back of my mind when engaging with these kinds of stories:
Why do they compel us?
What makes us click, read, listen. In my quest to find answers, I’ve uncovered an approach to storytelling I now use in nearly everything I write.
I call it the people-first approach.
One application of this approach is popularly known as the hero’s journey, a technique that appears in the storytelling of Humans of New York and NPR’s StoryCorps, the New Yorker and ESPN, films like 1917 and Nomadland and books like Harry Potter.
Today, I’m going to share with you how I’ve used people-first storytelling, and the hero’s journey specifically, to earn the attention of audiences and create emotional responses for readers.
When I’m looking to tell a great story, I start with a hero.
That’s Step 1. Find a hero.
Now, a hero doesn’t need to be Superman or Serena Williams. They could be a nursing professor like Jennifer Tourville, who as a pediatric nurse practitioner treated babies born addicted to drugs, was so enraged and saddened by what she witnessed everyday, that she felt the urge to do something. Now Jennifer’s here at UT leading basically every effort by the campus and the System to combat substance abuse in families and children across Tennessee.
They could be a student. I wrote about KoJak Wells, whose story came to my office as: non-traditional business student, soon-to-be-hired by P&G. What I uncovered in my time with KoJak went much deeper, however.
After high school, KoJak worked at Dollar General. College hadn’t been a part of the plan for him—until his girlfriend gave him the news she was pregnant with their first daughter. KoJak went to Pellissippi, then our Haslam College of Business, and he stood out as one of the brightest, most determined students professors had ever met. Yes—he now works at P&G. But what connected with me about his story wasn’t so much that, as the journey that got him there.
Today I’m focusing my presentation on another story.
When I first met Maddy, she was already a national champion. Just months earlier she and three other Lady Vols had won gold in Maddy’s final race as a collegiate swimmer— her first and only national title.
That was wonderful. But swimmers win championships every day. The podium, on its own, is not heroic.
It’s what our champions overcame to get there that is heroic. Step 2. Identify the obstacle.
Let me read you the opening section of Maddy’s story:
Hours before she stepped onto the platform on the second day of the 2019 NCAA Swimming and Diving championships, Maddy Banic sat by the warm-up pool playing back every second of the day before in her head. She had failed to qualify for the finals of the 50-yard freestyle, her best individual event. Now she was out again, in the preliminary stage of the 100-yard butterfly.
Banic had fought too hard for it to end like this. The depression diagnosis her freshman year; the panic attack at the 2017 finals that saw her scratched from two events and hospitalized; the near suicide attempt months later in her apartment; the three-month NCAA-enforced separation from a team that didn’t want her back anyway. This was Banic’s final national championship as a collegiate swimmer, her last chance to leave with a medal—not for herself but for the teammates who took her back and voted her their captain in the fall of 2018, entrusting her to lead them.
I don’t know about you, but I grow tired of hearing stories of people who are presented as being superior to me. In this portrayal, they become too unrelatable for me to care about. So what I seek to do as a storyteller is to uncover the person beneath the surface.
In the past weeks, as athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have withdrawn from competitions for mental health reasons, we've spoken at length about athletes beyond the field. Beyond the podium. Because, if all you hear about is the podium, you start to believe these athletes superhuman—not just human, like you and me.
Before winning her title, Maddy Banic thought it was all over. Everything she had suffered through was wasted. But, instead of giving up. She responded.
Step 3. Capture the response
With an evening final in the 200-yard medley relay remaining, Banic’s coach, Matthew Kredich issued her a challenge: collect yourself and lead your teammates, he told her.
“She looked at me and took a deep breath,” Kredich remembers. “And she said, ‘OK, I can do that.’”
Hours later, Banic won gold. It was a moment. But even as Banic stood beside her teammates on the podium wearing a coonskin cap and a wide-eyed grin—joy erupting from the parts of her that had hurt for so long—she knew it was not the finish.
Since her championship, Banic earned her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and has become an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness in collegiate sports.
“This sport is something you do—it’s not who you are,” Banic says. “You can step aside and then come back. You don’t have to give up. You don’t have to hide that you’re struggling. You can seek help.”
What I’ve read from the introduction to my Torchbearer story, “Into the Light,” is just a microcosm of the much bigger story.
On the day she became a champion, Maddy faced Goliath. And, for a moment, she lost her faith—then, she responded courageously to claim victory.
Her battle with her mental health issues had been much the same. She faced an obstacle that appeared insurmountable. An obstacle that nearly killed her.
After fighting her way through it, how did she respond? She shared her story. She built a platform to advocate for mental health in collegiate sports. Her coach told me it changed the way he approached mental health for his team. Other college athletes around the country said it inspired them to speak up and to seek help too.
In June 2019, Maddy was named the winner of a national award given to student–athletes who overcome great odds to succeed. It was as meaningful to her, and to her story, as any national title.
So, to summarize: people first.
Not every story you tell will be a profile, like Maddy’s. You may be announcing a research grant, a new project or initiative in your unit. But, by choosing to focus even these stories on people, you give your audience a sense of connection with the subject they’re reading about. And that creates value. Engagement. Emotion.
There’s three steps you take to do this.
Find a hero. That could be a faculty or staff member, a student worker, a community leader
Identify their obstacle. What did they overcome to get to where they are? Had they ever felt like quitting? What motivates them to do what they do? What do they sacrifice to do it?
And capture their response. Do not omit the best parts of their journey by not even asking. Have them take you through it, forwards and backwards. Interrupt. Follow up. Confirm and re-confirm. Ask for sources who can do the same. Be as relentless as Maddy Banic.
So, that’s all. At least all I could fit into this presentation. If you want to talk more about storytelling, come see me. I’ll tell you my story. You tell me yours. One person to another. I promise I’ll give you my full attention.
*The most popular TED Talk of all time, "Do Schools Kill Creativity?" by Sir Ken Robinson, has 71 million views. Ironically, this is also the subject of an angsty blog post I wrote in 2008 during my freshman year of college. I'd share the link, but its contents are perhaps too dangerous to be rereleased into the public eye.
**In 2020, I presented on the concept of story mining for the Alliance of Better Nonprofits' summer storytelling conference and the University of Tennessee System's Pandemic to Possibility webinar series. I spoke about the importance of civic engagement as part of Men of Color Empowerment Day organized by UT's Office of Multicultural Student Life and to students in the university's Honors and Scholars program about how they can use narrative storytelling for career development. I led a workshop for teenagers in Emerald Youth Foundation's career program on how to tell their stories as they pursue jobs, internships, and apply for college. Prior to 2020, the only conference I had ever presented at was hosted at UT's International House in 2015. My talk, on how sports is used to empower women and girls around the world, was at the same time as two others. No one showed up, and I packed up and went back to the office.