Blog

How Storytelling Creates Understanding

An interview with storytelling thought leader Shanai Matteson of Water Bar & Public Studio, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Tell us about yourself. How did you find yourself as a storytelling ambassador?

Shanai Matteson of Minneapolis
Shanai Matteson of Minneapolis

“I’m an artist, a cultural organizer, a writer, a mom. I live in northeast Minneapolis, which is a neighborhood (like all of Minneapolis) that is close to the Mississippi River, and in the Mississippi Watershed. I grew-up in a very small town, population of about 100, also on the Mississippi River. My mom was a farm girl who never really left the town where she was born, and my dad was a musician and artist who traveled a lot in his youth, touring with bands. I think the push and pull between the two of them had a big part in shaping my own inclinations as a storyteller, and a reluctant city-dweller. I love living where I live now, but I grew-up in a place and with people who lived a lot closer to land and water. They weren’t necessarily environmentally conscious, but they understood that their lives were intimately shaped by nature, and as a kid I spent a lot of time outside. When I moved to the city, I used to get very nervous when there were storms, because I couldn’t see the horizon line or which way the clouds were moving. My introduction to storytelling came early. I had a big family that told stories around kitchen tables and bonfires and a dad who wrote and performed music, and was always coming and going with stories from tour, or from something he’d heard along the way. When I think about storytelling, I think about its common origins and purposes. We tell stories to understand and communicate.”

How is storytelling bringing people together in Minneapolis?

“What I’ve been most interested in, lately, are those places and people and projects that are creating space for storytelling to happen as a means of building more equitable and resilient communities, by encouraging storytelling for and about essential aspects of life. There’s a local artist I really admire, for example, named Amoke Kubat. She started an organization called Yo Mama! Mothering Mothers Institute, and she leads a series of Yo Mama! get-togethers for women that she calls the “art of mothering” workshops. There are always an art activity, and women of all ages can come and go – it’s very informal, and always welcoming and real. What happens in that space that Amoke and the other women create together is a lot of storytelling – while they work on creative projects. And because it’s women, and what connects them is this broad theme of mothering, the stories and conversations are very personal and always get to the heart of what’s on everyone’s minds: How do we sustain ourselves, our children, and our communities in dark and often violent times? These kinds of projects give me hope, because they are not just projects. They’re living examples of new (but very old) ways of relating to each other and living in place and community.”

What role do artists, musicians, and cultural organizations play in connecting people?

“I think more than anything, artists and musicians  – the good ones – remind people that culture is essential to all of our lives. We tell stories, and we make music because it’s how we explore the complex and common relationships we all have to place, to people, to the lives before our own, and to the futures we hope and fear. It’s not a boutique experience only for the wealthy ‘arts patrons’ – It’s not even only for people who call themselves artists. Many indigenous cultures don’t even have a word for ‘art’ – it’s just what people do. I’ve come to think of it as a kind of transmission that moves between us, across place and time, like a river – and those of us who are alive at this moment get to dip our toes in, swim, make waves . . .”

It seems like there’s a lot of real-world problems affecting people in the U.S. Is there really a need for storytelling right now?

“Absolutely. I think a lot of people (myself included) are searching for the stories that will help us to understand and find purpose in this moment in time. In some ways, the stories many of us know the best are failing to sustain us. For example: Stories about things like land, and water – what it means to be human, or to live among other people. A lot of us have grown up hearing stories that glorify individualism and control over nature. Many of the big problems that people talk about stem from these kinds of stories, and the way that we relate to land, water, and each other as a result. We have to think and act collectively now more than ever, and we need to accept and learn to love our interdependence. So yes, I think we need to be telling stories, and we also need to be asking ourselves and each other why stories matter. What are the stories we tell, and what other stories could we be telling?”

What advice can you give to people who are trying to make a difference right now in their communities?

“‘To change everything, start anywhere.’ I’ve got a postcard on my fridge that says this, and when I feel overwhelmed – like I’m not doing enough, or the right things – I remember that meaningful change happens slowly, and it can start anywhere, including very close to home. It can start with the way you relate to yourself and to the people around you. Many of us feel disconnected from the the places where we live, because we don’t really know our place, or because so many of our relationships are transactional: We give money, get food; We give money, water comes out a tap; We give money, get an education, etc. Making a difference can start with questioning the stories we’ve been told about how we’re connected to things like food, water, place, culture. To me, that’s what it means to be engaged – to look and listen and feel, to question and to continually create. There are formal mechanisms of political organizing and action – getting involved in local government and advocacy for example – and it’s never too late to do that too! But I suspect that what really keeps us committed to the places and things we care about, is how well we know those places, and whether or not we recognize that our lives depend upon things like land, and water, place, culture.”

What long-term outcomes do you imagine might come out of projects like Be Here: Main Street

“One of the things that is difficult about this kind of work is that a lot of the impacts are personal, or ripple outward in ways that are difficult to track. People tell a story, or they hear a story, and it changes their perception. How that will impact the decisions they make over time, or how they relate to place, is impossible to measure. My hope in all of this work is that we are encouraging people to see the importance of relationships – to other people, to the land and water on which they depend, to the cultural histories and future of the places they live and love – and to get involved in telling the stories that will shape the future. Over time, my bigger hope is that this relational way of being becomes the norm, and more people live as if their very lives depended on things like clean water, air you can breathe, the well-being of their neighbors. I think a lot can happen when we change the stories we tell about ourselves and our places. The future isn’t written.” [Be Here: Main Street is a storytelling partnership with MuseWeb Foundation and the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program.]

What current projects are you working on?

“I’m working on a lot of things that I hope are all connected. I’m helping to develop Water Bar & Public Studio as a space for artists and others to connect, create, collaborate – all to serve water, in many ways and forms. I’m also working with MuseWeb on the Be Here: Main Street project, which I love, because it is getting me outside of Minneapolis and into conversation with people around Minnesota. I love hearing stories about the connections people have to place and water. When I hear those stories, I feel a sense that we are all in this together, which isn’t a feeling I get anymore reading the newspaper. As an artist, I’m trying to carve out more time for creative writing and printmaking, which are things I do in order to connect with my own stories. It’s not a project, but I’m also raising two young kids, and they definitely impact the way I see myself in the world, and the choices I make about what I do with my time in community.”

 

Storytelling Tips

Through our “Be Here: Main Street” project (#bHereMainSt), a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program, we’ve had an opportunity to travel about the country listening to fascinating community-oriented stories. We know a good story when we hear it, but what exactly makes a story compelling? We recently chatted with storytelling expert Shanai Matteson, from the Water Bar & Public Studio in Minneapolis, to dissect the anatomy of a story worth listening to. Here’s what she had to say. For anyone embarking on a storytelling or story-collecting project, this is an essential place to start.

“When I’m gathering, telling, or  prompting stories from other people, these are the things that I think are helpful.”

1. Personal Voice

“I think better stories come from speaking or writing in our own voices, and not trying to sound a particular way, or to censor ourselves for a perceived audience. Tell the story as you’d tell it to someone close to you. Talk about your own experience, and if you want to, how that experience changed you. I try to discourage stories about other people’s experiences.

If someone is uncertain about their voice, a good exercise is to have them go into a public place and to just listen to how other people talk. It’s a good exercise for writers to develop authentic-sounding dialogue, but it also makes a person listen more intently to the ways they speak and tell stories, which can be helpful.”

2. Places / Foods / Things We Love

“Asking people to talk about places they love, and why; (or foods they love, or anything they love). Basically, stories about what we love and how we came to love those things tend to be good for connecting with others.”

3. Exploring Emotions 

“A lot of people worry that they don’t have any stories to tell, or that their stories are ‘boring,’ but people rarely get bored when they hear stories about how other people experience human emotions, especially the emotions we are often afraid to talk about. It’s like we’re wired to connect on that level, so if a person can’t think of a story, I’ll ask them to talk about a time they felt real joy / anger / fear / shame / jealousy. Usually, that gets them to something.”

4. Details & Sensory Experiences

“What did you notice first? How did it taste, feel, or sound, etc.? What was going through your mind? What are some other details about the scene you can add to really transport people there?”

5. How Not What

“Stories about how a person did something, or how something happened, are often better than stories about what happened. Asking ‘how?’ prompts a storyteller to slow down and can open up more personal and reflective accounts, especially if you give yourself time to really follow the ‘How?’ thread back in time a bit.”

Shanai Matteson is a writer, artist and arts organizer who leads and supports collaborative public art and design projects. She’s interested in work at the margins of established fields and practices, and believes that edges and intersections provide fertile ground for artists and designers to learn and create, with and in community.

 

Finding a Home for Your Story

Whether you’re an experienced storyteller or you’re picking up a microphone for the first time, you may still have the same question, “Where do I post my story after I’ve created it?” In conjunction with our Be Here projects about place-based storytelling, we’ve reviewed a number of free platforms where storytellers can post their content. If you’re unfamiliar with the project, its aim is to democratize cultural content, giving everyone an opportunity to document a place, event, or experience that has significance–historically or even emotionally. We’re helping people record and share stories about American places and traditions that are rooted in experience and accrued knowledge, not just facts and dates.

Based on those project parameters, we researched free, third-party platforms that will host these types of stories. All of the platforms could work well, depending on your content/audience goals. Nonetheless, with our project goals in mind, this is how we ranked the platforms:

  1. Ease of use–Is it techy? Does it require advanced knowledge?
  2. Shareability–Can you share directly to social media?
  3. User base–Are enough people using this tool that your content will be seen?
  4. Searchability–Can you find your content once you’ve post it?
  5. Story type–Are there a variety of stories/content posted?
  6. Geolocation abilities–Can you pin your story to a location?
  7. Accessibility–Are there options for captioning, adding transcripts, etc?
  8. Longevity–Will the platform be around the next couple of years?

Read through the WHY of our ratings. All of these platforms have utility and may be perfect for individual or organizational storytellers, depending on short-term and long-term goals. The highest rating is 5 stars.

SoundCloud (4.5 out of 5 stars)
4.5 out of 5 starsPROs:

  • Easy for first-time users; No tech skills required
  • Can share to most major social platforms (Many social media platforms don’t allow direct upload of audio files)
  • 175 million monthly listeners
  • Allows you to hear the latest posts from people you follow
  • Great searchability for tags
  • Unlimited description field for posting transcriptions of your audio content
  • Allows you to make your content available via Creative Commons licensing
  • Access to stats for free!
  • Allows you to create playlists for various stories
  • Accepts multiple file types, including .mp3, .wav. You can even upload a video file and it will extract the audio
  • Has withstood the test of time in the tech sense
  • Allows for stories about everything!
  • Why pick this option? You want to upload a limited amount of free content and get the maximum amount of exposure for it. Ease of use is paramount to you. You’re interested in quickly retrieving and showing off your content. 

CONs:

  • Audio Only
  • Can only upload 180 minutes of content for free. Pro account starts at $7 per month
  • No geolocation capabilities

___________________

YouTube (4.5 out of 5 stars)
4.5 out of 5 starsPROs:

  • Easy for first-time users; No tech skills required
  • Can share to major social platforms
  • 1 BILLION active users
  • Access to stats for free!
  • Allows you to create playlists for various videos
  • Offers additional videos for users when they play a similar video
  • Works in tandem with Google’s My Maps
  • Ability to translate metadata into multiple languages
  • Allows you to geolocate video location
  • Very robust analytics
  • No limits to number of videos you can upload
  • Has withstood the test of time in the tech sense
  • Allows for stories about everything!
  • Has new geolocation abilities (see article)
  • Why pick this option? You want to upload an unlimited amount of free video content, are interested in access to detailed analytics, and want maximum exposure. Ease of use is paramount to you. You have a vested interested in the accessibility of your stories.

CONs:

  • Video Only
  • Searchability–So many videos that yours can get lost unless the tags are very specific

___________________

Clio App and Website (4.0 out of 5 stars)4 out of 5 starsPROs:

  • Easy to use without advanced knowledge
  • Ability to share stories on multiple platforms
  • Allows for upload of images, audio, video, text
  • Presents geolocated point on embedded Google map
  • Allows user to search for different types of locations and by distance from your current location
  • Can be used to create connected walking or collections tours
  • Content about a location or site can be edited or improved, much like Wikipedia model
  • Includes a citation generator for help with crediting
  • Mobile app available for exploring content on site
  • Why pick this option? You’re telling stories about specific locations or historic sites. You believe in free and open content, and you’d like your content to be reused or used in study. Your content is about a building, natural resource, or historic site as opposed to a story about experiences, perceptions, memories. (Note: Those types of stories may be included as complementary content as it relates to a specific location.)

CONs:

  • Fairly small usage compared to other platforms, but platform is growing with content available in many cities across the U.S.
  • Content must be reviewed by developer before posting
  • Stories more historical in nature–not necessarily about experience

___________________

Internet Archive (3.5 out of 5 stars)3.5 out of 5 stars
PROs:

  • Easy to use without advanced knowledge
  • Share stories on multiple social media platforms
  • Allows for upload of images, audio, video, text
  • Global content and audience
  • Has a special category for “Community Audio”
  • Options for creative commons licensing
  • Items can be favorited or flagged
  • Why pick this option? You’re telling stories about a variety of subject matters and are interested in sharing those broadly in a more traditional “library” environment. You are comfortable with data fields and metadata.)

CONs:

  • Fairly small usage compared to other platforms, but platform is growing with content available on many topics
  • Metadata options are a little overwhelming
  • Content can seemingly become buried in tag options
  • Adding simple cover art or other ancillary content can be complicated
  • Not specifically geo-located

___________________

Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street Website (3.5 out of 5 stars)
3.5 out of 5 starsPROs:

  • Longevity and security–story becomes part of a Smithsonian archive
  • Easy to use and upload–no tech experience necessary
  • Allows for all types of stories, both historical, personal and experiential
  • Allows users to upload text, images, audio, and video–up to 5 items per entry
  • Easy to navigate share function–Easily locate your content after upload
  • Fields for story narratives and transcription inclusion increases accessibility

CONs:

  • Cannot share stories directly onto social media
  • Must upload consent forms for minors if included in stories
  • Doesn’t include robust geolocation feature
  • Website only, no current app in use
  • Limited user base (website has only been live since November 2016)
  • Stories are moderated and must be reviewed by administrator before posting

Note: The Smithsonian partners with MuseWeb on this project. Their website (still growing and improving) offers some beneficial features that others do not at this time–mainly its ties to Smithsonian’s collections and the inclusion of all forms of storytelling.

___________________

Google’s My Maps: Add Your Story to A Map (3 out of 5 stars)
3 out of 5 stars
PROs:

  • Allows you geolocate your story; draw lines; add photos to a map point
  • Google’s usage is ubiquitous. Users are comfortable with the interface
  • Can be shared to Facebook, Twitter, Google +, email
  • As a Google product, it has a higher probability of long-term sustainability
  • Ability to import Google images into pins
  • Since it’s only a link, the story link can be about anything
  • Why pick this option? You want to visually show content on a map. You already have content on YouTube and want to easily connect the two. You want to upload an unlimited amount of free content. You are already tied into everything Google. 

CONs:

  • Not as easy for first-time users. No tech skills required, but platform not entirely intuitive
  • Cannot add audio files to pins–only videos or links to YouTube
  • While everyone uses Google Maps, YOUR pins and YOUR map content doesn’t come up in the general search. The idea here is that you’d create a map to locate your story and then share the link to your map.
  • Not as accessible as other platforms, though description fields are available for annotations

___________________

Wikimedia Commons (3 out of 5 stars)
3 out of 5 stars
PROs: 

  • As a branch of Wikipedia, this platform has staying power
  • Includes options for an infinite amount of metadata
  • If tagged correctly, search function works well
  • Geolocation capabilities
  • Over 30 million files uploaded
  • Easily allows you to make your content available via Creative Commons licensing
  • Feels more like a “traditional” database for adding content
  • Accepts video, images, and audio and allows for unlimited descriptions
  • Stories can be about anything!
  • Why pick this option? You’re already familiar with Wikimedia in all its forms. You believe in free and open content, and you’d like your content to be reused or used in study. You’re interested in posting content for the long haul. 

CONs:

  • More techy than other platforms noted
  • Category tagging is complex
  • Only accepts .wav audio files
  • Isn’t a direct share on social media but does generate shareable links

___________________

Historypin (3 out of 5 stars)3 out of 5 starsPROs:

  • Robust map search function allows you to select pins on the map for viewing
  • Is a very social platform: Allows posting directly into social platforms; Like Pinterest, allows users to repin content; Can favorite content
  • Large user base: 85,730 members are working on 27,844 collections and have made 33,536 comments
  • Platform has been around for a while and seems to have staying power
  • Allows users to create collections
  • Content about a location or site can be edited or improved, much like Wikipedia model

CONs:

  • Not as user friendly as Clio. Though visually stunning, the user interface is a bit confusing
  • This is a more visual platform–making the best use of text and image. If pinning audio or video, you must do so through YouTube. (If pinning audio, YouTube requires you to convert the files to a slideshow.)
  • Because of its focus on the visual, is not as accessible a platform.
  • Stories more historical in nature–not necessarily about experience
  • From their FAQ site: “We only “pin” things that have a specific date and location as this makes things easy to find and more useful for users.”
  • A desktop experience: No mobile app currently in use
  • Keyword or tag function often yields no results

Have a platform you think would meet the needs of #bHereMainSt storytellers? Let us know @museweb on Twitter.