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.


Businesses and Culture

When business works with culture, everybody wins.

We believe that when cultural organizations and local businesses work together, amazing things can happen, but too often, each sector operates independently, unaware of the incredible missed opportunities for creating connected communities right in front of them.

One element of our new Be Here: Main Street (#bHereMainSt) partnership with the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program is to encourage GLAMS to reach across the proverbial isle, bringing together community museums and libraries with businesses, from restaurants to hardware stores and gift shops. Why would this be an imperative?

There’s something deeper than the obvious opportunity for potential sponsorship. Small businesses depend on positive word of mouth for sustainability. Small museums often rely on the knowledge of residents to direct people to their facilities. With that in mind, ponder this coffee shop scenario:

A tourist arrives for a bite to eat, has a nice meal, and asks the waitress what she should do in town. The waitress recommends the local museum. In fact, there is a brochure and postcard for the local museum at the cash register that she promptly returns to the tourist. The visitor then walks to the museum and, in turn, chats with museum staff about any local stores that might sell a speciality item. The visitor receives an impassioned endorsement about a local antique shop that might have her desired object.

This scenario plays out organically on main streets and towns across the world, but more often than not, it’s a random series of one-off conversations. What if that collaboration between cultural organizations and local businesses was well crafted? What if the museum offered a coupon for lunch at restaurant A, and restaurant A offered a 10% discount for the museum’s gift shop? What if the same restaurant offered lunchtime lectures from staffers at the museum? What if both the restaurant and the museum were included on a tour of the town? What if, now this is REALLY crazy, the museum actually featured some of the stories of the local business owners? Or, even crazier, if the restaurant’s menu was inspired by the collections at the local museum. We could go on and on . . .

These are all things we’d like to see transpire through the Be Here: Main Street project. But, there has to be a first step, and that initial step is just to make conversations happen. Here are a couple of tips for getting businesses involved with your community project, provided by Julie Heath, Director of Strategy & Partnerships at Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.

business + culture = successIn order to approach businesses in your community, know the local business landscape:

  • Identify the top 20 employers in your town. These are the businesses that rely on your community as a source of talent, for services for their employees, for word-of-mouth reputation, and for civic buy-in regarding their presence and growth. They likely want to be seen as part of their community.
  • Make a two-column list: One column “B2B” and one column “B2C.” Sort each employer into the appropriate column by asking, “does this company sell its product or service to other companies or to individual people?” If a company sells to companies, its business model is called B2B (business to business). If it sells to individuals, it’s called B2C. It’s important to understand that an employer may have different relationships with its community based on its business model. Your job as a community partner or sponsored prospect/recipient is to determine what type of relationship(s) that company wants to have with its community.

Good to keep in mind:

  • B2B businesses’ products and services are sometimes less obvious to the community member than B2C products and services.
  • B2B businesses sometimes have higher profit margins than B2C businesses.
  • These two factors together can make B2B businesses better sponsorship prospects, provided you can figure out who you should speak with at the company.

Part II of “Business and Culture” is coming next week. Until then follow posts about our project using the hashtag #bHereMainSt.

#iSTANDfor Igniting Arts Patronage

Courtney Wassen
Courtney Wassen is one of many people who have expressed her passion for the arts in the #iSTANDfor campaign.

What do YOU stand for? Courtney Wasson stands for igniting arts patronage. Her story is part of the #iSTANDfor campaign, created by our friends at the Onassis Foundation USA.

We hold a belief that art is essential. It is the qualities of art that spark conversation, investigation, questioning, opinions, perspective, introspection and reflection.  It is why five million people visit the Sistine Chapel every year and why artists such Warhol can move from being a controversial artist to a museum staple.  Art makes statements and asks questions.

We believe in igniting arts patronage because we believe that art is essential.  We want to fight the starving artist stereotype by advocating for the value of art with the knowledge that artists are not endeavoring in a hobby. Artists are valued both as creators and for their perspective.  It could be the mastery of a skill and technique and/or the perspective and lens with which they view the world. Every human culture has an art form through which it expresses and identifies; it is this communion that serves as a foundation of culture.

There are no concrete answers as to how we determine the value of art, as it is not simply the value of time and material.  It is a pursuit.  Ask a painter how long it takes to paint a painting and they may validly respond with the answer of “a lifetime” – a lifetime of growth, experience, perspective, and practice.  Artwork has the ability to extend beyond decoration because an artist can hone in on an emotion, feeling, or experience. Through artwork an artist is able to share in or expand upon one’s perspective.

Our efforts in the gallery are to advocate for both the artist and patron.  Weinberger Fine Art was founded on a commitment to showcase diverse and high-quality work from emerging and established artists. The gallery serves as a venue that allows patrons to directly engage with the artwork.  Our duty as gallerists is to act as a guide and allow viewers the freedom of opinion and  the opportunity to ask questions.

The gallery serves as a connector and a hub in our community.  It is a place for people to gather and participate in conversation. In an effort to further connect and continue the conversation, we have begun to showcase artists through online audio tours.  These tours provide the opportunity to hear directly from the artist, curator, or critical writer for further questions and insights.

I stand for igniting arts patronage. It takes vision to be an arts patron, to see potential and value in the role and purpose of the artist in our society. An arts patron understands that their patronage yields a cultural return.  It is the knowledge that they are supporting the artistic talent that will later supply our cultural institutions.”

–Courtney Wasson, Weinberger Fine Art