Tips from a Master Storyteller

In this post, Arron Henkin, a nationally known radio producer at WYPR Baltimore, helps people get over their initial fears of gathering stories. 

How should I approach strangers and establish a rapport to get their stories? It’s intimidating, and I also don’t want to scare strangers by walking up to them with a mic… 

It’s an interesting thing, wandering around initiating conversations with complete strangers. It’s not a normal way to live. Your parents tell you not to do it. But I can tell you, it’s a deeply fulfilling way to live. I’m grateful for any excuse to do it. All I wanted, my entire story-making career, was an excuse to talk to strangers.

  • The first part of your encounter is not about interviewing them.
  • It’s about introducing yourself and letting them interview you.
  • Be authentic about who you are.
  • Be transparent about what you’re aiming to accomplish.
  • Disclosure begets disclosure.
  • Invite questions about what you’re up to.
  • Compliment people, in a genuine way.
  • Let them know they’re interesting and that you’re looking forward to talking more.
  • Let people know that you’ll be a regular fixture in the community for a certain period of time.
  • Explain that they’ll see you around, talking with other residents, too.
  • Don’t leave without at least getting a person’s first name or nickname.

What is the best way to record stories from vulnerable communities? How do we negotiate protecting privacy/anonymity as well as giving credit where credit is due?

  • When you share power, you gain new powers.
  • With each new person you meet, list off all the neighbors/residents you’ve already met.
  • Make it clear that you don’t want to accidentally leave anyone out.
  • Ask each person: Who else do I want to make sure I meet on this block?
  • It’s easier to be able to show up and say: So-and-so said I should definitely meet you!
  • You are being inclusive and conscientious.
  • You are immersing yourself in the network of organic relationships.

How can I help my team (students, community members) learn by doing – get them into the field to gather stories long enough to get over the initial fear and teething problems?

  • Interviewing is a skill that takes practice, just like shooting foul shots.
  • You have to do it over and over again to get good at it.
  • I’d recommend that students or new story gatherers practice on each other, then on their friends and family.
  • Then listen back – hear what makes you proud and what makes you cringe.
  • Don’t make your most important interview your first interview.

How do we make the project sustainable – keep the stories coming, even after we’re not there with our microphones. Is that even possible?

Recording and sharing a story is like planting a seed.

There’s no way to know if anything will happen afterwards.

A man stands at the counter in a story with his dog.
Pat Onstad, of Quality Bait and Tackle in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, was one of the storytellers for the Be Here project in that state.

But I can tell you this:  Every single person who’s been inspired to tell a story… I guarantee you that that inspiration came from them hearing a powerful story from someone else.

One of my favorite things to do these days is, when I’m out doing recordings and there’s a pair of people that I’m interviewing together, I’ll encourage them to interview each other, right there on the spot.  I’ll say, “Is there a question you’ve always wanted to ask so-and so here?  Maybe a question you’ve never had the chance to ask?”  Those are some of my favorite moments, because the results can be unexpectedly beautiful.  I like to hope that when you invite someone to tell a story, you’re paying something forward, and maybe, just maybe, that person will extend the invitation on down the line to the next person.

Why is storytelling valuable to communities?  What’s in it for the people who are being interviewed?

There’s a theory out there that “It’s the secret wish of the soul to be interviewed.” No matter how skeptical someone is, no matter how prone they are to blowing you off, at some level they’re curious about participating. It’s about getting people past their inherent skepticism. When folks realize that your only agenda is to be a patient, active listener, there’s no limit to what can happen next. How often do you get an opportunity like that in your life? It’s deeply validating, I think, to have someone take a genuine interest in who you are as a person, no matter who you are.  People pay therapists good money for that kind of undivided attention.

Is there a measurable economic impact of this kind of community-based storytelling? 

  • I believe that stories are the single most important tool we have for shaping our reality.
  • Powerful governments and mega-corporations know this. They pay communications and branding specialists top dollar to shape their stories.
  • Everyday people can harness that power, too.
  • A few pioneering business owners on the 2400 block of St Paul St in Baltimore began telling each other and everyone else who’d listen that their block was ‘Black Wall Street,’ and that’s exactly what they’ve become. That block has got a majority of black-owned businesses.
  • The poet Muriel Ruckeyser said, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

What do you do to promote the stories you gather?  Where should we be posting and sharing our stories? 

  • A story isn’t a story if no one’s listening.
  • If you don’t happen to have ready access to the public radio airwaves, don’t despair.
  • Audiences for podcasts are growing fast, according to a 2017 Edison Research survey:
  • About 30 percent of people under the age of 55 have listened to a podcast in the past month.
  • About 15 percent have listened to a podcast in the past week – that’s about 42 million people.
  • And of the people who do listen to podcasts weekly, their average listening time per week is more than 5 hours.
  • Don’t want to commit to making a podcast? No worries.  There are storytelling tools built specifically for sharing on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter – namely, a tool called Audiogram, which I highly recommend.
  • And don’t underestimate the power & draw of live storytelling events, like The Moth in New York or The Stoop in Baltimore.