Storytelling: The Language We Can Build On

When I applied for the Storytelling Hackathon hosted at Impact Hub Vienna a few weekends ago, I didn’t know I would meet a community that speaks the same language.

A few weeks ago, my magazine, DoR, celebrated seven years. Starting in 2009 as an experiment, we wanted to show people how we thought a good magazine should look like and read. Since then, it has become a leading name in Romanian journalism and synonymous with the idea of powerful storytelling. From the beginning, DoR strove to advocate for the virtues of the story, as a tool to explain how the world changes. From writing on the importance of diacritical letters which make the Romanian language special, to how a city tries to hide its Roma residents behind a wall, to what happened to Bucharest firefighters when they lost a colleague in a fire for the first time in 45 years, we documented personal stories and told them in a way which allowed the readers to connect, to empathize, and to understand. We built and continue to build bridges through the stories we tell.

In 2011 we took it further and began organizing an annual storytelling conference called The Power of Storytelling.

Here we bring Pulitzer Prize and National Magazine Awards winners, writers, illustrators, photographers, documentary film makers, musicians, journalism entrepreneurs, and all sorts of storytellers who can share their craft with an audience. Slowly, we built more than bridges: we built a community of storytellers, people who strive to show, not tell.

While this community of storytellers was an important step, we still have a long way to go before we can definitively say storytelling is a common tool in Romania. When I think on my experience in training NGO professionals, it seems that numbers continue to have more weight in their eyes than personal stories. And as I continued to lead more trainings, the past five years account to very little change in the way organizations explain what they do.

Which is precisely why I was excited about the Storytelling Hackathon led by Impact Hub Vienna a few weekends ago. However, as my previous experience showed me, I was also weary about what we would be able to accomplish in such a short time. I couldn’t imagine how we could bring all our expertise to a common ground in just 48 hours.

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Well, little did I know what a magical a weekend it would turn out to be.

I should’ve seen it coming when we spent about two hours on Saturday creating adventure stories for Robo Wunderkind, our assigned project, and discarding most of them for being not exciting enough. “But this is so predictable”, would say Clemens. “But this does not show us how it works”, would say Inbar. “But this doesn’t allow us to connect with the character”, would say Hailey. No one fought for their egos, no one thought they had the best idea. But they all fought for the story. A story that would make sense, that would be exciting, that would give us a character to cheer for. Also, a story that would be true in all aspects: that would show truthfully what Robo Wunderkind can do, (in case you haven’t checked it out, it’s a modular programmable robot for children that can do tons of functions) and that would ring true to the audience, meaning that the storyline, the logic, and the drive would be believable.

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After we decided what to do (stop motion video, online sharing platform, and story instrucitonal booklets), I got caught up in the production process. I didn’t think about how easily we reached a consensus, until the debriefing at the end of the Hackathon, on Sunday night. I looked around me and there were about 50 people in the room. In 48 hours, we had produced campaigns, videos, platforms, posters, messages and packaging for seven local initiatives. I had just watched three videos for a service that brings together skilled refugees and Austrian employers and I had been in awe at how nuanced, profound and truly prejudice-challenging they were. I had seen a campaign that showed us that all vegetables are the same on the inside, no matter how ugly or beautiful they are on the outside. I had been floored by a campaign that turned something as dry as saving energy into an idea easy to understand and get behind. And all that through stories. Stories that were true, specific, and relatable. And that is when I realized what a wonderful experience the Hackathon was for us. Everyone involved understood the importance of the storytelling. This inherent basis allowed us to create complex, real and useful content that can bring people closer to the projects and closer to each other.

Although we came from different countries, although we had such diverse professional backgrounds, we all spoke the same language in terms of storytelling.

To me, that is proof that even in the absence of common words or cultural references, we can build bridges (and campaigns, for that matter) based only on our understanding of what makes a good story. Because as I learned a long time ago, a good story is always the answer to the question “How should I live my life?” And no matter where we come from, we all need to find that answer.

Georgiana Ilie

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