In this TEDx Talk, storyteller Jared Rypkema asks each of us to attend to story’s elemental power to reshape and renew our everyday lives. By exploring multiple narrative responses to a single human tragedy, Rypkema shows us how, even in our grief, we can still learn to respond thoughtfully, understand empathetically, and connect deeply—and so become better at being human.
Jared Rypkema – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
When I think about a story, I think about it in a very simple way. The expression of an idea in narrative form.
I’d like you to take a moment and think about a story you can remember, maybe because it’s one of your favorites, that impacted the way that you saw the world around you.
Maybe it’s one from your childhood or something a little bit more recent. You read it in a book, you saw it in a movie, or you heard it on the radio. just one that changed your perspective on something in life.
Now, this isn’t the easiest of exercises. In fact, when I stepped into the role as a writer and a publisher, I found that story was so engrained in the way that we saw ourselves in relation to the world and so prevalent in how we interacted with it that it was hard to find a single story and say that this one defined a moment for me.
In his book “The Storytelling Animal” Jonathan Gottschall speaks to the power of story in this way. He says that story, whether delivered through films, books, or even video games, teaches us facts about life, influences our moral logic, and marks us for the hopes, fears, and anxieties that alter our behavior and perhaps even our personalities.
When I think about a storyteller, it’s also in a very simple way. It’s someone who communicates an idea through story. And a storyteller can be pretty much anyone, right? It could be a writer, a videographer, a director, a photographer, a business person, a podcaster, or just anyone who communicates, which is all of us.
And as I’ve started working with storytellers and seeing how they operate and how they think, I’ve found some ways that they think that I feel can help us as we engage with the world around us.
So here we go, there’s three ways that a writer thinks or a storyteller thinks that can help us today.
The first is that a storyteller seeks to respond to circumstances of life, rather than react.
I’d like to tell you an example. Last year, in November, I was listening to the radio. It was November 14th, Saturday. It was the day after 120 people were killed in a series of attacks in Paris, France. And on this day, on this Saturday, a man by the name of Davide Martello, from Germany, travelled to Paris and he pulled along a piano behind his bicycle up to the steps to the Bataclan theater, where 80 people had been killed the night before.
And he pulled up the piano, and he set it down, and in front of the small crowd assembled there, he started to play a song, “Imagine,” by John Lennon. Now, he didn’t sing any words, but the chorus rang loudly. It said, “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. Perhaps one day you’ll join me, and the world will be as one.”
As I listened to the story, I was overwhelmed with the sense that this man, this artist, had found a way to respond to such a tragic situation in such a profoundly beautiful way that, in the face of evil, he was able to connect that small group of people there and show them a small, but very bright part of humanity, at least for just that small moment.
I believe a storyteller seeks to respond in a similar way, that they look into the face of something difficult and then find that way to act, find that way to speak that is informed and measured. That’s what I mean by responding, it’s the stepping back, looking at the context of the situation, looking how other people around us are reacting, and then finding that way to respond in that appropriate way that pulls people together.
What I love most about this story is that connection that everyone must have felt in that moment, sitting, listening to it, and that I felt to them thousands of miles away, hearing the words in my head: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
And whereas before they were connected through a very tragic situation, they were now connected through beauty, through the small moment.
The second way a storyteller thinks that I believe can be helpful is that they step into the shoes of their characters. They immerse themselves into the people they’re writing, and they do this to create an authentic, empathetic connection between the reader, the viewer, the listener, and their characters. And empathy is the line that pulls you through a story, and it’s crucial for having the impact or creating the impact that the storyteller is going for.
As a writer, we do this by writing from something called connected experience. This is the pinnacle of what is commonly known in writing as “show, don’t tell.” The best way for me to talk about connected experience is to build the scene for you using some of the tactics that a writer might use, to write from the perspective of their character.
So using the story from Paris, I’d like to add to it and say and tell you that there’s a woman in the crowd that day, and that she’s holding flowers, and she’s crying. Now, what I’ve done is I’ve just given you facts about the situation. You can, of course, deduct why she’s there and why she’s crying. But you are not there with her, you are not seeing things through her perspective.
Let me go another step and say that there are barricades behind her and that she’s sitting on these steps. I’d like you to picture people walking around in front of her, a constant movement, but she is sitting completely still, staring off into the distance, and tears are coming down her unblinking eyes.
Now, I’ve given you more details. I’ve painted this picture a little bit more fully for you. But the writer seeks to get to the closest point, they seek to get closer, and get you closer to the situation. I can do that by telling you a little bit more of why she’s sitting there. She’s sitting there because her eldest son was at the concert the night before, and that she had gotten the call that morning, and that she had come to the theater just to be as close as she could, to be where he was.
And when she was turned away by the officers and the barricades, she turned and she sat on these steps, and she started weeping. But there’s one more level down that as a storyteller we’re seeking to get to you. We’re trying to get the closest that we can. Connected experiences of full immersion into the scene, and it’s accomplished by telling it from the perspective of someone even closer to that character, someone within.
So taking it out of my perspective and putting it in a character’s perspective. So let me tell you one more time from the perspective of her 15-year-old son. This son had begged his mother to let him go to that concert the night before, and begged her, and she had said, “No. This is your elder brother’s first concert, let him go with his friends.” And she had sat up in the light all night long.
And in the morning when the son came down, she was still sitting there with tears in her eyes and a phone still in her hand. He’s worried for her as she put her jacket on and walked out the door, and he followed a short distance, and she picked up flowers at the corner shop, and he’s really worried for her because he knows that she had lost her mother just months before, his grandmother, and now is a really tragic situation, and she was still dealing with it, and he’s so worried.
And as she got up to the steps, he watches as she is turned away and just stares out into the distance and sits on those steps, and his heart breaks. Now, this is the closest a storyteller can come to a scene. It is a full immersion into the thoughts, hopes, and fears, and emotions of a character. And it’s powerful.
As a storyteller, you are opening yourself up to worlds that you would have never imagined, to perspectives that you would have never thought of that are completely not your own. And as you’re thinking this way, it changes the way you interact with other people, and on a profound level.
I guarantee this, if we all started thinking this way, because I can guarantee that there are people who are feeling misunderstood today, who feel alone today. And if we stepped into a different perspective and looked at it from theirs, it would change a lot.
We talked about two different ways a storyteller thinks, that they respond rather than react, and that they step into the shoes of their character. And both these elements combine into the primary goal that I believe of every storyteller.
And now there’s a third part and that is to connect, to connect themselves with their characters to connect you with their characters, connect you with their ideas that they’re trying to communicate, and connect to people with similar ideas and people with different ideas. And this connection is the primary goal of every storyteller.
If you think about the story I just told you, we connected to that character on a human level. It didn’t matter what race she was, what political views she held, or religious beliefs she had. We connected on a deeper level, this human level, in the moment of her pain.
Think about it, to connect and be connected is one of the most important elements of what it means to be human. We crave it. And a storyteller taps into that desire that we have to connect ourselves with each other and then pulls and pushes and kneads it together in order to push us forward.
In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell says that the motivation behind every great writer is the desire to push the world in a certain direction and alter people’s ideas of the society that they want to strive after. This is what I mean by connecting and moving forward.
I believe that if more people in the world thought like this, they took the time to respond, they looked at situations from another’s perspective, and they sought to connect, that we’d live in a completely different world, one that was more understanding, one that was slower at reacting and better at responding, a world that we would want to be a part of.
And the best thing about this is it’s very simple. Changing the way that we think doesn’t have to wait, we can do it right here, we can do it today.
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