The Stories We Tell at a Storytelling Conference

Monday, November 13th, 2023

When I started at The Water Project (TWP) in 2021, I was a Program Services Reporting Officer — one of the people who writes and compiles the reports our donors get about their specific project(s) when they give. I carefully crafted my bio for our website, writing, “Jamie is a storyteller by nature.”

Then, in May of this year, TWP made me a Copywriter — an honor and privilege I thank the universe for every single day — because ever since I was small, I was writing up stories and dreaming of a day when “writer” would be part of my job title. 

This is why I was beyond excited to attend the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference in San Diego last week. And why, even after contracting a mystery illness at some point in my travels, I return to my work rejuvenated and more ready to harness the power of storytelling than ever.

The San Diego skyline silhouetted by the rising sun.

In everyday life, stories transport us to different worlds and introduce us to people who never existed. Think about the books, movies, games, and myths that have had a huge impact on your own life. 

In our work at TWP, stories open special places in our hearts for individuals suffering oceans and continents away, although we’ve never met. 

I found hundreds of nonprofit staff members just like me, each passionate about the cause they represent. There were causes I never knew existed: music performances for children’s hospitals, after-school programs in cities around our country and the world, disease research organizations, graduate programs for Jewish seminaries — all worthy in their own right, and all jockeying for people’s attention.

I attended sessions on how best to gather interviewees’ consent to share their stories, when and how to gather donors’ opinions through surveys, how to make impactful videos on a limited budget, analyses on viral nonprofit campaigns (remember the Ice Bucket Challenge?), how stories impact emotions and vice-versa.

Stories are for everyone.

The high-rise hotel where the conference was located.

The final session, facilitated by Floyd Jones from Givebutter, turned the concept of storytelling on its head, and asked what stories we, as humans, tell ourselves every day.

There’s a concept sitting at the intersection of neurology and psychology called autobiographical memory, which is the series of memories and statements we humans use to remind ourselves of who we are as we face new challenges each day. Autobiographical memory, when faced with a dilemma, asks, “Based on all these things I’ve done in the past, what should I do now?”

Jones started the session by reminding those gathered that there’s significance not only in the stories we tell, but also in the ones we hear and believe. He stated that 80% of our daily thoughts are negative, and 95% of them are repetitive.

He went on to ask: what negative thoughts are you allowing to circle around in your own head? Is there something you can do to counteract them?

This got me thinking. Even the foundations of cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the world’s main treatments for personality and mood disorders today, are about telling self-stories. Therapy is, essentially, repeating a narrative often enough, and with enough conviction, to change the neural pathways in your brain. Eventually, your brain will make different connections than the negative ones it’s become accustomed to.

That’s the whole purpose of affirmations: positive statements or mantras we repeat to ourselves to remind ourselves of our self-worth, abilities, and goals. Affirmations are a big thing in the self-improvement world and, occasionally, on TikTok (thanks, Snoop Dogg!). 

Here are a few of my favorites that Jones mentioned in his talk:

  • I possess the humility needed to ask questions and keep learning.
  • I am allowed to be a beginner.
  • I can transform obstacles into opportunities to better myself.
  • My work has purpose and transforms people’s lives. (This one applies to everyone, not just storytellers!)

These run contrary to those repetitive negative thoughts that swirl around in our heads day after day: that we’re not good enough, that we don’t matter, that one small gift is not enough to make a real difference. 

In the words of Floyd Jones: “What story do you need to break up with?”

Add your story to the world!

Stories are one of the most powerful tools we have as humans to touch other people’s hearts, as well as our own. …Which brings me to a favor I’d like to ask of you. 

We recently sent out an email asking donors to share messages of hope with community members who have recently received clean water. I’d love for you to add one if you have a moment to spare. If you tell a story of what motivated you to give, or how someone once helped you, or what your life is like, I’m sure it will touch hearts all across our service areas in Kenya, Uganda, and Sierra Leone.

After all, not every story is everyone’s favorite. But everyone has a favorite story — and one day, someone’s favorite story might be yours.

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Jamie Heminway

Jamie is a storyteller by nature. In joining the Water Project, she’s finally found a workplace where that pesky bleeding heart of hers can be put to use (and, less importantly, that BA in English Language & Literature from New England College).