Stories that can Change the World: Georgetown, IBM Explore the Power of Narrative

Students writing a story.

Three words and a picture—that’s all it took for Patrice Scully to tell her story.

But stories don’t have to be long to be effective, Scully learned in her storytelling course at Georgetown University. They can be lengthy or short, spoken or written, or even, in her case, tweeted.

So, what were the three words?

“And They’re Married!”

That’s it. That’s her story, accompanied by the classic photo of the happy bride and groom (Scully’s daughter and son-in-law) walking up the aisle after saying their vows. The only thing unusual is that the priest, in the far background, is wearing a mask. This is a wedding, painstakingly planned by Scully and her daughter, during a pandemic: a moment of joy and hope in a time of great sorrow. Who could not relate?

“Look what you did with three words and a photo, said John Trybus, a Professor of Social Impact at Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies. “You got all six of the essential building blocks of a good story in there: character, trajectory, authenticity, action-oriented, emotions, a hook, and the storyteller. Well done.”

The Science of Storytelling

Scully, an IBM manager for of Expert AI Labs and Learning, presented her story during the final virtual session of the five-week-long Certificate in Collaborative Storytelling for Social Impact. The course is a collaboration between the global technology company and Georgetown’s Center for Social Impact Communication, which Trybus leads. IBM turned to the Center to help it tell the story of its worldwide service programs and to offer company volunteers an opportunity to learn new skills that they could use both in their jobs and in their volunteer work.

Most of the 50 class members were volunteers in IBM Service Corps Reignite program, which provides technology guidance to businesses and individuals in hopes of revitalizing underserved communities impacted by the economic downturn of COVID-19. Another 50-member class started in February 2021, and a third will be held in the late Spring.

Trybus became aware of the power of storytelling in 2008, when he met Dr. Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist, and became her personal advisor at the Jane Goodall Institute. For 300 days a year they went on speaking tours, with Goodall using stories to describe her fieldwork and introduce listeners to the wonder, and fragility, of the natural world. The experience was life-changing for Trybus, and it launched him on a new career as what he calls a “storytelling scientist.”

If that term sounds unusual, it might be because stories are so ingrained in our consciousness and so much a part of our daily lives that we may not stop to think about how they are constructed, how they make an impact, and how they can be used for good or ill.

“Storytelling is inextricably linked to what it means to be human,” Trybus said. “In my mind, we can’t go through a single day without telling stories. One study said that at least 65 percent of our everyday interactions are based on stories. We share stories to connect, to make sense of the world around us, we utilize them in work settings to build relationships. And they play a role in creating meaning and social impact in the world.

‘Collaborative Storytelling’

Many of the big stories of 2021 were overwhelmingly negative ones: stories of economic hardship, political unrest, racial strife, and, overlying it all, a worldwide pandemic that made existing problems worse. Even the word “story” itself took on its most pejorative definition, that of half-truths, untruths, and wild conspiracy theories born of anger, boredom, and fear.

But stories and storytelling also promote good. Trybus uses the term “collaborative storytelling” to describe the process by which people use a common narrative to break down barriers, form previously unimaginable communities, and forge social change. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” is not describing the world of his day, Trybus said, but a future world where children of all races can live in peace. Likewise, the “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter” movements showed that injustices that were once hidden or ignored could be brought to public consciousness through stories.

“Stories are about the past, the present, and the future that perhaps doesn’t exist yet, but should,” Trybus said.

Over the course of five weeks the students created more than 200 stories spanning multiple mediums and emotions. There were funny stories, serious stories, and profoundly personal ones.

Patrick Meyer, IBM Partner and Americas Delivery Leader, told of working with IBM Vice President Kitty Chaney-Reed to help get a hate crimes law passed in Georgia, one of four states that didn’t have one. Others talked about colleagues who inspired them, such as Paul Austin, a senior manager who helped create an IBM program for hiring autistic individuals.

An Abiding Passion

For one exercise, Trybus instructed class members to email a number of their friends and ask them to describe the sender’s “best self.” That made an impression on Danille Jager.

“My goodness, there’s no time like the present,” said Jager, a Senior Program Manager for IBM’s P-TECH program, a global education model that helps students develop skills and competencies that can lead to competitive careers. “And if you want to cry your eyes out, read 15 emails from people describing what you’re like at your best—it’s like a funeral, but it’s not a funeral. You celebrate people while they are alive to hear it.”

Taylor Gillespie, Offering Manager for Corporate Social Responsibility, was among several IBM workers who helped Trybus custom design the course for IBM. Then, she became a student herself.

For the last class, she talked about growing up near the ocean and developing an almost mystical affinity for all its creatures, but especially the otherworldly manta rays, “my beloved manta rays.” At age 12, she took a scuba course, and even though she was the only child in the class and her clunky equipment didn’t quite fit her, she loved it. And later, when she was old enough to understand just how threatened the ocean was, she vowed she would do all she could to help protect it by studying and then working for companies and organizations committed to furthering sustainable development.

“When I lose energy, when I feel hopeless, when I feel ill-equipped for the task at hand, I ask myself that simple question,” Gillespie said. “What about the manta rays?

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