Empathy. This was a word I heard often at SXSW, across all sorts of panels and topics. It seems like a simple enough concept—let’s try to understand different perspectives and lifestyles—but there are deliberate ways we can put it into practice in our professional lives as PR storytellers.

I had the pleasure of attending the encore presentation (yes, it was that popular!) of “Being Human: How Personal Stories Change the World” hosted by panelists Jean Ellen Cowgill (Atlantic Media Strategies), David Litt (senior speech writer during the Obama administration) and Alfred Ironside (The Ford Foundation), and walked away itching to share with my colleagues (and y’all!) the lessons shared.

I hung onto every word and don’t want to leave anything out, so here it goes:

  • The center of good storytelling is the critical element of building empathy—we’re not expected to like each other but we have to figure out a way to get along
  • Really good stories are two things—they are both very specific and very universal, while also being surprising and relatable; stories can defy logic in that way
  • Stories work best if they have a detail you remember but start with a person that reminds you of yourself in some way—President Obama was great at doing this, when he wanted to discuss the Affordable Care Act he’d start with a story about someone directly benefitting from the changes as a way to make healthcare more relatable
  • We have two brains—our fast-thinking brain relates to stories and our slow-thinking brain relates to logic; stories are the first way into people’s minds—access their fast-thinking brain as a way to eventually connect with their slow-thinking brain
  • Describe people through their traits rather than their demographics—there’s a big difference in identifying your audience as “hardworking people striving to make ends meet” vs. “low-income women of color”
  • Sometimes our stories can get clouded by our goal and we forget where our audience is starting from; President Trump spoke to the person “getting screwed right now” and found success in this identity of his audience
  • Stories are neutral—they can be used in good or damaging ways—so a moral dimension exists within storytelling to owning the truth; stories are not just devices to manipulate people, they are personal and very powerful
  • Humor in storytelling can help reset your audience, and telling jokes at your own expense can make you more human
  • If you have a harder topic for your audience to relate to, jokes not only can help humanize the topic, but they also create a memorable moment for your audience to connect with the topic and remember what you said
  • Be mindful of mental associations—panelists found that if you say “Muslim American” people associated this negatively and were fearful, but if you said “American Muslim” people associated this positively and were more open
  • Organizations tend to over explain in the beginning of their stories—“here are all the reasons this story is going to be great” and then it’s boring; you have to make sure the audience doesn’t seem the story arc coming so they keep reading

As I reread these notes, my mind is swirling with how to apply this to my career as a storyteller for brands. And isn’t that the whole purpose of SXSW—to inspire people around the world to up their game and be their best selves, professionally and personally? At least that’s the story this seven-month pregnant woman is going to tell her daughter about that “one time you went to SXSW…”

My SXSW Key Takeaways

Another year at SXSW has come and gone, and I’m reminded of the quote “the days are long, but the weeks are short.” It’s true, when you’re in the midst of SXSW, you’re running from session to session or  the exhibition hall or a client event and later out for networking events and late nights. IT IS SO MUCH FUN. And SO TIRING. So when the dust settles, I love to review my notes and find my favorite quotes  and inspirations from the week, spoken by any number of movers and shakers.

Here’s what stuck with me; I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

  • On politics
    • “FDR knew radio and won [the presidency]. JFK knew TV and won. [President] Obama understood the Internet and won. [President] Trump understood social media and reality TV and won. Reality TV loves a villain—they are the star [of the show]. [Trump] is the star.” – Van Jones
    • “The connection between the Obamas and Trump is they are all comfortable in their own skin. You can’t just look for resume-based candidates.” – Crooked Media Founders on what makes a successful presidential candidate
    • “Don’t start with the slogan. Start with the questions you need to answer, then tell a story and then you come to a slogan.” – Crooked Media Founders on developing a great political campaign slogan
  • On today’s world
    • “Everyone now has more information, more data and less wisdom.” – Van Jones talking about our connection to our phones
    • “The best response for online bullies is to ignore them.” – John Cena
    • “We expect a ‘now economy.’ It’s ‘see now, buy now, wear now.” – Amber Venz Box, founder of LIKEtoKNOW.it and rewardSTYLE on her business model
  • On social media
    • “Conversation is becoming image based; text conversations can be purely emojis now. You can follow people [on Instagram] who speak other languages and you don’t know what they are saying but you like their style [and feel a connection].” – Amber Venz Box, founder of LIKEtoKNOW.it and rewardSTYLE
    • “When you post something [on social media] and don’t get a reaction, you start thinking about if people don’t like me or what is wrong. Social media needs that validation but it’s important to be authentic .” – Designer Marc Jacobs on social media
    • “My personal Instagram is not about marketing; it’s more about ego. Posting a photo of myself doesn’t generate dollars. Maybe it makes me more accessible—I do randomly respond—but I don’t know if [customers] will have more of a connection to the brand.” – Designer Marc Jacob’s thoughts on if his personal Instagram account impacts his business
  • On making a better tomorrow
    • “You’re never going to be a champion just criticizing the other team.” – Van Jones
    • “The most valuable thing you have is time, and the best way to honor your time is to pick something worthy of it.” – Make Your Ideas Matter panel
    • “No one is doing this on their own.” – Amber Venz Box, founder of LIKEtoKNOW.it and rewardSTYLE on how to build a successful business
  • Just for fun!
    • “I give long answers because I arrive at everything from very many thoughts and stimulations…we are sponges for everything we see, feel and hear.” – Designer Marc Jacobs
    • Marc Jacob’s two favorite Instagram accounts: @earlboykins and @michelgaubert