Last year, The Rockefeller Foundation set out on a mission to learn all we could about how social impact organizations can tell more powerful stories. One thing we’ve heard over and over again is that there is nothing more powerful than a story told by the people who lived it.
And perhaps no one is better at capturing those stories than StoryCorps. You may have heard the weekly program on NPR. If not, StoryCorps model is two people interviewing each other, without moderation—just free flow of conversation and reflection.
StoryCorps producers then weaves those interviews into compelling audio segments—the way stories are meant to be told! All stories are then archived at the Library of Congress, serving as a time capsule of sorts for a uniquely American experience.
We gave some broad direction to help guide our production team of Eve Claxton and Xandra Clark find the stories we thought would best raise awareness of the challenges The Rockefeller Foundation is working to address: building urban resilience, fixing the U.S. youth employment crisis, and defining what makes a job a good job. But then we let them loose.
Listen to the Stories
A More Resilient NY, One Oyster at a Time
Clean Water and Resilience in El Paso
“My Daughter Has Something to Look Up To”
The people she found and the stories they’ve shared are simply extraordinary. And we can’t wait to share them with you.
Starting next week, and over the next four weeks, we’ll be releasing one story each week.
But first, we asked our producer Eve a few questions about her process, how to spot a good story, and how other organizations can tell stories using this model.
What makes for a compelling story? What are you looking for when you’re sourcing your interview subjects?
For us, what makes a story compelling is when the interview subject has very personal and direct connection to the theme. Rather than seeking out the “official expert” or someone involved on a conceptual or policy-based level, we always look to the person whose life experience represents some core aspect of the broader picture, someone who can reflect on their own memories of people, places, or events, and speak from the heart.
In a landscape where organizations seem to invest their time and money in telling stories through video, what’s the power of audio-based storytelling?
StoryCorps founder Dave Isay always says that the soul is in the voice. It’s true—you can really hear the emotion and authenticity when you don’t have the distraction of the visual. And there are so many other advantages to audio-based storytelling. Firstly, it’s not as expensive as video. Secondly, interview subjects tend to be much less self-conscious without a camera in front of them. And for the listener, there’s an intimacy that’s created, almost as if the person was whispering in your ear. We’re in a golden age of audio right now, when more and more people are listening to audio on their phones, so it’s a great medium for our times.
How do you go about finding people to talk about their experiences authentically, while also balancing the desires of your collaborator (in this case Rockefeller?)
We cast a wide net! To begin with, we utilize our collaborator’s expertise and connections to access organizations working at the grassroots level with individuals who may have great stories. Then we will often talk to multiple organizations and potential interview subjects before selecting one or two individuals as our focus. Strong organizational partners are essential in making introductions to potential interview subjects who might be unfamiliar with StoryCorps: a trusted contact can really bridge the gap, explaining why these recordings are important and helping people feel safe sharing personal stories with us. It can take a lot of phone calls and digging but eventually the work pays off.
What was unique about this project versus ones you’ve done for other organizations?
Every project is different. In the past, for example, we’ve been asked to record stories with specific communities (such as our Military Voices Initiative or our Out Loud Initiative recording stories with the LGBTQ community). For Rockefeller, we were assigned themes such as “resilience” and “inclusive economies” and so the personal stories weren’t always immediately apparent. Our job was to take these expansive concepts and boil them down, not only to two people in conversation, but also a two-minute segment. A challenge, but a good one and a lesson in creative thinking that we hope we can apply in future collaborations.
Were people excited to share their stories?
It always amazes me how willing people are to share their stories and how generous they are with their time. Our participants really appreciated the fact that, thanks to the Rockefeller platform, their recordings were going to be used to help raise awareness about issues important to them. And of course one of the great benefits of any StoryCorps is that your recording is archived for future generations in the Library of Congress.
What surprised you most from your research? Anything that stood out from the interviews?
I loved that we met so many young people out there making a difference in the world. In fact, everyone we met was doing great work and with such determination—really impressive to see. Thankfully, because we met such exceptional people, it helped mitigate any potential challenges.
How can smaller organizations, which might not have the resources of a funder like Rockefeller, use the StoryCorps model to raise awareness of their causes and impact?
The StoryCorps model of two people who know one another sitting down for a conversation is one that’s extremely effective and easy to replicate—no matter the organization size. StoryCorps founder Dave Isay just won the Ted Prize for 2015 and his “wish for the world” was to create an app that allows anyone to record a StoryCorps interview and then upload it to our archive at the Library of Congress. Definitely recommended.