Technology Takes a Backseat to Storytelling in StoryCorps Keynote

Posted on by David Needle

Dave Isay knows how to deliver bad news: Start with a compliment.

“You are all working at a blistering pace to protect our lives,” Isay told the packed hall of security pros at the RSA Conference Wednesday afternoon. Then he added, “The next hour has nothing to do with cybersecurity.”

Dave IsayYou might think that would elicit groans at a security conference, but the crowd laughed and applauded with appreciation for the change of pace. Isay, founder of StoryCorps, then went on to share some of the amazing personal stories the organization has been curating the past twelve years.

StoryCorps started with documentary film maker Isay’s “crazy idea” to open a booth in New York’s Grand Central station where people could enter privately and tell their life story—or any story—for a half hour or so.

“I had a hunch it world work,” recalled Isay, “because I’ve learned over the years that when you put people in front of a microphone, it gives them a license to talk.” At the end of the StoryCorps session, the person sharing gets a digital copy of their story, and another one is sent to the Library of Congress. “It helps people understand that their lives matter,” said Isay.

Initially very few people visited, but now StoryCorps, which has  StoryCorps Airstream trailers that travel the country, has a 5,000 person waiting list whenever they announce new opportunities to book a session in a StoryCorps booth. The company has collected over 140,000 interviews believed to be the largest collection of interviews in the world. Speakers have included relatives of victims of 9/11, a prominent surgeon who recalled how his father, a janitor and chauffeur, read his algebra book overnight to help him with his homework as a teenager, and a Brooklyn man who participated over and over in StoryCorps’ early days to gush about the love he had for his beloved wife Annie.

At the RSA Conference, StoryCorps set up a booth where “heroes of technology” could share their stories. The available reservations were quickly filled for the week.

As a result of $1 million in funding from TED, StoryCorps has created an app for Android and Apple iOS devices that anyone can use to record stories on their mobile device and upload them to the Library of Congress archive.

Isay was skeptical that the technology element would make the stories less authentic. “I wasn’t sure people on mobile devices would show the respect storytelling deserves, but we’re seeing a younger demographic that shows complete respect and fidelity.”

As StoryCorps looked to scale the app, it asked teachers to have their students record an interview with an elder during the Thanksgiving holiday last year. To Isay’s dismay, not many recordings came in on Thanksgiving or the next few days. But by Sunday night a whopping 50,000 interviews had been submitted.

“It reminded me of a truism about school kids,” said Isay. “They always wait till Sunday night to do their homework.”

Lights, No Cameras, Action

Veteran conference goers are used to and perhaps have come to expect a level of showmanship from speakers in the big hall, from loud music, to multimedia videos or at least colorful slides. But Isay held the room spellbound by essentially playing the equivalent of radio—the audio recollections of people’s struggles, their triumphs and love for one another.

One such story was the dialog between Scott Skiles and his son Zach.

Zach Skiles served in Iraq in 2003, and lost five of his friends in a two-week period. When he came home he had trouble finding a job, became homeless, and lost touch with his father for long periods of time.

Zach didn’t really talk about the experience until years later in a StoryCorps interview. At one point Zach tells his dad “The crazy thing was I didn’t see anything wrong with being homeless. I’d walk the coastal trails all day and pass out in some park.”

The two talked about the day Zach left for Iraq when Scott told him “I can think of no better gift than being your dad.”

“I remember my dad saying it’s your life, you have the last word, but as dad I get the second to last word and mine is I believe in you. I’m on your side,” recalled Zach.

Eventually, the younger Skiles turned his life around and graduated college Summa Cum Laude. Now he’s pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology.

Animated Tales

There have been suggestions to make videos of the storytelling, but Isay says he’ll never allow it, preferring to have the personal, more intimate nature of the spoken word be the main focus.

But a few years ago, a youngster named Josh with Asperger’s asked if he could do an animation of his interview with his mother. The result was a simply charming animation with Josh asking his mother things like “Is that why my sister has so many more friends than I do?” And because the animation is done post-interview, it’s not intrusive like a video camera.

Isay showed several other touching animations StoryCorps visitors have done.

The Rest of the Story

In closing remarks, Isay said StoryCorps is about “collecting wisdom. Everyone is aware that what they are leaving is for the next generation. They talk about their losses, their dreams, it’s all about their lives.”

Facilitators with StoryCorps help people tell their stories and Isay readily admits “it’s a high burnout job.

“But you ask them what they’ve learned and they all say it’s that people are basically good. This isn’t a small sample size. After doing 65,000 interviews across the country I think the facilitators are on to something,” he said.

“They also say if you think you can judge someone’s internal life by how they look or dress you are always going to be incredibly wrong.” 

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