A few days ago, I presented the closing keynote for TBEX Asia about the power of story. It was an honour to get up in front of a group people dedicated to being better at what they do, and to speak about a topic that I truly believe in. The crux of the speech was that narrative storytelling is an incredible tool, one that changes the way our brains process information. More importantly within the travel space, that stories about others foster understanding and empathy about far away places. They encourage empathy and understanding and in doing so they bring about positive change. And when told about ourselves, they can help build engagement and a loyal community in the people who read site online.
The term “storytelling” might be trendy these days, and there are many medium posts on the topic to prove it. But the present relevance of storytelling as a buzzword does not change the fact that it remains one of the most compelling ways to reach people and hook them. We are deeply programmed to explain ourselves through narrative, from the cave drawings of the past, to oral histories, to today’s movies, television programmes, books, and blogs.
Stories existed long before any of us were born, and they will continue to exist long after we are dead.
Summary of my keynote
“Great work doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes out of interactions with the people you seek to change.”
– Seth Godin, October 26, 2015
1. That as a travel writer or photographer, stories are what inspire people to see a place differently. The ways good narrative affects us is rooted in neuroscience and general feels. More about this on the resources page.
2. That storytelling is amplified by technology. We live in an incredible time to be armed with a laptop and a camera. We have the ability to tell stories and potentially make a change for millions of people if we work hard to better our craft and to talk about things that matter.
3. That a remarkable and successful business is not one that solely comprises of top 10 lists or guides, but also the stories that can change people’s minds about a place. The world does not need more “guides to x city” — but these posts do serve a purpose. Informational pieces or roundups bring in audience via search traffic, and help existing readers navigate needs on their own travels. However, I would argue that they do not keep audience.
The stories are what moves people to want to bookmark the site and sign up for your newsletter. Stories are what allows each of us to look at something we could not relate to previously and say, “that is not so much unlike me.” They help minimize the gap that we sense from one human to another, and in doing so they help us build community and make sense of the world we live in.
The full explanation for these arguments is in the keynote itself.
Why a Talk on Storytelling?
While this post is more of an insider baseball piece than my usual, the speech I gave speaks to the core of why I do what I do, and I wanted to share my motivation.
As a kid, I was grounded for reading past my bedtime with a flashlight under the covers. As a teen, I would stay up for most of the night because I just needed to put words down to paper. Words have been my lifeblood for as long as I can remember, the love language I use best, and how I most accurately convey myself to the world. When the New York Times did a writeup about travel blogging, I was thrilled that they included the one line I meant above anything else: that I would still be writing if no one were reading.
Over the years, people did start reading and as a result, I kept writing. I didn’t quit my job to be a storyteller, I quit for a one-year sabbatical. Over time, it became a new business, one that has surprised and delighted me. But despite the fact that my earnings are far, far less than as a lawyer I still do what I do. It isn’t just because it brings me joy, though that is certainly a part of it. It is because every time someone sends me an email that reads, “I wouldn’t have learned about this dish had you not told me a story that drew me in,” I feel happy.
There is nothing as important to me as getting the words out, and to others, using them as a bridge between what I love to learn and what hopefully others will want to learn to. I don’t paint myself as an expert in food, or in travel, nor do I tell people “you should do what I do.” Instead I have simply shared what I love in the hopes others will read something they would have otherwise not learned, or look up something they would have otherwise ignored. In the process, I have become a more empathetic and patient Jodi.
So this speech was important to me because I deeply believe in its message. That stories are our lifeblood, and they can help make the world better. That in any industry, the stories are what provide a moral compass against a mob mentality. By their nature, they can also move the needle on how society reacts to conflict by making otherness seem more human.
Why does Travel Blogging Need More Storytelling?
I was nervous to present the speech because a lot of the travel blogging world is hyper-focused on monetization above all other things. From roundup posts about how to make money as a travel blogger (there are many!), to courses, to a focus on SEO and keyword research before writing. I was worried people would hear the speech and think, “I don’t care about stories – I just want to make money to travel for free.”
And I get it, it’s a business not just a hobby.
But thankfully there were a lot of receptive people in the audience, who want to make a difference in the world. People who agree that not every post needs to be a moneymaker. Not every post needs to include a top list of what to do or where to go. These are practical and necessary but they do not move people to tears. They do not change the way people see themselves in the wideness of our world. And they do not create fiercely loyal communities in the same way as remarkable stories create loyalty.
We need the stories.
We can outsource the SEO, the keyword searches, the affiliate marketing, and the rest. We cannot outsource the stories only we can tell. Ultimately, every person writing online has a confluence of things and experiences and pain and joy that led them to who they are today. Duplicating a monetization strategy does not make you stand out, and does not lead to a remarkable brand. The people who are finding lasting success in this industry are doing it by creating strong brands online that have integrity and that spotlight something about the world that only they can share.
Keep these points in mind if you want to tell more stories
In the speech, I end with a list of overarching tips that I think travel bloggers should remember if they want to tell more stories. These are certainly not limited to this industry, but while much of the talk was focused on the broad benefits of story, I wanted to end with more focused suggestions for the conference in questions.
A summary of these points:
Telling stories vs. self-absorption.
Narcissism isn’t storytelling. Whining about wi-fi isn’t storytelling, nor does it help the travel blogging industry be taken seriously. I am talking about narrative arcs that light up different areas of the brain, not photos of our own faces.
Work on your craft.
There are books and articles on the storytelling resources page, courses on narrative, writing retreats, masterminds for accountability of the words you write — you name it. The Internet is not lacking in ways to improve the craft of writing or photography or storytelling. It takes work to get good at any sort of communication, and this is no exception.
“It has long been thought that a theorist is considered great because his theories are true, but this is false. A theorist is considered great, not because his theories are true, but because they are interesting.” – Murray Davis, 1971
Our jobs are to make something interesting, to show it to the world in a way they wouldn’t have thought to notice before reading.
Don George wrote that “every truth blossoms from the seed of specific details“. As bloggers, photographers, or videographers our best work can begin by noticing those details and then combining them with our unique perspective and sharing them with the world. Making smaller things in popular places interesting is a good start toward changing your ways of telling stories to the world.
Share personal narratives that are consistent.
I am not the first nor will I be the last to note that in today’s world, what matters isn’t only the stories we tell, but the stories we tell about ourselves. The TBEX conference started out with Anton Diaz, a very successful Filipino blogger and founder of Our Awesome Planet, talking about how consistency in personal branding was critical to his business growth.
How we portray ourselves online is important, and also helps encourage loyalty from the communities we build around our sites. And it is also critical to be consistent about the way that we communicate our personalities and goals to the world. What are the things that separate us as individuals from others?
In my case, my readers know that I love soup and that I hate olives. They know that I care about alpacas but that I hurt myself quite a bit as I travel, usually by falling off something. This is not all of me of course, but in a world of soundbites that lead to rabbit holes of information, it is worth ensuring consistency in the narrative loops that we put out about ourselves.
Real storytelling is expansive, not persuasive.
Telling stories does not mean bashing your readers over the head with your advice or conclusions. Instead, it involves a showcase of the details you are focusing on and leading those readers gently to the conclusion you want them to reach. A post about how “I am changing the world by writing” does the exact opposite effect; it’s arrogant. Let the narrative itself teach the lessons.
The wonderful Maria Popova from Brain Pickings summarized the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin on communication, and the following quote stood out:
Words do have power. Names have power. Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.
Travel blogging needs more storytelling because words are what transform opinions. Because emotion and understanding and empathy are all things that the world needs more of, and we — as wanderers who write online with the power to reach millions — have a responsibility to leverage them and tell the stories that matter.