Vinay Nagaraju

Skoll World Forum: Winning Hearts and Minds through Storytelling

A connecting thread between everything I saw at the Skoll World Forum was the enormous power of storytelling to advance the goals pursued by social entrepreneurs and those harnessing the power of markets and enterprise to address the challenges of poverty and inequality in our times.

Following are my notes from a session that built on this challenge: “Winning Hearts and Minds”. In my last post I will refer to the stories I heard during the Skoll Social Entrepreneurship Awards and the Forum’s Closing Ceremony.

“Winning Hearts and Minds” was moderated by Cara Mertes, Director of the Documentary Film Program at Sundance Institute. The speakers during the session were:

Story telling is a fundamental human expression and narrative a communication tool that all of us are able to connect with. It fascinated us as children and many times even today. That story telling is all the more important for social entrepreneurs and the goals they pursue was an opinion shared by everyone in this panel last week.

To kick off the session the panelists shared compelling stories of their own. Greg shared his appeal for stories that force him to think how he would have reacted in particular situations. Speaking of Rwanda’s genocide and the crisis and weaving it to another narrative of a personal encounter with an interesting person from the Red Cross, Greg made the point of how stories usually begin in the unlikeliest of places.

Amitabha, from IDEI, told us how he was one of the few students from his village to even go to college . Thus he was asked to tell stories of movies he had seen in the city whenever he visited his home village. That’s how his saga of ’story telling’ began and it continues to be an inexpensive means to change lives. In effect, he spoke about how IDEI’s short films have been instrumental in getting across messages to the populations they serve, through stories of love and romance sometimes in the inimitable Bollywood style. They use people from real life so that villagers can relate and connect to them, and adhere to the mission and tools promoted by the organization.

Susan told compelling stories of human emotions from the war torn Israel-Palestine region. As she passionately told these, she was ’shaking and crying’. She also described how on a community radio programme in Rwanda people were asked to share stories of generous acts of tribal communities saving each others’ lives, although they were enemies. This, she said, was a catalyst to discover more stories from Congo and Rwanda and connect people through them.

Many film makers from Sundance that were willing to share expertise with the audience, and compelling clips from movies of Central Africa and Iraq enthralled the audience. Amitabha showed clips of movies from India and one of these was in Kannada (my mother tongue)! These were short song and dance clips used to convey powerful messages. The audience received copies of Sundance produced movies and IDEI’s social change movies films.

The ’hope gap’ that Jeff Skoll referred to in Day 1 can be filled by the power of stories, because they reach and resonate in our hearts. They also motivate listeners to tell their own stories. Everybody has one! The dilemma is in closing the circle of telling and listening. Indeed, social entrepreneurs have to do more than presenting compelling and creative solutions to social challenges. They need to change long-standing beliefs in favour of new ways of thinking and being. This session was a good example of how film and media can take positive messages to mass audience with the goal of influencing strongly-held attitudes and behaviours.

Finally, the distinction between sympathy and empathy is important when you ’listen’ to a story – if the audience is sympathetic, they feel sad and move on. If they are empathetic, they are moved and move-in. The latter is more important to create a movement of social change.

Stay tuned for my last post about Skoll World Forum 2009, in which I will refer to two other powerful sessions that put the power of stories and communication at the center and served as a boost of motivation to all present in this venue.