Journalism First: How one woman is helping organizations ‘story up’

“When people share their stories, the world ignites with possibilities.”

Last month I had the privilege of speaking with Catharine Gately, founder of Cantadora, a group dedicated to helping nonprofit and for-profit businesses tell winning stories. She’s passionate about storytelling for change, and good at it, too.

In the following interview, she shares some advice from years of experience as a journalist, story-finder, and storyteller.

SB: How did you decide to start Cantadora? What influenced you and what keeps you motivated?

CG: My background is in Journalism. I also have worked as a press secretary on Capitol Hill and in global branding and public relations. I always have been in love with words, and Cantadora began with a single word. A word that I unexpectedly encountered on page 1 of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ legendary Women Who Run With the Wolves. She called herself a “cantadora, keeper of the stories,” in her work about the power of storytelling to transform women and cultures across the ages. I thought: “Someday I’m going to do something with that word,” and it rambled around in my mind for awhile. Fast-forward to a diner in Virginia with a former press secretary colleague of mine, and conversation began to flow about the importance of storytelling in politics, and, at the time – a mere four years ago – the relative absence of it in business. At that moment, our idea for a company focused entirely on storytelling and the art and science of the business narrative ignited. And we called it Cantadora. 

What keeps me going are the phenomenal people I get to work with and the transformative power of their narratives. From CEOs, to women in tech, to nonprofit executives, to global revolutionaries, to entrepreneurs, to educators with a dream, to social change-agents, I get to sit and listen to incredible tales and help people harness their power to drive change in the world. The power of story is timeless. Sharing stories is the universal human experience. Great stories never go out of style and you never know who needs to hear your story — whatever your life path, career, organization, company, or mission. And when people share their stories, the world ignites with possibilities.

SB: Can you run through some of the methodology that you use to help nonprofits tell their stories?

CG: Our Cantadora Storytelling Methodology was founded in Journalism. It’s the place where I always start, not only because Journalism is where I started, but because it’s where the story riches dwell. I teach clients to think “Journalism first,” followed by PR and Marketing. What I usually find is that people skip over the Journalism part. They want to rush straight to “What do we want to say?” and “What is our angle?” and “How should we say it?” But we start every project with a journalistic approach, called Story Discovery. This is a 3-4 hour process where we hunker down, sit with people, get to know them – their passion, their mission, their “why” — ask a lot of questions, and take big, bold notes on long stretches of butcher paper with Sharpies. Large-scale excavation and ideation of narratives helps everyone in so many ways. It allows people to work collaboratively, loosen up, dive into the weeds, ramble around, get into the groove, and get it out there. I call it the “magic of the ramble” because there’s so much richness in rambling. People often feel constrained, edit themselves, and try to be brilliant before they ever begin. But the ramble is where it’s at. We can learn from journalism in this way.

Great stories start with great reporters and a lot of disorganized information. Reporters who follow the pack end up with the predictable stories. But reporters who head off into the wilderness to dig? Those are the great storytellers. When it comes to the art of the narrative in business, including the business of running a nonprofit, starting with finding the best story like a reporter takes you to a very rich, moving place. Great reporters also, if they’re lucky, have great editors, who edit ruthlessly, cut away the weeds, and find those glistening story jewels — yet undiscovered — that have the power to move audiences.

People become so used to their own stories, they often overlook their power.

SB: What storytelling errors would international development/nonprofit storytellers stay away from?

CG: One of the most incredible things I see repeatedly is how much people tend to devalue their own stories. People become so used to their own stories, they often overlook their power. I can’t tell you how many times I’m in the midst of Story Discovery session, I ask a question, someone tells me something in passing, and I say, “Wait, what?! Back up…that’s a great story!” It’s a delightful moment in the work that I do. I get to reflect people’s story greatness back to them, and then figure out how to share it with the world.

I also see people trying to share stories that don’t necessarily drive their mission. It’s important to have a reason to tell a story. What is your story end game? Why are you telling this story? Make the audience care. But the one mistake I see repeatedly is that people and organizations don’t spend enough time studying their audience. We can learn a lot from Hollywood here. If you miss the heart of your audience, you might as well pack it up and go home. I also see people relying on too much data without enough narrative wrapped around it. I always say that people don’t fall in love with pie charts. People fall in love with people. If I’m your audience, give me the headline, tell me the story, tell me why I should care, and tell me what you want me to do about it. Don’t make me work too hard to figure out what you’re trying to tell me. Be crystal clear on your message. There’s a lot of noise out there.

SB: Can you lay out some specific examples of success with nonprofit storytelling? What do you think made these stories have such impact?

CG: Authenticity is the key to telling an incredible story. Find your voice. Embrace your style. Don’t try to be like anyone else. Yes, you are trying to drive a message to advance your mission, but spin is out. People’s radar for spin is high, and audiences can shut down in an instant. I like to quote Mister Rogers: “I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.” I highly recommend Mister Rogers and Me, a tremendous film about what made him one of the best communicators ever.

Authenticity is the key to telling an incredible story. Find your voice. Embrace your style. Don’t try to be like anyone else.

I also believe that the key challenge for any storyteller is to clearly articulate “the problem” and “the dream” for their key audience. I’ve had the great fortune to see people blossom when they honed this problem/dream framework, combined with all of the elements above, including some of these experiences:

The Methow Conservancy: A few years ago, I helped a group of passionate citizens in small mountain valley in Washington state protect vast expanses of land forever through a campaign we created called “Imagine the Methow.” We followed many of the steps I outlined above, and the critical piece to all of it was the early work we did to sit together, talk for hours, and identify the heart of their story. In the end, this small community ended up raising $20 million to protect this beautiful land – their call to action was clear.

Echoing Green: This year I worked with Yale scholars Etienne Mashuli and Wendell Adjetey on their pitch story to investors about their exciting Tujenge Africa Foundation. They are an incredible example of the power of a combining their authentic, personal stories with valuable data to capture the hearts and minds of their audience. How do you make your audience care? By speaking your truth and sharing your dream.

Oslo Freedom Forum: Working with the Oslo Freedom Forum speakers in 2014 was the opportunity of a lifetime. These human rights advocates brought a tremendous amount of passion, wisdom, and authenticity to this forum and the world. Through courageous acts of telling their true stories on the stage in Oslo, these speakers ignited social change across the world.

Catharine Gately is Founder of Cantadora Communications and serves on the faculty at the University of Washington Communication Leadership Graduate Program

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