Personal storytelling doesn’t deliver sure-fire emotional rewards to everyone. But it can be a uniquely powerful force for organisations …

The idea that self expression inevitably equates to personal catharsis was a key trope of the Oprah era, and the idea still resonates strongly today. Whether it’s via the interview couch, in your memoir or on your blog, the belief that emotional benefits always accrue after ‘being heard’ is one of foundational understandings of 21st century life.

And for good reason. There is unquestionably much value to be gained from thinking seriously about your life story, taking the time to weave it into a digestible package and then sharing it. This has been as true through the ages as it was in Oprah’s time, and our own.

Social media, however, has changed the paradigm. On the one hand, the socials mean getting your story out there has never been easier. But while your personal circle will always be a benevolent audience there are no such guarantees on the wider net. Most of us now recognise that whether you’re posting a selfie or narrating one of those long winded meaning of my life things, the chances are 50 / 50 that your soul ends up a little more bruised than when you started.

And then there’s the problem of Ted talks.

Trauma storytellers face a strange choice

While it’s admittedly exciting to watch a great speaker deliver their stuff within a compressed time frame, Ted talks also often deliver a far too simplistic framing of a complex world. This is obvious in those ‘this is how our tech is healing Africa’ presentations, and it’s also a feature of the genre’s personalised storytelling, particularly when it comes to trauma.

Most humans are moved by a redemptive narrative arc. Even the most serious cynic feels their eyelids flutter when someone explains how when they lost their sight they also developed the ability to hear a butterfly flap its wings in Guatemala. We’re moved by the humanity of the presentation, of course, but we’re also touched in places we can’t easily identity by the power of a story wrapped up in neat layers of redemptive logic.

The people presenting such stories are, however, faced with a conundrum. Tie your narrative up in a redemptive bow and feel the not-insignificant rush of an audience falling in love. Or, talk about a more messy truth and feel them shift awkwardly. Many opt for the former, but experience far less personal catharsis in the process than they may have expected. Regular trauma storytellers thus risk feeling increasingly uneasy in delivering what amounts to a generic performance. Clearly, catharsis is by no means the guaranteed end result of ‘being heard’.

The Ear Hustle phenomenon

There is, however, a context in which personal storytelling is – in my view – routinely bankable in terms of catharsis. When people are trapped within a rigid, or even oppressive, social super-structure, personal storytelling programmes are exceptionally powerful, and have the capacity to deliver disproportionate rewards to those involved.

A prime example here is the Ear Hustle podcast series, set in America’s San Quentin prison. Now in its 8th season, the show was originally a collaboration between inmate Earlonne Woods and prison-visiting visual artist Nigel Poor. In a burgeoning podcast universe featuring extensively funded productions, Ear Hustle stands head and shoulders above the rest for the immense power of its storytelling. And while the overall concept and production is something to celebrate, the culture of San Quentin itself also bears scrutiny. San Quentin rightfully enjoys a reputation as one of the most progressive institutions in the American prison system - one that offers inmates an extensive range of self development programmes and which also features a newspaper, a podcast, facilities where inmates can embrace music production and a great deal more.

Ear Hustle dips in and out of many aspects of prison life, and along the way a lot of different prisoners tell their stories. What they did to land up in prison. How they feel about it now. How they view their place in the world. Their regrets and hopes and dreams. It’s striking just how articulate and powerful San Quentin’s prisoner storytellers are. This is true in general terms, but especially when it comes to the narration of their own life stories. Granted, Ear Hustle inevitably selects the most motivated, interesting and skilled personalities within the institution, but even considering this, the aggregate storytelling ability across all inmates is remarkable. San Quentin is clearly an organisation that gives its people not only the skills, but the opportunities, to express themselves.

What about the office prison?

The stories that pour out of Ear Hustle are funny, nuanced and self reflective. They tell the audience a great deal about San Quentin, its inmates and the world. Only the hardest of hearts will make it through any of the seasons without shedding a few tears. Of sadness. Of wonder. Of awe. San Quentin’s drive to empower prisoners to understand and tell their stories has created a culture of hope, humour and possibility – even within the harshest of contexts.

Of course, prisons are not the only oppressive social structures around. Indeed, in many ways and for many people, working in a call centre or a design farm or an insurance back-office carries similar emotions of oppression, and even incarceration. Using San Quentin and Ear Hustle as a model, there is an obvious rationale for using personal storytelling programmes to shift the mood, spirit and culture of such organisations.

In fact, I believe that organisations bold enough to follow an active personal storytelling path are just as likely as their workers to experience catharsis, and, who knows, maybe even some level of redemption – be that in terms of company culture, or performance. And in today’s fundamentally stressed-out and anxious Covid economy, wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?


Inspiration porn and the objectification of disability: Stella Young at TEDxSydney 2014

The Ear Hustle web site

Ear Hustle Is an Utterly Fascinating Look at Prison Life