National Storytelling Festival

October 4–6, 2019 Jonesborough Tennessee

The 47th annual National Storytelling Festival is October 4 – 6, 2019. (Book early for discounted tickets!) Consider this your one-stop-shop for details about the program, as well as other useful info to plan your visit.

About the Festival

Over 40 years ago, a high school journalism teacher and a carload of students heard Grand Ole Opry regular Jerry Clower spin a tale over the radio about coon hunting in Mississippi. And the teacher, Jimmy Neil Smith, had a sudden inspiration: Why not have a storytelling festival right here in northeast Tennessee?

On a warm October weekend in 1973 in historic Jonesborough, the first National Storytelling Festival was held. Hay bales and wagons were the stages, and audience and tellers together didn’t number more than 60. It was tiny, but something happened that weekend that forever changed our culture, this traditional art form, and the little Tennessee town.

The Festival, now in its 47th year and acclaimed as one of the Top 100 Events in North America, sparked a renaissance of storytelling across the country. To spearhead that revival, Smith and a few other story lovers founded the National Storytelling Association. The founding organization became the center of an ever-widening movement that continues to gain momentum to this day. Storytelling organizations, festivals, and educational events have popped up all over the world. Teachers, healthcare workers, therapists, corporate executives, librarians, spiritual leaders, parents, and others regularly make storytelling a vibrant part of their everyday lives and work.

The story of how it all started is one that many Northeast Tennesseans are familiar with. As news of the Festival and of the movement aired on national television and in magazines as diverse as Los Angeles Times MagazineReader’s DigestPeople, and Smithsonian, the story of how a happenstance hearing of a folktale on a car radio ignited a national movement.

Did the story get told again and again because people like stories about innocent beginnings, or because they like to marvel at what can happen with the serendipitous timing of a good story and a carload of receptive listeners, or simply because it’s a colorful tale? No matter the reason, it’s a classic example of how a simple story breathes life into information people want to share with each other. As millions of story lovers all over the world already know, there is no substitute for the power, simplicity, and basic truth of the well-told story.

The Power of Generative Listening

By Michael Kass Founder Center for Story + Spirit.

Any time I lead an organizational or leadership storytelling workshop, I split folks into pairs and ask them to share a story with each other. Person ‘A’ goes first and Person ‘B’ is asked to simply listen without interjection. After the exercise, I ask everyone what they noticed about sharing and listening to the stories.

Based on what I’ve heard after facilitating this exercise hundreds of times, one of the most challenging parts is not telling the story, but listening without speaking. This makes a fair bit of sense: most of us have been culturally training to treat conversation like a tennis match. We listen primarily for an opening, a chance to return the volley, to share our own point of view.

What happens when we’re challenged to simply listen, to take in another person’s story without any agenda of our own other than being present?

Based on what I’ve heard and seen, what happens is empathy, compassion, and a bond that forms quickly and with unexpected depth.

According to Otto Scharmer, the author of Theory U, listening happens at four different levels:

Downloading: At this level, we listen from our habits and existing understanding in order to confirm what we already know or think we know. A social media echo chamber is a fantastic example of listening by downloading: we’re simply reinforcing an existing story or worldview. Nothing that contradicts that story finds its way into our brains. Many organizational meetings exist at this level as do many of the conversations we have with friends. For many of us, ‘downloading’ is our default setting.

Factual: At the factual level, there’s room for discordance. We start to notice things that don’t necessarily fit with our point of view or story about the world. A few weeks ago, I had a session with a new client. My guard was down and, given where I met this person and how they presented, I came into the meeting with a set of assumption about who they were and what they sought. Within 10 seconds, this person presented data about themselves that contradicted those assumptions; and suddenly I was listening at a factual level. A window had opened that allowed for the potential of change.

Good science can happen at the factual level, the collection and investigation of conflicting data. But complex change happens at deeper levels, starting with the next level of listening:

Empathic Listening: Empathy is one of the most powerful forces in human history and evolution. It’s responsible for bringing us together in tribes, for bringing an end to interpersonal (and even international) conflicts, and for the success of every Pixar movie made to date. At this level, we’re not just listening at the cognitive level, we’re listening with the heart as an organ of perception. As we open to the feelings, experiences, and perspectives of another human being, we are able to see the situation, and the world, through their eyes. This creates an immediate emotional connection.

Anyone who has ever been moved by a story or felt close to someone after they’ve shared a particularly vulnerable moment has experienced empathic listening. By their very nature, powerful stories invite empathy and, in fact, there’s fascinating research that shows that centuries of evolution have wired our brains to respond to stories by releasing hormones that promote empathy.

So empathy is powerful. But even it is not enough to move into a place of growth, change and development. Which brings us to the fourth level of listening.

Generative Listening: This is listening as a dynamic act of co-creation. When we open our will, letting go of thoughts, expectations, and urges as they come in, listening becomes about much more that what’s being said: it becomes about what’s not being said and about connection with future potential.

At this level, we’re fully present. It’s the type of listening practiced by great coaches, leaders, and friends. Those who listen to more than our words; they listen from a place of holding your highest, most fully realized possibility.

This type of listening is a bit tough to describe, so here are some signs that you’re listening generatively:

  • Feelings of warmth moving through your body;
  • An increase in energy as you listen, a sense of excitement;
  • A feeling that something within you is shifting to a different level;
  • You feel more grounded in your sense of Self and purpose.

At the generative level, listening becomes much like a spiritual practice, connecting listener (or listeners) and speaker to something greater than themselves. When we listen generatively, change happens at deep levels. And it happens quickly.

Storytelling is much more than an artform or a communication tactic. It’s a way of being in the world, a way of inviting generative listening and encouraging ourselves and others to move beyond the status quo promoted by simply ‘downloading’ information and into a place of deep presence and co-creation.

As an exercise, take time over the next few days to notice how you’re listening in the world. Make some notes. When are you downloading? How can you move into places of deeper listening? Let me know how it goes!

Thank you to Michael for sharing this article with the community. You can learn more about Michael's Story at

FOUNDATION CENTER: Tell Your Story: Building A High-Impact Personal Brand Workshop


As the nonprofit and for-profit industry lines continue to blur, the competition for executives to monetize their expertise intensifies. This half-day personal branding workshop is designed to solve this problem.

Participants will learn these three key aspects of personal branding:

Storytelling and Tribe Activation –Whether pitching for funding, interviewing for jobs or launching a consulting business, the ability to articulate one’s unique story makes all the difference. Participants will explore influential personal, professional and organizational storytelling techniques. And learn how to create storytelling templates to activate their network for targeted opportunities.
Professional Identity and Thought Leadership – Although already accomplished, leaders in transition struggle to architect their personal brands. Participants will go through a step-by-step process of building their personal brands as an industry leader, and articulate their thought leadership across the nonprofit and for-profit industries.
Brand Monetization and Distribution – Given the burden to be a force for good, nonprofit leaders often come up short in establishing demands for their expertise in the marketplace. Participants will uncover how to distill this their vast professional experience into products and services, and distribute these across their existing social, professional and online networks.
Key takeaways:

Frame life experiences to secure impact funding and speaking opportunities
Optimize LinkedIn profiles for 6 figure impact jobs and consulting opportunities
Elevator Pitch, Biography, CV and LinkedIn profile makeover
Open your personal brand personal website for business
Learn how to Tell Your Story in form of a TED Talk
This workshop is for:

Early to senior level executives in career transitions
Businesses and nonprofits finding a niche in a saturated market
Professionals seeking local and overseas job opportunities
Startup entrepreneurs raising investment capital
Anyone trying to turn challenging stories into funding opportunities and build an high impact personal brand
About the presenter:

Gbenga is a West African word that means Elevate. As a social entrepreneur, impact investor, and identity strategist, Gbenga applies his wealth of experience in social enterprise, philanthropy and international service as a bridge builder - bridging the gap of access holding back leaders from making imprints on the global stage.

Today, as Founder and CEO of GO Global Inc., Gbenga architects the personal brand of leaders at all levels in career transition. He has coached hundreds of business and nonprofit leaders at organizations like Verizon, Airbnb, American Express, Teach for America, The Foundation Center, Susan G Komen and UN Foundation. Gbenga's international platforms include the Social Enterprise World Forum, and his Business of Storytelling Series (Tell Your Story) has reached business leaders across Corporate America.

Gbenga regularly works with the governments of United States and several emerging market countries to empower profit and nonprofit leaders. He has received global recognitions for his work and impact. He is proudly an Atlas Corps Alum, United States, Global Young Social Entrepreneurs Fellow, Malaysia and Cordes/Opportunity Collaboration Fellow, Mexico. Gbenga writes on Identity for The Huffington Post and makes his impact investments through The GO Foundation, Broad Street Fund and LDI Africa. Gbenga also serves as an Advisor to the Global Health Corps, an international nonprofit that mobilizes a global community of emerging leaders to build the movement for health equity.

If You’re Going to Change the World, You Better Bring Your Stories Member frank, an initiative of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, talked with storytelling coach and guru Andy Goodman about his career journey, the craft of storytelling and how organizations can use stories to communicate who they are better.

Storytelling is obviously a passion of yours, where did it all begin?

Well, it’s funny, my dream growing up was to write for television. I wanted to write sitcoms. I thought that would be the most fun. I moved out to Los Angeles in 1991 with the dream of becoming a network sitcom writer and I was fortunate, I got to work on a couple of network TV shows on ABC and CBS. One called Dinosaurs on ABC, which was a Jim Henson and Walt Disney co-production and another show called The Nanny on CBS. Working on those shows, I learned an awful lot about storytelling. You know when I went to apply to work on those shows I told the producers of the shows, “Hey, I’m a funny guy I come up with funny jokes” and they said “There’s lots of funny people in Hollywood. Our show is 22 stories every year. Can you come up with stories?” And that was my graduate school in storytelling. That’s where I learned how to tell a story very efficiently, in a very confined time period and strict format that would keep people glued to their seats watching.

What drove you into professional storytelling?

After I got out of the TV business, I went to run a nonprofit in Los Angeles for 5 years called the Environmental Media Association (EMA). Once I got into the nonprofit community, I started to meet lots of nice people in nonprofits, foundations, government agencies, etc. You know, people who are working to make the world better. What I noticed about these people was that they were terrific people, passionate about what they did, but not so terrific about talking about it. Specifically when it came to telling stories. So after 5 years in the nonprofit world, running a nonprofit, meeting colleagues and seeing this big communication deficit, I started my own firm in 1998, The Goodman Center, specifically to help nonprofits communicate better. Overtime my specialty became storytelling because that’s where I saw the greatest need.

“If you’re in the business of changing the world for the better, then you are often first in the business of changing the story in people’s heads about the way the world works,” says Goodman.

Why is storytelling so important for the field of public interest communications?

When you look at the research at how our minds work, the average human being, what you’ll find is that each of us walks around with a bunch of stories in our head about the way the world works. And whatever we confront, whatever facts are presented to us, whatever data we run into, we filter through these stories. And if the data agrees with our stories, we’ll let it in and if it doesn’t, we’ll reject it. So, if you’re trying to give people new information that they don’t have, they’ve got to have a story in their head that will let that data in, so you can persuade them to change what they think, what they believe, how they behave. So, what I like to say to the groups I work with is, “If you’re in the business of changing the world for the better, then you are often first in the business of changing the story in people’s heads about the way the world works.” So, in the social change world, storytelling is an absolutely essential tool.

What would you say makes some stories better than others?

I can’t give you a short answer to that because over time we’ve seen around the world – different races, different nationalities, different ethnicities – people all tend to tell stories the same way and the most commonly used structure is the 3-act structure. Stories have a beginning, middle and end where you meet the characters in the beginning, they go on a journey in the middle, and in the end there’s some type of destination, some type of objective achieved or not. There’s more to it than that, but that basic arc, that basic 3-act structure, a lot of good things happened when you use that structure, in terms of your audience’s response. If you do it right they will identify with the character of the story, they will see in them something in themselves. If you do it right they will care about what happened to them and be emotionally involved in the story. At the end, having seen what happens and what journey the characters go on, they will reflect on that and say, “What does that mean for me? Would I have made the same choices? Would I want the same thing?” And they’ll be prepared to act on that. They’ll either be inspired to act, or not act, but because they felt something, they’ll be ready to do something. And so the beauty of a good story is that it can generate an emotional response for your audience that prepares them to act. And you know as well as I do, it’s sort of common sense, if you don’t feel, if you don’t care, you don’t do. So the beauty of stories is they get the blood pumping, they get the heart pumping, they get us to start caring, and then we’re just one step away from doing.

“What makes stories interesting is the conflict, the tension between wanting to do something and being able to do it,” says Goodman.

When is a story not a story?

There are a lot of websites in the nonprofit world that will have a link saying “Read our Story” and you’ll click on that link and you’ll get to these pieces which are not stories, they might just be a testimonial, they might be description of what they do, but there are no characters to identify with, there is no journey to go on, there’s no tension or conflict. One of the things that’s axiomatic about storytelling, particularly out here in Hollywood, is they say “no conflict, no story.” If your story is simply, “people are in trouble, we’ve launched this project to help them, they’re better now” it’s not an interesting story. What makes stories interesting is the conflict, the tension between wanting to do something and being able to do it. The way I put it is, in storytelling, until “I want” runs into “you can’t” you don’t have a story. Too many nonprofits tell stories of “I want, I did, now give me money” and that’s not interesting or memorable.

What would be your advice for someone who wanted to delve in the art and science of storytelling?

If you want to be a good storyteller, it’s like anything else, you have to put in the time and study the craft. You don’t come out to Hollywood and just write a screenplay because you want to and the same thing in the nonprofit world or public interest sector. You want to tell good stories, you have to learn the craft of storytelling, you have to learn structure of a good story, understand the qualities of a good story, all the ins and outs and it is a craft.

To me a craft is a certain amount of magic that you bring to it, your own talent, but also a certain amount of science, a certain amount of technique that you have to learn. Somewhere between all magic on one end of the continuum and all science on the other is what we call craft, or what you might call art, the combination of the magic in you and the technique you learn to bring it out. And so if you want to be a good storyteller you may have some natural magic in you, but you need to learn the craft to really bring out your talent.

Do you have any recommendations for books, videos, speakers, etc. that relate to storytelling?

There are tons of good books out there. For example, Paul Slovic, who spoke at last year’s frank conference, and his son Scott, they have a book called Number and Nerves, which is a collection of essays about how people take in information and about how we are numbed by numbers, but moved by stories. And so if you want to read a good overview of the area about why we should tell stories in the current literature, Scott and Paul Slovic’s Numbers and Nerves is a really good book to read to get you excited. If you want to practice the craft, there’s a book by Robert McKee called Story which is really a manual for screenwriters and TV writers, but even if that’s not your goal, there’s enough in there about the structure and quality of good storytelling to help anybody who wants to tell stories, so I highly recommend that book.

Have you ever missed a frank gathering?

I did, I missed the second one because my wife was running for city council in Los Angeles and election day was the Tuesday after the week of frank. So I had to be in LA that week – that was a critical week to be in LA to work on her campaign. So if I had left home, I would have risked divorce at the time.

So how did you, if at all, integrate storytelling into her campaign?

I was always telling her, asking her, “What’s your personal narrative?” If people want to understand your personal story as a candidate, where you came from, who you are, or what you’re going to do, what’s the story they’re going to see, what’s the story you’re going to give them? So she spent a lot of time thinking about that so that when she got up and spoke in front of people, she would tell her story. Also I told her about the Marshall Ganz structure where leaders have to tell the story of self, the story of us and the story of now, and so she would follow that model as well.

Do you ever find that you have to adapt storytelling methods for various generations or do you find that they respond to different method over others?

Not so much. I get that question a lot, people say we live in the year of social media and shortening attention spans. I agree that its tougher to get people to stop and focus on a story, but the basic elements that make a story engaging and motivating, whether you’re watching a 2 minute video or reading 500 words off a screen or whatever, that hasn’t changed so much. I’m going to sound like Dr. Seuss here but the way I put it is “people are people wherever you go.” People love stories, they have for literally tens of thousands of years and sometimes I get the question, “Do you think we’re burning out on stories, that if everyone is telling stories are they losing their effectiveness?” And I have to laugh because I don’t think suddenly in September of 2016 it’s like “welp, that’s it, were done.” The marketplace of ideas is more crowded, but if you can send a tweet that can get someone interested and has a link where they can go find the story and read it, they’ll read it like anybody, I don’t care how old they are.

Are there any project you are currently working on?

Yes, there are two I’m very excited about. For years I would work with groups doing workshops, like a half day workshop or a full day workshop, and hold out the hope that that would be transformational, that they would take the material and that the organization would be changed and would start to really change the way they communicate. In many cases it worked, but in a lot I felt like they just sort of checked off the box of “ok, we did the storytelling workshop” and then basically reverted back to doing what they do. Now what I’m trying to do is contract with clients to have a relationship over a year where we start with a full day workshop, but then I’m coming back in 6 months, I’m coming back in 12 months to reinforce the lessons, to see what they’re doing and to really ensure that a storytelling culture is taking hold. So that’s a new direction for me that I’m excited about because it really ensures that anybody I spend time with, that they’re really going to get the full benefit of storytelling and not just have a half day workshop and then back to business as usual.

The other thing is I’m trying to develop a storytelling curriculum that will live on in other places without me. There’s a new university being born in Africa right now called the African Leadership University (ALU) and I developed a storytelling course for them that was taught for the first time this past spring to the first cohort of students to go through, but will become a permanent part of their curriculum. This is a university that ultimately is envisioning building 25 campuses across the continent of Africa with 10,000 students per campus. Now that’s a very ambitious project and that will be decades in rolling out, but if they get to their goal, my curriculum would be a part of this major university with 2 different campuses. And I’m also doing that now for the College of Social Innovation, which is something being launched in the Boston area. I’m developing some curriculum in storytelling for these college students, to teach them how to be better communicators by the time they arrive at a nonprofit. That’s the one work I’m really excited about.

Are there any campaigns or projects that have caught your attention?

Well there are a number of organizations out there that are doing great work where storytelling is concerned., which is a movement to create a new phase of life when it comes to work, where people who hit retirement age, instead of retiring, they decide to do something close to their heart and give back. People hitting age 60 or 65 are starting what they call an “encore” career, doing something good for the world. We have something like 10,000 baby boomers a day turning 65. That’s an awful lot of talent, awful lot of expertise, and do we want it all going to golf courses and museums or do we want maybe some of it going back to the social sector? And so is trying to steer some of these people into the social sector to give back instead of kicking back and they are telling a lot of stories about people who are doing it successfully. It’s an organization I work with and I’m proud to see how they’re using storytelling to try and deal with this new phase of life.

This post originally appeared on the frank Blog, and is republished here with permission.