#ASAE23 Closing Keynote: Advance Your Mission Through Storytelling
In her closing keynote at the 2023 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo on Tuesday, award-winning documentarian and journalist Soledad O’Brien shared how accurate and honest storytelling can help organizations forward their missions and ultimately make the world a better place.
What drives people to connect has evolved and continues to do so, according to award-winning documentarian, journalist, and author Soledad O’Brien.
“Shaping your values and your passion is hard. It does not have a strict, direct line,” O’Brien told attendees during Tuesday’s closing keynote at the 2023 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo. “I think it’s a conversation about leadership, and how you lead in difficult times.”
As she shared stories of her life and career in her keynote, she focused on the importance of trust and accuracy through deep and honest storytelling to elevate diverse communities and make a positive impact on the world.
The Role of Context
When O’Brien started working in TV news in 1987, many of the stories she covered lacked context.
“I didn’t dig into understanding people,” she said. “Looking back, I feel ashamed. I didn’t try to understand people’s perspectives; in my point of view, it was about me.”
That focus shifted in 2005 when she covered Hurricane Katrina. She saw people pushing shopping carts full of their possessions and accompanying the Coast Guard on rescue missions to find survivors who were still trapped in their homes.
“I realized news was about serving people, helping them understand scary things and sift through disinformation and mistakes and figure out how to make things better,” she said. “I felt a sense of urgency and importance for how to tell a story that mattered. One that involved history, nuances, context, and points of view from people who didn’t get chosen to have their perspectives elevated.”
Everyone Has a Story
O’Brien discussed the impact of growing up in an interracial family and the struggles her parents faced building and raising their family. Many years ago, when she talked to her mom about how she put up with one particularly awful situation—people spitting on them in the streets—her mother said she knew America was better than that.
“That stuck with me,” O’Brien said. “It was the sense that … you’re responsible for making things better and committing to positive change in your daily life.”
She recognized that everyone had a story to tell, and it was important to highlight stories about diverse groups of people.
When she started working on the 2008 documentary Black in America, people were concerned that it wouldn’t appeal to middle-aged, white Americans. However, the network soon found that to be false. While the number of Black viewers watching the show and CNN grew, the cable news network’s white audience grew more too.
“The mythology was wrong,” she said. “And when we did Latino in America, our Latino audience doubled, but our Black audience watching it grew even more. The myths about what an audience was were just myths: people wanted storytelling and context and help understanding the world.”
Accountability and Community
O’Brien also discussed how the decline in newspapers since the early 2000s means there are less people to serve as watchdogs for communities.
“There’s no one reporting on what’s going on,” she said. “People want the numbers, they need the accountability. Without that, civil society and government doesn’t function the way it should.”
She likened her storytelling strategy to the importance of leading organizations in challenging times, noting that journalists and association professionals both serve the public, are responsible for educating them and giving them honest information, and helping them understand the complexities of the world.
“My advice is to speak out,” she said. “Give voice to your mission every day. Whatever your role is, stand up and talk about what you believe in, so people know your organization has a purpose beyond the business and how you can serve and make the world a better place.”
(Nick Hagen Photography)