In the performing arts, we have no shortage of fascinating stories to tell, and as a writer and editor at Lincoln Center I am always looking for the most impactful ways to share ours. And so, the four-day conference track on Experiential Storytelling is what brought me to South By Southwest in Austin last month.

The unusual mix of technology, culture, business, and politics that defines South by Southwest provided an interesting lens through which to view the recent rise of “storytelling” to prominence. Clearly, the unique person-to-person connection made possible by social media, both intimate and scalable, as well as a more recent disillusionment with data-driven messaging, have contributed to the ubiquity of storytelling. Stories make it possible to tap into those emotional intangibles that connect us to one another and push us to act.

In the performing arts, our entire business depends on understanding how to harness the power of emotion and expression to create shared experiences. We are natural storytellers who have a lot to offer other fields as they try to figure out how to make a more satisfying VR experience or promote social change. That said, we can always learn more.

Here are five takeaways that I found particularly relevant to our work in the performing arts.


1.    Empathy is key: establish a connection and maintain it.

Consensus among panelists was that a great story creates empathy between narrator and audience. In the session “Turning Data into Shareable Stories,” Upworthy Editor-at-Large Adam Mordecai argued that empathy is what makes people share a story. His 12 ingredients for a powerful story started with known elements like charismatic characters, narrative arc, and authenticity, and then he added imperatives like “seed optimism,” “offer solutions,” and “make an easy ask.”

Empathy relies on people connecting, so after years of aggregating users as data we must remember to humanize them as well. The Ford Foundation’s Alfred Ironside advised focusing on character traits most people believe they share (e.g., hardworking, good neighbor) rather than on broad demographic categories. In “The Art of Pre-Suasion,” social psychologist Robert Cialdini suggested that asking users for advice rather than opinions bring them into the project as collaborators rather than critics.

Finally, the importance of bringing your audience along with you as your story evolves was a significant takeaway from “15,000-Year-Old Marketing Strategy: Why It Works,” which included singer Donny Osmond, neuroscientist Shonté Taylor, and Microsoft CMO Jeff Marcoux. To illustrate this point, Osmond mentioned a fan who accused him of ruining her childhood memories when he tried to transform his sound into hard rock. Taylor explained that our brains perceive this kind of radical change as pain and rejection, which ultimately undermines brand loyalty. Marcoux agreed that a brand’s new narrative must not be at odds with what loyalists have come to expect, adding that strong institutional stories are just as critical internally to keep employees motivated and engaged. 


2.    Neuroscience is having a moment.

In the quest to understand storytelling, marketing professionals are turning to the science of the human brain. In the session mentioned above, Taylor explained how stories engage the whole brain, including the limbic (emotional) brain and hippocampus (memory center). In another session, called “This is Your Brain on Story: Neuroscience and The Moth,” neuroscientist Alexander Huth showed how effective framing can override a person’s internal narrative. This goes along with the idea that a good story—whether heard or seen—is often catalogued in the brain as a lived experience. For a session called “Why the Hardest Working Media is Between Your Ears,” the music streaming service Pandora brought in Pranav Yadav, CEO of Neuro-Insight U.S., to offer evidence for how stories affect recall and memory in terms of advertising, and why a sonic identity is important for brands.


3.    Early adoption is overrated (sometimes). 

In that same session, Microsoft CMO Jeff Marcoux cautioned against the siren song of new technologies. His point, echoed by the Ford Foundation’s Alfred Ironside, was that organizations need to meet audiences where they are. A story is not enough to draw people to platforms they’re not already on. This is an essential consideration for nonprofits and arts organizations, whose budgets are generally tight.

Lincoln Center demonstrated the value of this approach last fall with A Day in the Life of Lincoln Center, an innovative use of Facebook Live. By using a platform that our audience is already on, we were able to reach 1.8 million viewers for a campus-wide live stream. The Art Institute of Chicago’s JourneyMaker project, which won a SXSW Innovation Award for Visual Music Experience, is also a good example of this approach. Understanding that parents who take their kids to the museum don’t want to be on their phones the whole time, the project’s designers created an experience that invites families to digitally co-design their own “tour," but then allows them to print out a paper brochure filled with questions, challenges, and spaces for notes and doodles.



4.    Performing artists are the original “originals.”

One of the conference’s overall highlights for me was a keynote by Adam Grant, professor at The Wharton School and author of several best-selling business books, including Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. For Grant, whose cultural references float easily from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and King Lear to Star Wars and Seinfeld, performing artists are the prototype of the “original” thinker. He explained that the calculations and steps an artist takes to minimize risk when presenting something new are a visible manifestation of how original thinkers function in other fields. Yet while performing artists enjoy the spotlight, many original thinkers in different environments go unnoticed. In the same vein as Lincoln Center Education’s Think Like an Artist video series, here is more evidence of how the arts can help shape innovators, leaders, and problem solvers in every field.


5.    Arts organizations must be a part of the conversation.

The priorities of arts organizations fit right into the sweet spot of SXSW—creativity, innovation, and community. Everyone I met at the conference lit up when they heard “Lincoln Center.” And considering the tech, media, and philanthropic footprint of SXSW, we—and our fellow organizations—should engage with SXSW and conferences like it. Beyond the specific presentations, it’s about shifting the narrative from one in which the performing arts stand apart to one in which they are a natural part of the conversation. That story is ours to tell.


Amanda MacBlane is Senior Writer/Editor at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.