The NLI Interview: Soledad O’Brien

Soledad O’Brien is an award-winning broadcast journalist and producer known for her work with CNN and HBO, including a series of documentaries about racial experience and inequality in America. She joined us recently for an interview on NLI’s podcast, Your Brain At Work, where we discussed the power of storytelling to create connections and foster inclusion.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

NLI: How did you become interested in storytelling as a medium for communicating ideas?

Soledad O’Brien: When I started working in documentaries, I realized pretty quickly that you can’t just lecture people with data points. It’s not particularly sticky. In fact, the most moving documentaries followed a person. That’s when I began to really think about, “What’s the best way to tell the story, and how do you best leverage the data and book the right person to tell that story through?”

NLI: What do you mean when you say sticky?

O’Brien: For me, stickiness is what you remember. What resonates. People used to describe it for me as when you pick up the phone to say to your mom, “The craziest thing just happened.” That’s what a story should be.

NLI: What happens with a story is you’ve got an image in your head that you want to get across. When someone says, “I see what you mean,” they’re being quite literal — they can see it. When you try to get an idea across, a picture of humans interacting is often the easiest to get into someone’s head. You see that come up a lot in nonprofits and charities — that the way to get people to feel is not to show them a statistic but to show them a face. We know what makes for sticky memories: attention, generation, emotion, and spacing. Emotion is the hard one in many ways. How do you get people to really feel?

O’Brien: I think there’s a real need for a word that I hate, which is “authenticity.” I think it’s overused, but the more you can get to that authentic place, that’s when those stories really start resonating. In TV we call them “moments,” where you feel like, “Yes. I’ve got something there. A real thing from that person.”

NLI: There’s a lot to unpack there when it comes to the biases we carry. Since we’re the main character in our own stories, we often assume that the way we see things is the way they are for everyone.

O’Brien: I think that’s exactly right. I tell a story when I’m giving speeches sometimes about my family in the ’60s. We moved into a very non-diverse community, where we were the only black family. And I talk about what we’re wearing in our family photo, and how we’re leaned against our VW bus. And my dad is white and bald, and my mom is black with this Angela Davis afro, with six brown kids. And the joke is that all of us have had that experience. People say “Oh, my God. We have that same photo. Except my mom is wearing this, and my dad is doing this. And we’re leaned against this car.” It’s that shared sense of humanity that really resonates with people. That’s why I think leaders need to encourage people to share their stories — all of a sudden, you realize, “Oh my gosh, you have the same challenges I have. Obviously different, and historically different. But we’re not so unalike.”

NLI: Stories end up serving as the point of entry into learning about someone’s humanity and the challenges they face. So there’s this nice bridging that goes on between people through storytelling.

O’Brien: Oh, a hundred percent, and it’s why in journalism and in storytelling, I’ve always told my staff, “God is in the details.” It’s not enough to say, “Hey, my parents moved into a really non-diverse community on the North Shore of Long Island.” It’s the detail. Here’s what we were wearing. Here’s how my mom’s hair was.

NLI: What is it about storytelling that builds inclusion among people? Why do people feel included when we’re relating stories back and forth?

O’Brien: It’s literally just that your story is included in the narrative. During the 2006 midterms, I remember seeing a massive advertising billboard on the side of the West Side Highway. It was advertising CNN’s election team in 2006 — Lou Dobbs, Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper. I remember thinking, “God, I’m so embarrassed to work there. How is it possible that we’re advertising four white dudes on this billboard? Who was in the room when this billboard was printed? Who approved it? Who said, ‘This should be the face of CNN’s election coverage’ when you’re talking about a very diverse electorate?”

NLI: And you can pull back from a brand campaign to just, who’s in the room? Who’s getting invited to meetings to prevent these things?

O’Brien: Which is so interesting, because who’s in the room is not a small thing. Who’s in the room is an expression of an organization’s values. It’s not just, “Oh my God, there was a mistake, because they didn’t have so-and-so in the room.” Who’s in the room is never accidental. Who’s in the room explains a hierarchy in an organization, it explains who has the power. So it’s really a very simplified way of saying, “Here’s what these people really think.”

NLI: Soledad, I was hoping we could end with a story from you about how storytelling has led to change.

O’Brien: When we started doing our stories around Black in America, I was not allowed to mention white supremacy. Everyone thought, “It’s such an icky word, and people won’t really understand it.” Fast forward ten years or so, and people value that conversation to talk about ways people think about other people that are institutionalized, how the system is behaving a certain way. The conversation has changed among journalists and readers.

NLI: And ideally those new conversations can spark actual change down the line. Now we’re thinking in different terms, and suddenly our perspectives change, and maybe we’re living in a different place than we were before.

O’Brien: Exactly.

Listen to the entire interview on the NeuroLeadership Podcast, Your Brain at Work: Episode 3 — Put Storytelling to Work with Soledad O’Brien and Dr. David Rock.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

Author, consultant, CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, and executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, board member of the BlueSchool