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Erin Canty Ryan

Write Wrongs: Changing Minds With Great Stories

Sept 7, 2018 at 1:40pm


ERIN CANTY RYAN: My presentation today is called Write Wrongs, and it’s about how we can use storytelling and different techniques to really get people to pay attention and effect change through either writing, could be video storytelling, it could be even just your elevator pitch when you meet someone new. So I'm gonna go through some of those tips. And hopefully, like Britton said, we'll have a few minutes for questions. We'll see how well I do on pacing myself.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Is it OK to take pictures?

ERIN: Yes, mmhmm. It is OK to take pictures, if you like.

Again, I'm Erin. I'm a writer. I grew up in Wisconsin. So if you hear the accent, my apologies / I'm not apologizing. [all laugh]

I’m really happy to be here today. I live now here in the Portland area, and I actually work around the corner. Where you've probably seen some of my writing: most recently, I worked for Priorities USA, which is a Super PAC, working to elect Democrats this November. So if any of you happen to live in Florida, you've probably seen some of my Facebook ads. Other than that, most of my writing is online at and our sister site, For Upworthy, I wrote about race, education, scientific breakthroughs, conflict, and a lot of stories about Black women. Because I could, and so I did. I also had work appear in Man Repeller, and for five years, I worked at Hallmark. So for Hallmark, I wrote children’s books, greeting cards, short films, all kinds of fun stuff for kids and families. So my writing kind of runs the gamut for everything from political ads to copywriting to journalism and long-form journalism to a children's book about a gorilla who learns to play the drums. It’s been a little bit of everything the past 10 years that I’ve been working professionally. So I’m excited to share what I know with you.

I kinda wanna start with a story about stories. How many of you are familiar with natural products? So not like, this juice is natural. But like the compounds emitted by microscopic fungi. [chuckles] OK. That's kinda what I thought. These natural products have been around—let’s see. It’s Friday—they’ve been around for thousands of years. [laughter] They’re actually, when I spoke with someone about them, he was like, “They may have been in the poison that killed Socrates.” As if that was a huge cold case. [audience laughter]

And so but researchers have been using them to make things like vaccines and drugs since around the turn of the 20th Century. Right now, I had not heard of natural products at all, before I read a research piece. And in that research piece, I learned there's a laboratory, I believe, in Arkansas, the University of Arkansas. And there's a researcher there, soil scientist, who is currently collecting soil samples from all around the world and cataloging them to find these fungi and hopefully use these very specific, very small compounds to make new cures and advance drugs.

It's great news. The secret to what we've been looking for may be truly in our front yards. But however, getting soil scientists to go on TV and hopefully talk about this or get front-page coverage in his or her local newspaper: probably not going to happen. And also, people don't read newspapers or watch the local news as much anymore. So it may not do much good. So again, I found out about this, about natural products in a journal and found this lab. And I reached out, and he said, “We are sending free soil sample kits to anyone that wants one. We can send back your soil in a free pre‑paid envelope. We just need people to do it.”

That could’ve been my story for Upworthy right there. Researcher needs your soil. He’ll do it for free. Go online. Send yours in. 500 words, and I'm done. Instead, I decided to put myself into the story and make soil personal. So before I wrote the story, I sent away for my soil kit. You can see me digging in my front yard. I dug my soil. My wife took pictures. I wrote about the experience for Upworthy and talked about how these products are not just— You know, we could each do something very small, but could be very actionable and helpful to possibly find a cure to something even as big as cancer. So I wrote about natural products in soil, and for a piece, did shockingly well online. And I think it did so well because I made it personal. I made it: people have a small, hopeful action that they could take to deal with such a big problem, like every disease on earth. [chuckles]

A few weeks after I wrote this story, I got an email from a very happy soil scientist who said, you know, “People have written about our lab and this collection before, but this is the first time someone's actually gone through the process in the story. And it made all the difference,” because people didn’t realize how easy it was. In the story, I encouraged people to send away for multiple kits. Do a soil kit sample while you’re on vacation. He needs soil from everywhere. And so after this, he was just inundated with thousands of requests for soil samples. So that’s just one way that we can tell stories that will have an impact not just not in our local community, but on a national scale, as well.

So with that being said, Amy O'Leary’s my former editor,, and she’d always say, “We are in a street fight for attention.” There are a million and one things and then some to pay attention to. Most of them are fun, kind of happy, seemingly “mindless” entertainment to distract us from things that might be scary or overwhelming or complex. But that's where a lot of us kind of sit. That's where a lot of us are. We're talking about racism or misogyny, war and conflicts, even scientific breakthroughs and discoveries that are just kind of tricky to have people understand who maybe don't have a science background. So how do we get people to pay attention to those things when we're competing with so much other stuff? Good question, audience. [all laugh]

There are five ways to do that, and I'm super psyched to tell you about every single one of them. Except number three. [all laugh]

Number one is keep it simple. This sounds really easy to do. It's not always the case. The way I like to start is to narrow it down and narrow it down again. If you have the time, space, and opportunity, narrow it down a third time. So as an example, if your big cause or issue is talking about advocating for conservation and the environment, you can't try to sneak deforestation, plastic in the oceans, and light pollution all into one piece or video. It's too much. It's hard enough to get people to pay attention let alone to pay attention to all of your things all of the time. You have to kind of pick: pick a lane and pick your battles.

So in this case, if you were to talk about, if you were an advocate for conservation, you might discuss light pollution. If you’re going to narrow it down again, you might discuss light pollution and its effect on nocturnal animals. Which, if you’re not familiar, it’s not great. It’s not looking great for them. So that might be an area of focus for you to really consider either writing your piece or working on your YouTube video, whatever your format or media might be. So narrow it down and narrow it down again. It doesn't mean you have to explain it like you're talking to a 5‑year-old. Some of these issues are complex, kind of like natural products, and they can stay complex. But it just means only talking about maybe one facet, one or two small facets of what your issue is.

Number two is making it personal. I talked a little bit about how I tried to make fungi found in the soil as personal and with much of a human touch as I could. That is the case for every story that I wanna tell. This image that I picked is from an Upworthy story. Well, the image isn't, but it's based on an Upworthy story that I wrote about women in West Africa who took over the end‑to‑end production of a Shea butter and cosmetics company, not only to invest in themselves, but to invest back in the community. I thought, this is a fantastic story. I cannot wait to tell this. These women are awesome. A little bit about our audience at Upworthy: it is pretty white. Pretty old; it skews older, kind of like late 40s, between 40 and 60‑ish. And they’re mostly women and women who wouldn’t describe themselves necessarily as progressive or liberal but maybe open-minded. They’re the kind of woman who’d be like, really excited to have a gay friend. [audience laughter]

In-house, we’d call them “woke-adjacent.” [audience laughter]

So they’re getting there, but like just barely.

And so because of that and how we kind of know how, like when feminism isn't intersectional we know that a lot of stories we'd write about Black people, specifically African people, did not do very well on the site. The women, our audience, were just kinda like, this is a bridge too far. I don’t quite get it. So they had a hard time kind of wrapping their heads around that. But as a Black person who wanted to write about Black people, I was like, you can not get it all you want to. I’m going to write about it. [chuckling] And so I did. To write about and have it click on our site, I just had to find a new way in.

So my new way in for this story in particular, was talking about these women not only as you know, the farmers and harvesters and business owners of this great cosmetics company, but also they're grannies, they’re aunties, they’re moms. They’re hard workers just like any of us are. And that's something that’s relatable no matter where you are in the world. If you're in Ghana, or if you’re in Texas, being a hard‑working woman is something we can relate to.

This story ended up being about 2,000 words, which is probably about 1,200 words longer than a typical Upworthy story. And I kind of invited people to come along and really tried to kinda thicken out this narrative of these women doing really cool things to better themselves, their families, and their communities. And it ended up clicking really well. I think the women in our audience just needed a way in. They needed to see themselves in something that seemed a world away, that really, it wasn’t. So when you write your own stories, the trick is to make it personal. You wanna get your reader or your viewer to say, “That's me, or “That's someone I love, and that's why I care. That's why I'm going to read, that’s why I’m going to click, that might be why I’m going to share or follow.”

This is slide number three [laughs] or tip number three. It’s a gif, and there's a reason there's no words on it. And that's because number three is show, don't tell. And as a word person, that like pains me deep in my soul to say that, but it's the truth. A great gif or a really cool picture or a video or infographic can often capture attention and keep attention better than I ever could. And it doesn't have to be your be‑all-end‑all. I’m not saying, “Stop writing and start making gifs.” Because that’s just not the case. But it is really important. It’s a great, easy way to break up some of the text you may have and a way to kind of keep your reader reading.

So an example I like to tell for this is: I wanted to write, again, another story about Black women because I could, and I did. I wanted to talk about some of the advancements that Black women had made in the last 15 years. So I wanted to talk about the drop in teen pregnancy rate, the increase in the graduation rate, and how Black women have attained the highest education level by demographic, above more than any demographic. So these are just kind of like general factoids that the average person may not really click into. It's like, why would I care about these kinda 15 facts? But I wanted to write about them.

So I did it in a list format. And instead of using stock imagery to kind of go with a photo for each list item, I instead used gifs from Black women girl groups, so like The Supremes, En Vogue, TLC. Those gifs had absolutely nothing to do with the content. But it was just enough of kind of the mood of the piece was celebratory and excited, and it was about Black women. And the gifs were kind of happy and delightful. And I think that surprise and delight that people found in those images was enough to keep them reading and keep them invested. And we could clock how long people were on our page at Upworthy. And that one, people were sticking around. They were clicking in and seemingly reading it, and that’s you know, with our audience again, more than we could ever hope for. So yeah, gifs and illustrations, infographics don't have to be your bread and butter, but it’s something to consider.

When I was at Hallmark, we’d often say, “People will pick up a card because of the way it looks, but they will buy it because of what it says.” And that’s true in pretty much any medium that you can think of. Use that image or video to hook someone, and then use your own knowledge and know‑how to keep them there and maybe a few extra gifs too.

Number four is offer a solution. I say on here, “Problems are really easy to find. Solutions are not.” And it's really easy to watch the news or to go on Twitter or any social media and just feel hopeless. Everything is sad. Everything is scary. And it’s just easy to be like, what can I, as one person in Portland, Oregon do about any of this? And it’s really easy just to get overwhelmed and just give up. But I think a lot of us in this room know that’s not the case. There's a lot that an individual can do to positively impact someone's life locally or globally. We just need to share what that is and let people know.

I'm one of those people that firmly believes that people do care. I think most people are good, and they just need to know, just need to be given a job. They just need to be pointed in the right direction. So that's what our work and our writing can do. An example for this one is one story I wrote. You may recall after the Women's March, the next kind of event that that group planned was a women's strike. So they encouraged women, femmes, and gender-oppressed people to take a day off of work, home duties, and emotional labor. And your next thought is probably, hmm, the people who probably most need that cannot do that, cannot afford, economically, or for their safety, to take the day off of work or to ignore home duties or any other emotional labor. So those who could strike, did. But a lot of people couldn't.

And so I'd come up with a list of 21 things people could do if they couldn't strike: how to support the movement if you can't just walk away from your job or from your duties as a caretaker or mother, woman in society for the day. So that list I came up with included things like shop at a woman of color‑owned business. You know, freshen up your Twitter timeline with new voices, women researchers or scientists. So there's lots of different ways to kind of do that. And it's a way for people who are like, I just don’t feel like I can get involved. This movement's too big. What can I do? I can't take off work. Like, I’m not even helping. Just 21 simple ways to help. And we did a lot of pieces like this at Upworthy. Just hopeful actions that people could take, most of them free or inexpensive. Just small ways for people to act. Again, people, in general, I believe at least, are good. They want to help. They just need that push in the right direction, and our work can be that push.

All right. Number five, last one. Are there any educators in the room familiar with the book Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire? [pauses for raised hands and chuckles] All right.

The title story from the book, I don’t remember in great detail. But essentially, it's exactly what is sounds like. There was a teacher who was teaching in his classroom and was so passionate and just kind of got caught up in what he was doing that actually, his hair had caught on fire and he did not notice it right away. And one of his students had to point it out. And that kind of passion is exactly what you need to bring to whatever you’re producing. So if you're writing something, I wanna feel the enthusiasm; I wanna feel the zest for life that you bring to it. Because if you're not excited about your issue or your cause, no one else is going to be. So you need to bring that fire. You need to bring that passion, and you can do it. That’s what people wanna hear. Imagine what you'd say if you were talking to your best friend. Imagine what you’d say if you were talking to a packed Moda Center. Imagine what you’d say if you had five minutes of one of the biggest donors you could ever meet, you know? Adjust it for your audience, and always, always have that passion. It needs to radiate off of you.

So again, how are you gonna win a street fight? I left off nunchucks, but everything else is pretty accurate. Keep it simple. Make it personal. Really get that human story in there. Show, don't tell, as much as it pains me. Use infographics, video, photos, even live events like Instagram Live—or Instagram Live—Facebook Live, Instagram stories. Offer a solution. Find that hopeful action piece that can really help people connect and give them one small thing to do, to take part in your cause. And then, write like your hair's on fire. Have that passion come through in everything you do, everything you send out. Every email you write, you should just be a huge nerd for your cause. Wear it like a badge of honor. I think it just makes the work you do, it kinda elevates it. But it just makes people know like, oh, I need someone to speak about X. Your name should be the first thing in their mind.

I got my five‑minute warning like two minutes ago. So [laughs] I don't know if I have time for any questions. I don't. Yeah. Sorry. [laughs] My contact info is up here. And actually, I don't know if I can actually stick around very long after this. But find me on Instagram or Twitter, or send me an email if you have any questions. It's been great being here today. You guys are awesome. I can't wait to see what you come up with.

Thank you.


Erin Canty Ryan

Photo of Erin Canty Ryan smiling straight at the camera

Erin Ryan is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. She’s worked with Upworthy, Hallmark, Man Repeller, the Mid-American Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and locally with Second Story and Curious Comedy Theatere’s "Sketch Machine."