Do you consider the human element behind digital storytelling? Do you stop to think about the emotional toll it can take on the storyteller themselves? Join us for a heart-touching conversation with Mike Lang, digital storyteller and founder of Common Language Digital Storytelling. Mike takes us on a deep dive into the essence of storyteller wellbeing, discussing his PhD work on Digital Storytelling in Healthcare Settings and providing insights from his powerful documentary, Emerging Horizons.
Mike shares a specific example of supporting a storyteller during a group workshop. The story reveals the necessity of emotional preparedness in handling storytelling and emphasizes the importance of care and concern for storytellers. Further, Mike stresses the empowering potential of digital storytelling for patients and their families, and how it can enhance their wellbeing. This conversation is a stark reminder of the human side of digital storytelling; a side that requires respect, understanding, and care. Join us, and let's pledge to enhance storyteller well-being together.
About Our Guest
Mike Lang is a digital storytelling facilitator, health researcher, filmmaker. He has directed and produced five feature length documentaries and two web series about the human health experience in addition to publishing academic research articles and facilitating the creation of over 800 digital stories. Mike’s professional and research focus is on using digital storytelling and documentary filmmaking in an education/advocacy, quality improvement, research, and therapeutic capacity within healthcare systems.
All Social Media: @mikelangstories
Join the Common Language DST Level 1 facilitator training in Oct/Nov 2023.
About Leading Through Stories
Everyone has a story to tell—and what we do with that story can create lasting impact. Every episode, Leading Through Stories, helps unravel the how and why of digital storytelling with host Kristy Wolfe.
Life is made up of meaningful moments—which ones do you want to share?
This podcast is sponsored by Common Language DST, digital storytelling facilitation training for health and wellness changemakers.
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You have created meaning for that experience by sharing the story in a way that helps others. So I think we can't underestimate the value of sharing and having conversation about the stories, and I love how digital storytelling puts that power back into the hands of patients and families. Right, it says you tell us what you want, you tell us the story that matters to you, and then we'll find data that fits with that.Kristy Wolfe:
Welcome to Leading Through Stories, a podcast that explores the how and why of digital storytelling. My name is Kristy Wolf. In each episode, I connect with storytellers or common language digital storytelling facilitators to learn more about the health and wellness stories they are creating and sharing. Life is made up of meaningful moments. Which ones do you want to share With me today is Mike Lang. He is the founder of Common Language Digital Storytelling. He's how I know anything at all about digital storytelling and if you listen to the teaser episode, then you've heard Mike talk about common language and a bit about what it is. Hi, Mike.Mike Lang:
Hello, thanks for having me, Kristy. I'm very honored to be here. I love it.Kristy Wolfe:
So season three of Leading Through Stories and we're changing things to have a focus on digital storytelling. Mike, I really want to spend some time talking about storyteller well-being. People that are interested in finding out a little bit more about digital storytelling can listen to the teaser episode from season three and they'll hear from you, but that conversation was about a year and a half ago, and so we know each other a lot better. We've done a lot of work together. I'm doing my level three training this year with you, and tell us what is storyteller well-being all about?Mike Lang:
Yeah, yeah, storyteller well-being is a really big concept that's meant to sort of encapsulate a lot of ethical practices within digital storytelling, and really the ethics of digital storytelling can be really complex and sometimes it's good to have just a single idea to grab onto to sort of help guide you through all these many decisions that you have to make every time you sit down to work with someone or plan a project or whatever. So that's what storyteller well-being really is, and it comes down to a single, basically, idea, and it's a question you ask yourself At every single point in the facilitation process. You can ask yourself is this going to enhance or detract from the storyteller's well-being? And, like I said, this allows you to sort of make decisions that are ethical by asking yourself this question at every turning point. So, by taking the story in this direction, is that going to enhance or detract from their well-being? By including this image of this person, will that enhance or detract from their well-being? And so, yeah, it sort of is meant to simplify this very complex decision-making that has to happen as a facilitator and you're helping people share, like you said in your opening, some of the most meaningful moments of their life. So, yeah, there's a lot to it. I'm sure we'll dig into a little bit more, but that's a general overview, right? How do you make decisions at every step in the process? That enhances a storyteller's well-being.Kristy Wolfe:
Well, and I have to say so, Mike has his PhD Digital Storytelling in the Healthcare Setting and it's serialized on your website. So I'm going to put that in the show notes. But it's all around the documentary you created called Emerging Horizons. But there is one example I mean there's many examples of storyteller well-being being taken into consideration when you watch that documentary but there is one woman who left. Will you explain that situation a little bit?Mike Lang:
Yeah, yeah, Amanda. She had a very difficult experience with cancer in that she was pregnant when she was diagnosed and I had to make basically a life and death decision for herself and for her child and she thought she was ready to tell that story, coming in because she wanted to help other women right who may be in that situation, and she thought she was ready to tell it. But then she sat down in our first session and there's a lot of emotion that came out. That was surprising for her Understandably, I think, when you think about the story context, but it was surprising to her. She thought she dealt with a lot of that stuff. Storyteller well-being in that point is at the end of that opening night I checked in with her and said you know, amanda, you know, you know, do you need to connect with someone? Do you need to talk with someone about any of this? She's like no, it just sort of comes out whenever I think about it and that was a bit of a you know, it was a bit of a flag for me to be in, like I should check in with her again. So I gave her a call later on and she said you know, I've really been thinking about it. I think you're right, I think I do need to go talk with someone and I don't know if this is the story I should be telling right now and I said you know what, I fully agree with you and I support that decision and so she pulled out of the study. She still wanted to be included in the film, but she didn't create a digital story and ended up, you know, connected with the counselor and everything and working through a lot of stuff, and there's a wonderful little tidbit at the very end of the film which you should, if you watch Emerging Horizons, make sure you watch right to the end, because we get to see Amanda again and it's a very wonderful little moment right at the end of the film there. But yeah, so it's. You know, that's a great example, right, about how you know there's these things that just arise when you're working out there in the world and there's things that happen that you got to be sort of prepared for. You have to have an understanding of how to maintain story Well, storyteller well-being in that moment, and one of them is sort of being able to recognize this emotion that's a little intense or a little out of context and know how to you know to make sure that you make decisions, or help people make decisions that maintain their well-being, so it's a great example. So, yeah, thanks for bringing that one up. Yeah.Kristy Wolfe:
It was perfect because I think that I've had experiences with people when, after they talk about like how emotional the process was. Sometimes for people it's just finding the story, that's the emotional part. Other people it's the writing piece that really gets them stuck, and sometimes it's that visuals are putting music to it. So I find it's different for each person. But I also think that many of us facilitators are talking about it's OK to have those big feelings, yes, and is it something that is detracting from your story? As you were putting, it is really important to keep bringing up. Ok, does this need to be there? Do you want to have that? Should we change something here so that people have options? Although their story is usually based on a meaningful moment that they've kind of chosen and narrowed it down to, it doesn't have to be the way it starts out, and I don't know I think you find this too that many people's stories change throughout the process of creating it.Mike Lang:
Yeah, 100%, yeah, and I think you eventually, as a facilitator, you have certain ideas and words and phrases that you start to use with people. That sort of helps normalize that emotion. You're talking about Right, and I think most people are so afraid, right, when they feel strong emotions around someone else. Right, because we're not, we don't support that in a very good way in North America, and so I often say to people, if you were telling this story and you didn't get emotional, I would be concerned for you, right, because this is an innately sort of emotional thing that you're talking about. For example, I'm working on a project right now with the grief support program for Calgary and I'm working with people who have lost loved ones, often in very tragic circumstances like an opioid overdose. Or I worked with a woman yesterday who's a young daughter Her heart just stopped Right, yeah, and she passed away and very emotional stories, and when people get emotional, one of the ways I care for their well-being and, as I say, if you were talking about the death of your daughter and you didn't cry right now, I would be concerned for you, because you're obviously repressing a whole lot of emotions and we know that emotional repression and suppression is actually really bad for you. Physiologically it's bad for you. So the fact that you are expressing this emotion right now is a good sign for me as a facilitator. You're processing stuff that's hard to process and I'm here to do that with you. So don't ever apologize, don't ever feel bad about expressing these emotions. That's part of the storytelling process.Kristy Wolfe:
So, Mike, one of the things I love about talking with you is I pick up something every single time. So just listening to you talk about how you approach that is helpful in my own practice when I'm facilitating with digital storytellers. So that's one of my hopes that leading through stories because something that our group of our community of practice of digital storytelling facilitators will also have an opportunity in a bit more knowledge about what they're doing and what they can add to their practice as they become prepared for it. Now one of the stories that's popping into my head is I have a digital story that I read for our story circle at our digital storytelling retreat. So we had a retreat for facilitators first time ever that this happened and brought a group of facilitators together and we had our own story circle around stories that we have that either are in creation or were considering creating, and I couldn't get through the story. I had tried it before reading that story and it's my written, it's my draft. I could record it tomorrow if I wanted to, but I cannot make it through that story without like full on ugly crying. So for me, I know that story is not ready to tell yet and that I have the words for it. I know exactly how I do it, but I'm just not there yet and that that for me is put on a back burner and I could focus on something else and when that story is ready, it can come out.Mike Lang:
Yeah, I love the idea of a story being ready to be told, right, because you know we have so many of them and I have to tell people, you know, like, is this the story that you need to be telling right now, right, and people have choices, and you know it's another thing that I often say to people we can't choose what's happened to us, but we can choose how to tell the story. We always have choices and sometimes that means we don't tell this story right now, right, it's just not ready to be told, just like Amanda, right, she was. She, I'm sure at some point that story will be ready to be told, but in that moment it was not, and she could have chosen a different story topic. She could have talked about a different aspect of her cancer experience, or she could step back from that experience, right, and so so, yeah, people have choices. I think that's really important to acknowledge. I'm glad you brought that up Right. You know, like, we have lots of stories. We don't need to dive into our deepest, darkest stories all the time, right, sometimes those meaningful moments are the ones that are just waiting to come out, right, and you start writing and it just flows out and you record it and it's just like this incredible experience. Sometimes it's just like what you're talking about. You write it and I think you're ready to tell it. As soon as you open your mouth, you realize, oh my gosh, there's still so much I'm working through here, right?Kristy Wolfe:
Sometimes it happens when you read it out loud, sometimes what happens when you record the voiceover? Sometimes it happens when you're doing the editing and a certain section just over and over, just you know, you realize, oh man, I don't know if I can work through this right now, but but yeah, being being aware and I think, as a facility, that's one of our jobs is to help people know when a story is ready to be told, because there's a lot of people who will push through that emotion and to realize later, you know, oh my gosh, that maybe that wasn't the time to do it.Kristy Wolfe:
Yeah, Okay, so then let's talk about for a second, like the academic versus the practical side of facilitation. I know that you talk about the ivory tower of academics. Can you explain that a little bit? It's in your PhD. Super Nerd over here, just read it for the second time this summer, because I get something different out of it each time I read it. When I was a level one facilitator, I understood things in a different way compared to level two, and now, preparing for level three and teaching it myself, I need to understand it in a new way, and so, spending time rereading it, I'm picking up on things that I wasn't ready for yet it's a good one.Mike Lang:
Yeah, yeah. So you know, I think you know, when it comes to storyteller wellbeing, what we're really talking about is ethics, right, and ethical practice. And you know the way that we've defined ethics in the past especially, it's based in an academic context, right, where you have to control every single thing, right, you control every single thing of this project and then you are acting in an ethical way, and that really just does not work right In everyday digital storytelling experiences. And I use an example actually, it was inspired by Downton Abbey. You know that butler I've forgotten his name, but you know, in academics, we sort of like ethics is like the butler walking the hallway with his white gloves, you know, looking for dust on a lampshade. And you know, and, and, and you know inside academia, you're looking for any ethical flaw, right, any tiny little thing. But then you walk outside into the street and there's mud everywhere right, it's on your hands, under your fingernails, right. And so, instead of trying to look for little pieces of dust, we need to put on our work gloves I call them our ethical work gloves that we can work in the dirt with, right, and that's really. You know, the pragmatic side of ethics is embodied in this storyteller well-being, right, and so, really, you know we need to start to think beyond protocols and procedures when it comes to practical facilitation. Out in the everyday world, there will be things that come up that surprise you, that are messy, because every story that has conflict in it could be messy, and so what you need to do is be committed to working through the messiness of our life stories in a way that enhances well-being instead of detracting from it. That's really what I talked about the difference between academia and digital storytelling in that context, and the type of stuff that we're doing every day working with health and wellness organizations around the world. Right, you know you need to. You're going to get your hands messy and you got to be willing to be committed to storyteller well-being in order to navigate that, and that often what that ends up looking like most of the time is okay, this happened or this has the potential to happen. This could harm you or it could harm someone else in your story. What can we do to tell the story in a way that does that minimize the potential for harm to yourself or others? How do we work around it? And, as a facilitator, I think that's why it's so important to have a professional facilitator involved to help you, as a storyteller, navigate these muddy situations and help you consider all the implications of the story, of the images, of the music, of the things that you're putting together into your digital story. You need someone else to help you consider the implications of those things. So, yeah, does that sort of summarize what you were thinking about, chrissy? Yeah, it's perfect.Kristy Wolfe:
That's it. Yeah, and that example of the Butler was 100% what I was thinking about when you mentioned Ivory Tower, and so just explaining that is just one example of how I find that you do a really great job of taking like a more complex topic and bringing it down to a level that everybody can understand and be able to share in an interesting way. So what? works on the street is totally different, but I am finding that I'm meeting people in the knowledge translation space that are trying to figure out how to get research out there, and I know that that's something that you really look for in digital storytelling. Can you talk about that a little bit? It might be a bit off topic. Yeah, I know.Mike Lang:
Knowledge transition. I think it's related. One of the things that I come across quite often is people being like we have all this amazing data and it could change this in this very positive way, but it's in a dusty report on a shelf somewhere and no one's reading it, or it's hidden on the internet in some medical journal, and so how do we get this out here? And obviously, if we've got all the data and no one's changing their actions, you've got a story problem, not a data problem. You need to tell the story in a more meaningful way, and so that's really. I get a lot of researchers coming to me and saying we need to use stories and then I say, okay, well, who are your people? Who are the people telling these stories? And as soon as you start to think about sort of using first person narratives to tell stories, then they get all these alarm bells going off in their head. You can't de-identify that. People are showing their faces, they're using personal photos and in academia, everything is de-identified as much as possible. Digital storytelling. That actually is maybe not an ethical approach, because if you tried to de-identify someone else's story, you tried to take them out of the story. What you often find is they say no, I want people to know about my cancer experience. No, this is my life. I don't want you to de-identify my life. This is a story that I'm sharing because I want it to help others and therefore I want to be included in it. And this is a great example of this ivory tower mindset versus in the street mindset. And in academia, you would never share personally identifiable information with anyone. In digital storytelling, yeah, you have photos of family dinners, you have photos of a vacation, you went on and so what it comes down to then is how do we help make sure that storytellers feel included in this experience and that it's their story, and minimize the potential for harm to themselves and others, but don't take them out of the story? And ultimately, I feel like, in many ways, academics and research ethics can be very paternalistic Like we know what's better for you, and digital storytelling is the opposite. Right, it's like you tell us what's good for you. Right, yeah, and it's just a completely different mindset when it comes to storyteller well-being. Academic says we know what's better for you, so we're going to do what's right for you, and digital storytelling says we don't know what's good for you. Tell us what's right for you. Do you want to be included in the story? Have you considered the implications of this picture, of this idea? And then we're going to support you once you've made those decisions, in the best way that we can. As a you know, I came from a patient background as well. You know, yeah, my own cancer experience as 25-year-old and I didn't like it when people made decisions for me and I felt like I'm a grown adult. I can make these decisions myself and I love how digital storytelling puts that power back into the hands of patients and families. Right, it says you tell us what you want, you tell us the story that matters to you, and then we'll find data that fits with that.Kristy Wolfe:
It's interesting because I'm just coming back from the World Congress of Pediatric Cardiology and Cardiac Surgery and I was in quite a few sessions with researchers and at one point I had said I just find it hard because when our family is involved in any type of study, we never get the information back again. I have no idea what ends up happening with that study. One of the researchers pulled me aside after and just said that was so hard to hear Because I think that we're doing a good job, but to know that families don't feel like they get the information back after we've been part of a study is a really interesting part for me. The other part that happened at the World Congress was that I shared a digital story, and it wasn't my digital story. In the past, at conferences, I've shared my own personal stories, and this time I shared Jen Saran's story. It's called Day One. It's based on her book and it exactly is what you're talking about bringing a personal experience that she wanted people to know about out into a community of people who can actually gain some knowledge. Mike, I don't know if you've gone to many medical conferences, but they are like 15 minutes, get off the stage. 15 minutes, get off the stage and there's like no conversation, and so one of the things I was proud of is I took my little 15 minute chunk and I still made time for some conversation in it, because that's the best part and I think that is one of the things that really supports storyteller well-being is hearing some of the feedback around what their story, what resonates from their story, with the group of people that they are hoping to share it with. If they're hoping to share it, they don't all have to be shared.Mike Lang:
Yeah, yeah, for the people who are ready to share it publicly. In that way, hearing and being part of that conversation, it's amazing, right, and you're talking about story. Actually, this actually really connects to storyteller well-being. It's just this idea that watching someone learn something from your life is incredibly empowering and enhances your well-being in a massive way Because all of a sudden, those random, coincidental experiences of your life have meaning, right, yeah, when someone you know and I say there's nothing wasted if you learn from it, and so you know. When there's a random experience like a child born with Kuchino heart defect or something like that, it's a random, meaningless experience. What is done in that storytelling process of sharing the story and watching people learn from that story? It actually all of a sudden has a bit of meaning that you've attached. You have created meaning for that experience by sharing the story in a way that helps others. So I think we can't underestimate the value of sharing and having conversation about the stories for the storyteller themselves. Yeah, I'm sure you're going to connect with Jen and be like this is the type of conversation that we had and Jen will think to herself wow, I'm glad I shared that story Right.Kristy Wolfe:
On that note, Jen is one of our next guests on the podcast. And so I had let her know a little bit, but that is one of the things we're going to talk about. She wasn't there when the story was shared and bringing back some of what I heard from people and having a conversation about what that looks like is part of what this leading through stories podcast is all about. So, mike, to end us off, are there any things you want to kind of touch on, any considerations you want people thinking about when they are going with storyteller wellbeing?Mike Lang:
I would say there's so many different things that they would actually learn a lot more about in the training, the common language training. It's hard to go through storyteller wellbeing in just 20 minutes like this, but I would say if there's one sort of overarching thing that I would think about is just thinking about opening and closing wounds. If you want to think of it that way, right, when you ask someone to tell a story about a health care experience or a meaningful moment in your life, it sort of opens a bit of a wound in their soul, right, you are exploring with them these difficult, often challenging, but also very meaningful and wonderful experiences with them and in some way it sort of opens a wound, if you want to use that as a metaphor. And when it comes to storyteller wellbeing, we just need to make sure that when we open someone's wound, that we hold space for that wound to be open, but also at some point, help people close it. And I think that naturally happens in the storytelling process, right, you start with a very difficult experience, but you end up somewhere totally different, right, and in the process of turning that difficult moment into a story, you actually end up closing a wound and this time it actually heals, instead of just being something that's left open, sort of festering a little bit. The storytelling process helps close that by putting an ending to the story not the ending right, because their life is still ongoing, but there is now an ending to this one life experience, this one meaningful moment that could have been very difficult for them. You know, I think just the process of telling a story about a difficult experience in your life helps maintain storyteller wellbeing. It helps close wounds that may have been open for a very long time. And that's what I often experience with people, for example, this grief support program that I'm working with people who've lost loved ones, lost children. They watch the story. They sit there with me and watch the story at the end of the process and they smile and they, you know, they're, of course, our tears often too. And it's like this release, like I finally got this story out into the world. I've been able to close this wound, even just a little bit more. It's never going to be fully healed, but I brought the two edges closer together. That's what digital storytelling is all about. That's what I love about it. You get to watch this happen day in and day out as you work with people on these stories. So if you open a wound, make sure you help people close it. That is sort of the core, core ethical principle of the storyteller wellbeing, so maybe I'll leave it. Leave it at that, Kristi.Kristy Wolfe:
I think that was the perfect way to end it. So, mike, thank you so much for being our first guest of season three on Leading Through Stories, and we look forward to hearing from you again.Mike Lang:
Yes, I can't wait. Thanks, Kristy.Kristy Wolfe:
Everyone has a story to tell. We would love to hear from you. We always include a link to the stories we're talking about in the episode show notes. Please let us know what resonated for you in today's episode. Your comments will be passed on to the storyteller. You can email us at LTSpodcast2023@gmail. com, or find us on Instagram at Leading Through Stories. Leading Through Stories is sponsored by Common Language. Digital Storytelling Facilitate a training for health and wellness changemakers. Don't miss the next episode. Subscribe to Leading Through Stories on your favorite podcast platform.