SXSW 2017: Sounding the call for honesty, empathy and community in the stories we tell

If I had a superhero power for the next five days, it would be to split myself in two (maybe three), so that I could cram in all the keynotes and panels that take my fancy, and wander around the exhibition spaces spread across Austin at leisure. Only then would I really be doing this remarkable event justice. For ten days, this conference and festival bring together three industries (interactive, film, and music) and in so doing, fuels a community that seeks to learn, collaborate, and grow both professionally and personally. SXSW has been doing this for thirty years and whilst this is only my second year here, I already regard it as a critical source of inspiration, education, and application.

Careful curation

Last year, I learnt that careful curation is the key to extracting the most value from SXSW, and so my first day was spent in the pursuit of perspective.  Perspectives other than my own. It began in an unlikely but important place. Swiping Right on Inclusivity with Tinder & GLAAD delved into the complex concepts of identity and difference, and the generational differences in dealing with diversity. If Gen X was more concerned with fitting in and Gen Y sees diversity as a source of strength, how will Gen Z view the world? Whilst the session focused on transgender issues, the implications seemed far broader. As people have become more complex, and identities more fluid, so the constructs and methodologies that we use in marketing to define and organize them seem increasingly to be less accurate reflections of reality. Moreover, whilst the internet has played a pivotal role in connecting communities to each other, there’s a responsibility for industries and organizations to play their part in creating visibility for under-represented and minority groups. For if we don’t hear or read about your story, we’ll never understand your plight, so storytelling is more important than ever in giving a voice to those who need more volume.

Continuing with the theme of storytelling was keynote speaker Cory Richards. The climber and National Geographic expedition photographer shared his deeply personal and sobering lessons learnt both on and off the mountains, and he explained the purpose of his great adventures. For him, ‘the act of climbing is a self-indulgent struggle… a vehicle to tell important stories of social change.’ If by indulgent he meant Snapchatting his summit of Everest, a journey that ultimately garnered 2 billion impresions, it was also a lesson in what no filter really means. It was a lesson in authenticity. Richards went on to explain that he uses his assignments around the world to shine a light on the pain of human migration, of people caught in conflict, and of the impact that the fight over the world’s diminishing resources has upon the natural world. His photographs pose uncomfortable and persistent questions to society and the individual because ‘our personal issues are inseparable from our shared ones’. He concluded with a demand for honesty and empathy from ourselves, from our leaders, and our administration.

The pursuit of truth

It was only fitting that the next session was Unprecedented: The Election that Changed Everything. The conversation with CNN’s Jake Tapper focused on how we talk about news in today’s political climate and the need for journalists more than ever to check facts in the pursuit of truth. As Tapper reflected upon the results of the election, he reminded us of the need for empathy and emotional connection to better understand the other side; their fears, their concerns, and their reasons for their choices. When asked what he would do differently in the future, he said he would cover public policy in a way that people can more easily understand what it means for them come 2020.

As I reflected upon what I had learnt that day and considered what I might do differently in my role as a communications strategist and storyteller, the importance of honesty and showing our real selves shone through. Our expectations for truth have shifted and we must be careful in how we tell stories credibly, authentically, and responsibly. SXSW describes itself as the Destination for Discovery but it’s so much more in my view. The panels I attended told the story of our collective connectivity, of our shared dreams, our failures, our journeys and our responsibility to one another. And we must tread carefully when delving into the shared experience.


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About Author

Chrissie Hanson

Chrissie leads the global communications planning for Sony Pictures Entertainment and is responsible for elevating the creativity, innovation, and strategic rigour across 26 markets around the world. Chrissie has worked across 15 categories and 40 brands over the past 17 years, and on every campaign harnesses a deep knowledge of consumer behaviour and motivation to develop ideas that connect people to brands with greatest effect.

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