Mikey Leung: How can we tell stories for a better world?
Acknowledgement of Country: This interview was conducted on Gadigal Country. We pay our respects to the traditional custodians of this land, past, present and emerging. We recognise their deep connection to the land and their unique cultural heritage, which continues to enrich our shared community.
Mikey Leung is the co-founder of Digital Storytellers. Digital Storytellers tells stories for a better world, through different mediums with a focus on film. It also teaches others to create their own stories to amplify their impact. Over the years, Digital Storytelling has worked with many purpose-driven companies and the First Nations communities.
In this interview, Mikey discusses the impact of storytelling, the origin of deep listening and skills for engaging storytelling—and equally important, building connections and working with the First Nations community.
Why is storytelling important in enabling change?
Change, particularly system change, is complex and overwhelming. We are all part of the greater ecosystem, and we're all connected. To bring about real change, we need to have an emotional connection. That's where storytelling fits in.
We are emotional beings. We do things because we feel things innately, even though we try to rationalise it. In fact, the dominance of rational thinking has been problematic, especially in the face of urgent challenges like the climate crisis.
Facts and figures don't inspire people to change. Climate change advocates have recognised that we need to connect on an emotional level. We need to ask ourselves, what we did, how we lived our lives, and what future we want for our children and grandchildren.
The second thing about storytelling is that it helps us understand the different parts of a system and how they are connected—which encourages us to reevaluate things.
For example, we can explain the take-make-waste model through stories. How we take from the natural environment, ship things around, use energy to manufacture them, and so on.
These stories empower us to make informed decisions. For example, I'm sitting here with my phone. But I also consider switching to a Fairphone, which allows users to replace each component individually. It might not be as convenient for me, or I need to learn a new operating system. But I know it creates less e-waste, which is an important value for me.
A circular mindset requires a fundamental shift in values. That, again, could come from storytelling.
Finally, stories create inspiration. We can tell stories of a better world. We can inspire people to take responsible actions to change the system.
We have the solutions, and we can implement them. But people need to value it. Through storytelling, we can connect people at a deeper emotional level, shift their value, and be inspired to take action.
How can listening be part of storytelling?
I'd like to refer to Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann AM's word, 'Dadirri' (da-did-ee). 'Dadirri' means deep listening. It's a word from the Ngan'gikurunggurr and Ngen'giwumirri languages of the Aboriginal peoples of the Daly River region in Northern Territory.\
In the context of storytelling, deep listening means giving someone space, time and a platform to tell their story. It's sadly foreign for people to listen in that way, but it's not hard to do. It's a skill that applies to all aspects of life.
When I sit down and interview somebody, I'm deeply listening to their world. Being in someone's world allows you to connect with the person, be challenged or inspired by what you're hearing. You ask questions about them and investigate their thinking and perspectives with curiosity. When we do our storytelling workshops, we always include an exercise around deep listening.
How can we use storytelling to empower ourselves and others?
People need to be conscious of what media they're taking in. Ask yourself about what you see, how that came to be, and whether you should believe it or doubt it.
Ultimately, curiosity underpins everything. For storytelling, you need to be very curious, especially about things you don't understand or don't like. We need to take in different perspectives, typically the better ones that engender action. If you take in stories of hope, maybe you can be part of the solution.
We can also amplify other people's good stories. We're talking about systems change, which isn't going to come from you and me alone. It's many of us supporting one another, building connections and hopefully into movements. It's a network of trust.
The last thing I'd say is to teach yourself about storytelling. Learn about how we perceive the world and how we can create better stories. Pick up a phone, use those skills and tell your good stories.
What should be considered when engaging with First Nations People in storytelling?
I'm glad you've made this a priority for Circular Sydney. Here, we are two persons of Chinese descent, not born in Australia, asking this question.
Some people go, I'm not Aboriginal, what does this have to do with me? Justice and equity affect all of us. If we can't acknowledge, respect and work with Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islander Australians here, it's almost like everybody else is screwed. It's about equity and empowerment at the end of the day.
To answer your question, it comes back to deep listening, which is being called for in our time now for First Nations stories. We're reckoning with the fact that there's been a 200-year trauma in the incredible story of the First Nations People in Australia. But the good news is that the story is not finished. Nor will it ever be.
In storytelling, there's a risk of cultural appropriation. You need to understand it and authentically practice it ourselves first. A relationship is a connection, not a transaction.
Some of the practices you should consider:
Be genuinely curious.
Reach out with a purpose, which is purely to connect. Genuinely engage with First Nations People and create a relationship.
Part of storytelling is also weaving, which connects stories together, and for them to be shared in more inclusive spaces amongst diverse people. When you have meaningful, authentic relationships and connections, then you can practice in the space of representing.
I wouldn't want to do any representation for anybody else without that first. For example, I'm wearing this t-shirt to support the Uluru Statement. I wear this very proudly because I stand on the relationships and connections that I have with the First Nations People, not only in Australia, but also in Canada and places I've travelled to.
I try to weave in everything I do that brings benefit to First Nations People, wherever I am in the world. In doing so, that also creates more space for justice and equity for everyone, including myself and many people of colour.
What are the key skills people need for storytelling?
Connect with your purpose. That allows you to have clarity about your story in the first place.
That will come from being curious about yourself. What's meaningful to you? Are you living and working with joy? What kind of story do you want to tell?
Understand how the media works. Social media is a distracting space. Learn how it works and be conscious about using it.
Tell a good, engaging story with clarity. Be clear and efficient in your words and visuals. Share the most interesting parts to engage your audience first, then tell the rest of the story.
Visuals are important. Spend time crafting it. Add production value. You get better with it, too. But sometimes you should just get it out. Putting it out is a form of getting better at things, because you're getting feedback to improve your skills.
Can you share a tool that you use in storytelling?
We run Digital storytellers to help purpose-driven people and organisations tell their stories. We've been working with many amazing storytellers and changemakers, and we always start with our Story Canvas tool.
The Story Canvas tool modelled based on the Business Model Canvas, but with a specific lens on impact as outcomes and indicators. It guides us through a journey, and clarifies the purpose, strategy and the impact we want to create.
We've made it available for anyone to use. It's free. You can download it here: The Story Canvas
We’ve also launched a storytelling community of practice. So I'd like to ask the readers, what do you need to tell your stories? How can we help you best? We want to help support story leaders and lift our game together. You can find more information here [link].
What story do you tell yourself for the future?
The story of the future is worrying, and having kids brought that worry to a very deep and embodied place. Everybody does, but I really hit it home for me. What will my children experience?
What I can do is help create that story of the future, so I could stand next to them one day and know that I did something about that. Every day I act out of hope. Staying connected with great people who are doing great work, just like yourself with ReCo and also this book project.
Choosing to work with those people and spending time with those people. And if my skills are useful, offer them in service to the future that I might not experience in my lifetime.
First Nations People remind us of the talk of the ancestors and the Elders. But it's also to remind us of the future. The seven generations thinking, if we really thought in these ways, we wouldn't act in the ways that we do now.
So I hope the future is the story that I’d like to tell. And I'd like to help, too. I'd like to help write a hopeful story of the future, and bring a lot of other people to that story.
But it's also very important for me, not to be the only one writing that hopeful story. To see an immense network of people writing the stories and inspiring that future. The individual actions held collectively will make a better world and we just need a lot more people to do that really soon. Really fucking soon.
Danling is the co-founder of ReCo and creative director of reco.digital. Danling has an unwavering passion for creativity, spirituality and the pursuit of positive change in the world. Connect with Danling on Linkedin.
October 30, 2023
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