The Story is the Thing

I’ve been involved with telling and listening to stories my whole life. I came from a rich background of stories. At an early age, my mother took me to Selma, Alabama. You’ve heard of it—been in the news a lot these days. But we went for an annual event, just getting started when I was growing up, called the Tale-tellin’ Festival. It still exists. Storytellers, interpreters if I dare, gather from all around the United States to tell stories. Ghost stories, of course—the event is held in October. But stories of all sorts are told—stories of time and of place. True stories; fiction; and, of course, the stories that fall between.

I fell in love with stories long before that first festival. My mother could tell a wonderful story, all circular in logic and difficult to follow as a child, sometimes. But wonderful stories about her time growing up during the Great Depression, of eating chicken only on Sundays when the preacher came around, of light and happy moments and rolling marbles in the dirt and of darker times when trouble stood just beyond the door. The things that tied it all together? The place and the storyteller.

Just what makes a story powerful? The telling of it. And that’s just what interpreters do. They tell the story of a place, of a thing, of a time.

But back to my story about my mother’s stories. The story itself matters. Who is telling it and their skill at telling it matters. And, that last elusive piece, the most important part many times, that bit that connects us all and really makes an interpreter so powerful is the connection felt with who is telling the story.

Do we trust them? Do we feel that they have first hand knowledge? Do they care? Are they passionate? All these things flow through you, the storyteller, into the story you tell. Whether you tell the story standing in front of a crowd, by producing a fancy multi-media interactive app or create a simple tri-fold brochure, it is your passion that makes the connection.

The passion you have for telling the story, of living and breathing the place or the person the story is about is what pulls the story together and makes it magic. And that’s exhausting. But, if you do the sort of job that my mother did, what you are providing is really timeless. Make your stories count—and make them live on for generations to come.

This isn’t so much written to give anyone a lesson or to really teach anyone anything. Take it for what it is, an unabashed surge of joy about interpreters and the work that they do. Stories really are the thing—and the storytellers bring them to life.

Want to preserve your stories, the stories of your loved ones or, really anyone’s stories? Check out an app by the folks at NPR’s Story Corps.



About Joe: Joe Watts is a passionate proponent of nature tourism in Alabama. He regularly works with the University of Alabama Center for Economic Development on several tourism-related projects and just finished redesigning a website for his brother-in-law’s pet project that has cataloged 500 historic and nature-based sites in southwest Alabama ( He became a Certified Interpretive Guide in 2013. He fondly remembers those hot summer days of childhood when he could forget about the sweltering heat, even for a moment, by reading “The Call of the Wild.”

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