Glynn Washington’s life makes for quite the story. He escaped an apocalyptic religious cult, earned his law degree, has lived all over the world, and has served as a political strategist, educator, diplomat, nonprofit director, actor, musician and artist.
These days, Washington makes a living telling stories, sharing people's tales of life-changing moments in his weekly National Public Radio show and podcast Snap Judgment
But storytelling has always been part of Washington's life, whether he was using narratives to promote public policy in support of his nonprofits' mission or sharing anecdotes to teach young entrepreneurs a lesson.
Entrepreneurs, he said, can especially benefit from storytelling skills as they try to loop potential funders, partners, and employees into a shared narrative.
"That's what the best entrepreneurs really do well, is they communicate a vision to other people so that everyone can see the light at the end of the tunnel and start rolling the same way," Washington says.
Washington, a Michigan native, is returning to his home state this week to emcee Startup Story Night
, an event organized by Southeast Michigan Startup and the New Economy Initiative
to highlight the stories of five local entrepreneurs. Following a half-day storytelling workshop with Washington, the entrepreneurs will present their stories of how they overcame challenges, switched directions when necessary, and experienced "a-ha" breakthroughs at the event, which is Thursday at Planet Ant Hall in Hamtramck.
The entrepreneurs were selected from among 55 applicants. They include a Creole restaurant, natural health and beauty market, bio-tech firm, and chocolatier.
Washington urges entrepreneurs to put just as much focus and effort into honing their pitches and developing their narratives as they put into their products. They should use their own strengths as storytellers and business people and not try to be someone else, he says.
"Identify the passion that brought you to do what you're doing," he says. "Often times that's not necessarily a natural thing for people. It’s something that they may need to dig at a little bit."
Washington is an entrepreneur himself as creator of the Snap Judgment radio show, podcast, and touring live show. Naturally, he’s got quite the story to tell behind his rise to public radio star.
He says he was always a "big public radio head" but had a problem with the way the industry covered certain communities. So, when he heard about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Public Radio Exchange's Public Radio Talent Quest, he figured he should preserve his right to complain by throwing his hat in the ring. He learned about the contest the day before tapes were due. Undeterred by the deadline, he recorded a story, sent it in, then forgot about it.
A few months later, he was dining at a restaurant when he got the call notifying him that he was one of 10 finalists. Washington thought it was his buddy Mark playing a joke on him, so he hung up. It took a second phone call before Washington realized he had really made the cut. He and the other finalists went through a series of challenges over the next several weeks that eventually weeded them down to three who were asked to make pilot shows.
Washington didn’t know much about media production, but he put his heart and soul into the pilot and was proud of his submission.
"The next morning," he says, "I get a phone call from the contest organizer, and he said, 'You have embarrassed NPR, you've embarrassed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, you've embarrassed me, and you've embarrassed yourself.' Click. I was in a fetal position. I didn't understand. What? What was the problem?"
Washington didn't give up. He reached out to a public radio news director for a professional edit, then worked with a friend to meticulously improve the piece until it was worthy of public broadcast. He even shot a short video to go along with his pitch for a multimedia show.
The first episode of Snap Judgment aired in 2010. Since then, the show has expanded to more than 400 NPR stations. The podcast is downloaded over 2 million times each month.
Washington is passionate about his work, but he also knows it’s important to strike a balance.
"Stories are distilled life, and if you don't have a life, it's very hard for you to tell stories about one," he says.
He records the show in Oakland, Calif., where he lives with his wife and two children. He's excited to visit Michigan this week, where he plans to enjoy a good home-cooked meal with his aunt and cousins.
Washington says he's also looking forward to working with the entrepreneurs at Startup Story Night. Washington will lead a private half-day workshop with the entrepreneurs before Thursday's public performance. He says he feels "very lucky" to be able to help people tell their stories.
"I'm a Michigander so I love coming back home. Whenever I do, it seems like another story is born or crafted … it's just feeding that fire," he says. "You can take the boy out of Michigan, but you can't take Michigan out of the boy."
Melissa Anders is a Brussels-based freelance journalist and metro Detroit native.