Storytelling with a mission by Brough Johnson

Brough Johnson, photo credit: STRIPED TREES PRODUCTION

Brough Johnson, photo credit: STRIPED TREES PRODUCTION

I met Brough briefly at a conference early this year. She ran a workshop on storytelling and I was absolutely mesmerised. You know sometimes you meet people who radiate kindness and care and you just want to listen to them? That was her. 

A few years ago Brough and Teresa Bass co-founded Narrative Muse, an online platform that matches book and movie lovers with perfect-for-them recommendations of stories by and about women and non-binary folk. Her mission resonates so closely with ours so it is a pleasure of mine to be sharing Brough’s story on Kia Ora! 

Brough, tell us a bit about your background? What wonderful things have you done before starting Narrative Muse? 

Before Narrative Muse, I was an editor for film and television. I did that full time for about 11 years. It was a lot of fun.

I was also a community instigator. I created Romp Project with the help of four others: Annabel Harrison, Jeanne Francoise, Amy McKinney, and Priscilla Northe. We made a bunch of creative spaces and events for the Auckland queer community. We were pretty proud of the scale and rapid growth of those events. It was a much-needed space since there aren’t many places to meet others in the community other than bars and clubs.

Supplied by Narrative Muse

What inspired Narrative Muse in the first place? Has your mission changed over time and what is it now?

Narrative Muse was initially inspired by a realisation that there was a huge lack of content for women audiences. It took me awhile to have that ‘ah ha’ moment because it came before the #metoo movement and the conversation around lack of gender diversity in media. 

Has Narrative Muse’s mission changed? At the heart of what we do, which is elevating content by and about women (and now, non-binary folk), no, it hasn’t.

But the way that we’re going about that elevation has changed a lot. Teresa and I pivoted Narrative Muse like any other startup and after some validation, discovered that the place we can be of most value and to help book and movie lovers the most, is to help them find their next read or watch since we’re living in an era of content overload. So we created our matchmaker that matches you with perfect recommendations based on who you are today and how you want to feel. We do this with the help of our global team who are out there reading and watching stuff to curate the best content. We’re so grateful to have such a big, awesome team with such great taste who give so much to this thing.

It’s been a really fun thought experiment, and now working product, to figure out how we can recommend books and movies to people based on who they are now and what they feel like today, not who they were in the past and what they clicked on yesterday

Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools humans have in their toolbox. We all love it and live it but what separates good storytellers from the rest and how do you develop a passion / skill for it? 

What separates great storytellers? People who empathise with their audience. Audiences want to go on a journey. They want to feel highs and lows and be surprised. They want to feel the magic of the moment, as though this moment could never be repeated. That’s why theatre is still such a magic space.

How do you develop a passion for it? Hmmmm. I’m not sure that you can develop a passion for something that doesn’t naturally arise in you. But you can definitely gain skills in anything.

Great storytelling is about refinement. The first draft of anything is pretty rough. They often call that the vomit draft. That’s the draft when you throw everything on the table or on the page as it were. Then you need to dig in and find all of the beautiful gems in the chaos. There will always be a few key nuggets that will become the rocks of your story and the flesh will build on those. The key is to have no more than 3 rocks in a story, or 3 key ideas. You can flesh out each idea and then build from one to the next but too many ideas, and you’ll lose your audience and the magic. You’ll come across as meandering and unfocused.

So to come back to developing a skill, there are lots and lots of books to read on the subject. I recommend reading a book about screenwriting but maybe that’s just because that’s the background I come from. Screenwriting helps you understand the principles of a basic 3 act structure. Every great story has a 3 act structure – a setup, escalating drama, and a conclusion.

There’s lots of room in there for surprise. Many new storytellers try to be clever and break the 3 act structure. Let me just say that there’s a very good reason why everyone uses it. It works really, really well and it’s what audiences expect.

Supplied by Narrative Muse

During one of your talks you said: “tell the Universe exactly what you need to succeed”. What we have observed is that social impact is on a lot of people’s minds but most of the time they have no idea what that means for them. How do I help? What do I do? What’s my mission? How do you know what to ask the Universe? :) 

Ha! Ask the Universe what’s top of mind for you. Intention is the source of all change. If we don’t set intentions, we can’t move the needle on anything. You have to get clear about what matters to you. It can be really simple. It can be that you want to have a flourishing garden or you want to be kind to your family.

Begin with thinking about what’s important to you. You can make absolutely anything around you shine in absolutely any way you can imagine.

Imagination is a powerful thing. The more you develop ideas in your mind, the more likely they are to manifest and become real because you start naturally gravitating to those ideas and believing that they are real. And then you begin asking others for answers to questions that you’re trying to solve and before you know it, you have a team of people solving problems. And with their collective energy, you can truly do anything.

What advice would you have for someone who is a bit lost and not sure what they should do with their lives? Do you ever feel like that yourself? 

I’m not really someone who feels lost for things to do. But what I can say is that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with all of the possibility. And I can imagine a vacuum, or lack of ideas, could feel equally as overwhelming.

I’d begin with writing a list of all the things that inspire you. Try an exercise where you have to write 100 things. It’ll be tough but what’s interesting is that you’ll find that you have a few obvious ideas that land on the page straight away and then you’ll start coming up with smaller things that seem less significant and eventually your mind will have to start getting really creative to make it to the end of that list. It’s that moment of creativity where the magic happens. That’s when your mind stops controlling and becomes the observer.

At the end of your list of 100 things, circle the things at the top of the list that resonate the most with you and then you’ll see how that list that got really crazy about ⅔ of the way down will have lots of overlap with the things that felt most important at the top. Those crazy, less controlled thoughts will be the nuance to the things that resonated most at the top of the list for you.

Once you narrow down what inspires you most, begin thinking about how you can spend more time doing those things in your personal life, or incorporating them into your career.

Brough Johnson

Your mission inspires and very strongly resonates with me. Kia Ora was started because my partner was inspired by women & non-binary folk but didn’t see them mentioned much online, in the media, so-called “success” stories and interviews. We wanted to change that. From your experience what is the hardest / not easily seen thing about building a platform for women & non-binary? 

The interesting thing about all marginalised groups, is that those who aren’t in the group can’t usually see the marginalisation, or identify with it. And those who may technically be in a marginalised group, such as white women, but who are privileged in lots of other ways, often can’t see the marginalisation of others.

So this creates a circling belief that there’s nothing wrong and no need to create spaces for underestimated groups. 

I once asked an author what would help her career most and she said, ‘recognition.’ Lots of people in marginalised groups aren’t given the spotlight in the same way or at all, like those from dominant groups. When you aren’t handed the mic to speak, how can anyone hear you?

I love Shirley Chisholm’s quote, "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair." For those who have the courage and ability to bring that chair, amazing. And for many, many who don’t, we need to provide empty chairs for people that are different from ourselves.

When we create these spaces, we often get push back. People will ask if they’re necessary. And truthfully, they are. The key is to create these spaces in such a way that they’re solving people’s problems, like any other product. Creating spaces that are ‘important’ don’t tend to get the same traction as spaces that are both important and very useful. A great example of this is Well-read Black Girl. They have 50,000 followers on Twitter. The thing about them is that they’re solving a very real problem for Black women book readers who read a lot. They curate excellent books for a group of people that are deeply underrepresented in publishing. It’s hard for this group to find books with characters like themselves and Well-read Black Girl solves this problem.

Supplied by Narrative Muse

Are you learning / pondering about anything right now that you would like to share?

Hmmmm… I’m pondering how to live a full life while also being a CEO and co-founder of a startup. It ain’t easy but I’m determined to find a combination that feels good for me.

And finally, whose story would you want to read about on here? 

Roseanne Liang - NZ filmmaker - currently making a feature film or two in Hollywood

Desray Armstrong - NZ film producer and production coordinator - She’s a magnet for working on incredible productions and has been involved in What We Do in the Shadows, Wellington Paranormal, A Wrinkle in Time, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Sonya Renee Taylor - US woman living on Waiheke Island - author, poet, activist, speaker and founder of The Body is Not An Apology 

Claire Cowan - NZ film/ television/ theatre/ ballet composer - she’s currently composing the first score that’s been commissioned for the Royal New Zealand Ballet in the last 10 years or so.

Robyn Patterson - NZ documentary filmmaker - she’s completed and distributed 2 feature films. That’s incredibly difficult when the stats are that women tend to only be given the opportunity to make one feature at the most.

Elina Ashimbayeva