Skip to content

Podcast Episode 6: Our Role as Storytellers (w/ Dr. Umi Hsu)

When it comes to storytelling, collecting and paring down qualitative and quantitative data is what really shapes the narrative.

Words by Karen Eisenhauer, Visuals by Addie Burgess

For full episode transcription, click here.

3 Takeaways from Art and Archives

This week, we sat down with Dr. Umi Hsu (they/them), a digital strategist and activist engaged with agendas for equity in arts, technology, and civic life. Umi is currently the Director of Content Strategy at ONE Archives Foundation, an independent community partner that supports the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries.

Umi’s career has spanned all across the world of art, archives, and activism. But one of the practices at the core of what they do is storytelling. In this week’s episode, we discuss at length what it means to collect, store, and share our stories—especially of under-represented groups.

1. Stories are about what you don’t say

As researchers, we often think about stories as things that we create. But Umi argues that storytelling isn’t actually an act of creation. The stories we seek to tell as collectors, archivists, or researchers already exist in the form of life stories, anecdotes, lived experiences, and—in the case of UXR—collected qualitative and quantitative data.

The task of a storyteller, then, isn’t actually to create anything. Instead, Umi says, it’s a practice in economizing. It’s about what you choose to cut out or gloss over, and what you choose to leave in its full detail, that gives a story its shape.

Re-positioning stories as subtractive rather than creative raises an important question that we should all be asking ourselves: whose stories are being dropped for the sake of the story? Whose data are we taking detail away from, or cutting completely? And can we balance that act of subtraction by highlighting those overlooked experiences elsewhere?

"Each instance of a story is an economy…that is often done in relation to the rest of what's there, what you cut out, what you cut through in terms of noise. So this work is economizing material, it's economizing content. In doing so, we're necessarily having to cut out other voices and we're having to leave out perspectives. This is that tricky thing that we do. In storytelling, there's the ethic of who do we focus on and who do we not focus on?

Dr. Umi Hsu
Director of Content Strategy at ONE Archives Foundation

2. Stories have more staying power when they’re contained

Umi talks about stories as if they are living, breathing things. In many ways, they are—they grow, change, and evolve with each telling.

This can make it difficult to create a focused story that fully engages and sticks with your audience. They are such sprawling entities, and there is so much competition for audiences’ attention, that it’s easy for them to bounce off the surface without really sinking in.

Umi believes that stories that stick often do because they have a container, or frame, to help sharpen them and give them purchase in the audience's lives. They suggest several suggestions for story ‘containers’, including:

  • Tying them to an event in your audience’s lives
  • Tying a historical issue to a current issue relevant to your audience
  • Make it into evidence for an actionable policy

"Give a container to a story. A container or frame that can help us focus. And of course, this has ramifications in the attention economy. When we're in this moment, when there's so much information, so much buzzing happening, a container helps us in a sense put our minds in the space so we can stretch in it and expand it without being harmed or subject to distraction."

Dr. Umi Hsu
Director of Content Strategy at ONE Archives Foundation

3. Take a breath and drink some tea

Umi works to tell stories of historical and current issues facing the queer community through innovative ways. These can be heavy topics, and take a huge amount of thoughtfulness, empathy, and creativity. We asked them to share with us how they avoid burnout amidst all these high demands.

Their answer was to focus on the quiet things. For Umi, it’s tea (among other things): to brew, pour, and consume a cup in a slow and mindful way. They also make room in their days to share digital cups with their teammates. These are forms of self-care and mindfulness that help Umi ensure they have the inner resources to continue doing their important work.

Interested in checking out other People Nerds podcast episodes? Read more of our breakdowns here.

Karen is a researcher at dscout. She has a master’s degree in linguistics and loves learning about how people communicate with each other. Her specialty is in gender representation in children’s media, and she’ll talk your ear off about Disney Princesses if given half the chance.

Subscribe To People Nerds

A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people

The Latest