Storytelling Fundamentals with Frank Sesno

By Stu Lourey, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student

This blog is part of a series from the December Arizona Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students virtually toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff and non-profit leaders.

Frank Sesno starts with the fundamentals.

And that’s striking to see from someone with as accomplished and storied a career.

“How many Presidents have you interviewed?,” Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director at the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems, asked him near the start of our time together.

“Five. But not Obama and Trump . . . I did interview Chris Wallace.”

When Frank spoke to our cohort, he quickly took the opportunity to share the heart of what he wanted us to understand about working with and in the media: tell good stories.

That’s a seemingly simple edict. But through our conversation, I realized that I too often miss opportunities to build momentum behind good policy ideas through thoughtfully constructing a narrative. From his career serving as Whitehouse correspondent, Washington Bureau Chief, hosting other shows on CNN, and now teaching and directing strategic initiatives at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Frank understands this well. Storytelling isn’t a skill that can be taken for granted.

So he broke it down for us.

Good stories have “compelling characters overcoming obstacles to achieve a worthy outcome,” he explained. The character facing obstacles, and the creative tension that brings, “is the difference between PR and a story.”

This reminded me of the people we’d met via Zoom during our immersive earlier that week. And how we could best tell their story. Wesley Kerr stands out.

Wesley is a dynamic, fourth generation dairy farmer who cares deeply about his family, their cattle, and their farm’s future on the land. A compelling character.

Answering a question during our conversation, Wesley explained that, where others might see a threat, he’s finding opportunity. While he could be concerned about loss of market share, he’s talking with a manufacturer of an oat-based beverage about blending it with milk to make a new product, hopefully expanding Wesley’s market share. Overcoming obstacles.

With this innovation, Wesley thinks he’ll be able to both deliver a drink with a unique nutrition profile to consumers as well as diversify his products in order to better secure the future of his family’s farm. To achieve a worthy outcome.

This certainly wasn’t the only story you could tell about Wesley, even just from our hour-long conversation. But pulling it out reflects the way Frank describes storytelling. We don’t just need to find good stories, we need to “make” and “construct” them from the facts that people present to us about their lived reality, their hopes for the future, and relationships with others.

And I don’t use the word “need” lightly. I’m sure Frank would agree. Storytelling is urgent.

Weaved throughout his answers to students’ questions were Frank’s reflections about climate change and the challenges facing a free and fair press. What I came to understand more deeply through our conversation was that we need more than good data to take on the collective project of averting the worst effects of climate change. We need stories that help us see ourselves in the solutions—stories that make us want to join in and do the hard work of co-creating a better future.

Despite great challenges like climate change, though, you can’t help but feel hopeful talking to Frank. Even over Zoom, he’s magnetic. His passion for not only his own craft, but also helping others develop theirs is clear. He warmly coached us through practical scenarios we encounter in our own careers and encouraged us to sign up for his email list, Planet Forward, a student-driven story telling platform about climate change.

Frank was making an investment in us, as he does with all his students—and you could tell he believed in it.

At the end of an hour, he left us with a final thought: tell stories, talk about people. Urgent now as much as ever.