PRI CEO Alisa Miller remembers a compelling story

First in a series of thought leaders reflecting upon those stories that make an impact upon their lives.

We live successfully in a world through content and experiences, says Alisa Miller, president and chief executive officer of PRI, Public Radio International. “People want something compelling with a connection to a universal truth or challenge, triumph or tragedy. We’re wired to remember story rather than just data.”

Q: What types of stories do you tend to remember or connect with?

Stories with strong personal narrative, by which the protagonist overcomes a difficult challenge, enabling joy and resolution. I also tend to remember those stories that challenge me or make me squirm.

Q: Is there a story you heard or read recently that is still kicking around in your mind?

Yes, a story that PRI and GlobalPost featured last fall about the Syrian refugee crisis. We profiled a Syrian mother who was trying to provide for her family in a Lebanese refugee camp. She was not getting food, she was not getting help. She finally became so desperate that she set herself on fire and, subsequently, died. She felt that her death was the only way her children could be saved. I’ve reflected on that story as a mother, thinking about where would I have to be in my head to think that that action would be in the best interests of my children. That’s a powerful example of how a singular story can help us understand a broader issue or crisis.

Q: In its story-telling techniques, how does PRI separate itself from other public radio or podcast content providers?

PRI’s mission is to help people live successfully in a world through content and experiences. We’re looking for those stories and talents that have a universality to them and speak to broader truths. There’s a hopefulness to PRI, and there’s an interest in fostering people’s creative spirits as well as our own. It’s really an explorer mentality of looking at the world, rather than saying we’re sage and all knowing. To our audiences, we’re saying, “come along with us and we’ll explore these issues together.”

Q: How do you feel advances in technology are affecting storytelling?

In many ways, narrative storytelling hasn’t changed at all. The forms can and do change based on technology, for example virtual reality. However, social media has dramatically impacted both the volume of stories as well as the types of stories coming our way, through algorithmic logic. We’re seeing more stories that play to our already-existing notions; serendipitous discovery is decreasing. This places more responsibility on us to fully understand where these stories are coming from, and to be mindful of what we are or aren’t seeing. I would be concerned if we allow the algorithm alone to make our choices for us. We have to take responsibility for what we click on and what we don’t click on.

Q: What's on your nightside stand? On your playlist?

I’m reading “Obliquity” by the economist John Kay. It is about how our goals are best achieved indirectly. He says that when you’re trying to achieve large goals or systemic change, you can’t create a road map to that, you have to come to it from the side, through a series of small risks and discoveries. We have to think about the circumstances that are necessary for the bigger goal to happen, and focus strictly on those. It’s the philosophy that states that everything is connected. It’s a mindset that has impacted my approach to work.

Next in our series: Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.