Storytelling Lessons from Humans of New York

Creative storytelling is at the heart of what we do at Bateman Group. We spend a lot of time thinking about how we can tell stories that make an impact and inspire people to listen. Humans of New York has long appealed to me as an elegant (and viral) example of storytelling, so I jumped at the opportunity to see the man behind the blog, Brandon Stanton, speak in San Francisco.

Brandon is an entrepreneur and photographer, but most of all he’s an expert at using words and images to capture what it means to be human. He started HONY after losing his job and moving to New York with the dream of photographing 10,000 people on the street and plotting them on a map of the city. During this arduous process, he started gathering quotes from the people he photographed and using these words to caption his photos.

Since its beginnings in 2010, HONY has gained 12 million followers on Facebook and 2 million on Instagram, partnered with the UN on a world tour, raised more than  $1 million for a school in the Bronx, interviewed President Obama, and published a best-selling book. So this guy must be on to something.

“I’m Trassh. With two s’s.” “I’m Riottt. With three t’s.”

Here are my top five lessons learned from Brandon and HONY:

1. Be consistent. To be a successful storyteller, you need to provide people with high quality content, day in and day out. You can’t just post a picture on Instagram every once in a while and expect people to care — unless you’re Beyonce. Create stories around a set of values, tell these stories consistently, and ensure people know where to find your content.

2. Work hard. When he started HONY, Brandon admits he wasn’t a particularly good photographer (sure, he’s a humble guy, but I saw some of the pictures and can vouch for this sentiment). In the early days, he photographed 40 people every day. He pounded the pavement and tried different things and figured out what worked. Good storytelling, like anything worth doing, takes time and iteration.

3. Don’t wait for perfect. Perhaps my favorite part of Brandon’s talk was his description of how he started the blog: he sold some mediocre photographs to his former finance colleagues, saved enough to move to New York, and started taking portraits. “If I waited for the perfect idea, I never would have cut the rope behind me,” he said. If you have an idea, start running with it. You’ll either figure out how to improve it as you go, or you’ll learn what doesn’t work.

4. Be authentic. Honest stories are much more compelling than glossy ones. Tap into people’s human emotions and use an authentic voice. If you’re interviewing someone, try to speak with them one-on-one, and ask follow-up questions to get at the core of what they’re saying. Try to convey their story rather than telling it through the lens of your own agenda, opinions and philosophies.

5. Keep it brief, but make it meaningful. Part of the beauty of HONY is that it uses a simple image and just a few sentences to capture a complex emotion or experience. Every portrait is a glimpse into someone’s life that goes just deep enough to pique the reader’s interest. Stories (and particularly brand stories) should leave the reader wanting more — and inspire them to explore further.

“At first we kept saying: ‘We’re going to beat it. We’re going to beat it.’ Then after awhile we began to realize that we might not beat it. Then toward the end, it became clear that we definitely weren’t going to beat it. That’s when she started telling me that she wanted me to move on and find happiness with somebody else. But I’m not quite there yet. Not long ago a noise woke me up in the middle of the night, and I rolled over to ask if she needed anything.”

Humans love stories — beyond entertainment and explanation, they are threads that tie us together. It’s science, and it’s the reason why Brandon’s work appeals at a fundamental level.



Images from