Trey Pennington, a popular social media speaker died from his own hand on Sunday morning beneath an oak tree, near his church at Greenville, South Carolina. He was 46, the father of six children and grandfather of two grandchildren.
I never knew Trey but discovered him only through those tributes. His poignant last tweet resonated with me as it did with many.
Trey’s death coincided this week with the demise of a Malaysian TV journalist, age 41, who was shot dead in Somalia while on a humanitarian mission and the sudden death of a schoolmate from my year who had an apparent heart attack at 48.
Death seems to hover over my professional and social circles, like a dark cloud, a constant reminder of my own mortality. (On Sept 10, 2011, my dad would have been 92, this is the first year we will not be celebrating his birthday.)
Wallowing in my own selfish concerns, I tried this week to stay positive and digest Trey’s spirited philosophy and enthusiastic approach to his profession. Here’s my attempt to glean something from his numerous videos, blog posts, podcasts and tweets — online artefacts through which his legacy lives on.
By all accounts, Trey was the quintessential Southern gentleman who was passionate about social media, generous with his insights and an influential leader in the online community.
Trey had a respectable 111,000 Twitter followers, he had a blog and an online radio show and was active on Google Plus, Facebook and Linkedin. He was credited with starting or helping start ten Social Media Clubs: eight in the southeastern United States, one in the United Kingdom, and one in Australia. He also co-founded Like Minds (a social media conference that launched in England and had events planned this year in Milan and Dubai) and the Social Story conference.
In his presentation at Social Slam 2011 in April he said:
“Never before have we had so many ways to make contact with strangers and nurture them into advocates. There is a three-fold human hunger fueling this explosive growth of social media and it is creating the age of opportunity for those willing to embrace it. No 1. We all want to be heard/seen, No 2. We all want to be understood and No 3. We all want to know our lives count.”
Trey related how he came to this “beautiful” understanding when he met Amanda, a 11-year-old, at a disability school. Amanda was diagnosed as non-communicative, non-verbal which meant whatever she felt inside — her thoughts, her hopes, whenever she was hungry or afraid — she couldn’t verbalize. One day, Amanda was learning to use an adaptive communications device and she pushed a button and the computer said: “I have something to tell you.” He replied: “Okay, Amanda what do you have to tell me?” Amanda looked down at the device, then up at him again to make sure he was listening, she then pushed a button that said: “I love you.”
“Obviously this was an incredibly rich moment for me to hear her expression of affection,” he relates. “But what was more profound, was what I saw in her face — her entire countenance changed; everything about her being completely changed when she realized, for the first time, somebody else understood what she was feeling. What has this got to do with social media? How ever you are using Facebook, all of us have a bit of Amanda in us. We all have a yearning for somebody to see, someone to hear us and someone to understand us…”
Trey was a consultant for politicians and often times, he said he was faced with a client who was obsessed with “getting the message out”. Trey’s take was to flip it and get the message IN.
Politicians, he said, needed to say, ‘I see you and I hear you now.’ They needed to follow people back on Twitter and listen to what they said. In one example, Trey relates how one politician took his advice, absorbed all the anger and animosity online, accepted and acknowledged his followers’ gripes and, over time, those hate tweets dissipated into friendlier banter.
Trey believed there’s “a world out there engaging on social media, just hoping someone would notice them.” All we need to do is listen.
“Who am I now; why am I here (existentially AND on social media); what do I have to offer are great starting points for engagement.”
Trey often quoted Zig Ziglar on this: “You can have everything in life if you’ll just help enough other people get what they want. It’s not about you, it’s about them.”
Towards the end, Trey distilled the core of his understanding in a devoted exploration of the idea of the social story.
“The story is more powerful than the brand,” Tom Peters.
Trey believed today’s online yearnings are just a reflection and amplification of what storytellers have been doing throughout the ages.
“The Storyteller sees Story as a gift that has been given and grows in value as it is given away. He sees the relationship with his Audience as one of doing everything for their benefit. He is totally focused on their experience right now. He sees to minimize himself so that Story and the Audience would have the pre-eminence. When you boil it all down, the Storyteller simple sees the world differently. And there in lies the huge opportunity for us today to challenge the assumptions about the way things are, the way things should be and the way things can be.”
Two books he cited that shaped his thinking were Annette Simmons’ The Story Factor and Doug Lipman’s The Storytelling Coach.
An excerpt from the first chapter of The Story Factor distillates the idea of the story as core:
“People don’t want more information. They are up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith – faith in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell. It is faith that moves mountains, not facts. Facts do not give birth to faith. Faith needs a story to sustain it – a meaningful story that inspires belief in you and renews hope that your ideas, do indeed, offer what you promise. Genuine influence goes deeper than getting people to do what you want them to do. It means people pick up where you left off because they believe. Faith can overcome any obstacle, achieve any goal. Money, power, authority, political advantage, and brute force have all, at one time or another, been overcome by faith.
“Story is your path to creating faith. Telling a meaningful story means inspiring your listeners — co-workers, leaders, subordinates, family, or a bunch of strangers — to reach the same conclusions you have reached and decide for themselves to believe what you say and do what you want them to do. People value their own conclusions more highly than yours. They will only have faith in a story that has become real for them personally. Once people make your story, their story, you have tapped into the powerful force of faith. Future influence will require very little follow-up energy from you and may even expand as people recall and re-tell your story to others.”
This animation suggests the extreme way in which we are immersed in Information over Story: Red Riding Hood as told via infographics by Tomas Nilsson:
In this tweet exchange with Jay Baer, Trey was asked whether social media would be helped or hurt by widespread corporate adoption?
His reply: “Intriguing question. Humanity will be helped by wholesale adoption of a ’social media’ mentality—’My neighbor 1st’ mentality. Don’t know that we need to shield social media. Also don’t know if corporate America can handle social media. Besides, social media will probably get better as more and more people and organizations get on board.”
On the impact of stories on social media, Trey concluded:
“Social media helps shine a spotlight on old-fashioned humanity — we make meaning through stories. A storyteller doesn’t have a ‘point to make,’ nor is he focused on ‘ROI,’ or even his own end-game: he focuses on audience. The storyteller lives to help the audience create their own experience; that IS the reward and that’s enough. Social media swings wide the doorway to co-created experiences that can be easily shared with others.”
Trey Pennington exemplified the life of the selfless storyteller. He gave meaning to many people’s lives, despite his tragic end. Who doesn’t need a little validation in their life every now and then?
Maybe we all need to hear to each other’s story too. So what’s your story? Tell me, I’m listening.
Trey Pennington shared TJ Thyne’s fable called Validation on his June 13, 2010 blog post.