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2018-07-01 / Start Here

Telling the Stories that Started my Own

Columnist Dana Ray signs off — but not before sharing her own “Start Here” story.
Dana Ray

Two years ago, I began writing this column. I knew I loved meeting people doing interesting work, as well as the challenge and pleasure of communicating their stories on the page. But not just their stories: I wanted to get to their heart as a person and understand the soul behind the work. The column began as a way to recognize the impact of young professionals in Centre County. My assumption: Our personal stories are critical to doing work in honest and human-centered ways. By discovering and sharing the stories of deeply congruent people, I began to discover my own place in this crazy, beautiful corner of the world.

This journey of storytelling and discovery led me to start my own business in narrative marketing one year ago. I work with creatives running their own businesses and telling their stories in a way congruent with who they are, which means they can connect with the people who want to hear from them.

My work is certainly not what I thought I’d be doing when I moved here to attend Penn State in 2007. I didn’t know I’d stay after graduation and take my first job or that I’d leave to teach English in Bulgaria. I didn’t know I’d come back to get my masters from Bucknell or that I’d end up in marketing at all. But surprises can be the best things in life!

New Leaf Initiative started my surprising pivot from literature to business. I saw people doing creative, empathetic work in ways I’d never imagined and wondered what it would take to build that life for myself. And they were generous with their time and invitations. When I started freelance writing, Brad Groznik of Groznik PR invited me to attend a happy hour with Central Pennsylvania Creative Professionals (CP2). I was young enough that I’d never been to a networking event, and I was so stressed that I went out and bought a blazer. (Someone mercifully stopped me from wearing it.) That night, I met Mark Dello Stritto, co-founder of Loaded Creative, who hired me for my first freelance writing gig when I had no idea what I was doing.

The community gave me more chances that helped me grow. Without a résumé in marketing to back me up, Dan Rowland hired me to join his team at Rowland Creative full time as a writer and project manager. The job became my apprenticeship in everything from marketing copy to client care to good design to company culture. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I was learning from the best. I saw how stories built brands and campaigns and websites — enabling people to reach an audience and do hard things. I also began writing “Start Here.” Both at my job and in the column, I practiced hearing stories and turning that into functional narratives. I started seeing ways that I could use my instinct for storytelling along with my new marketing skills to offer people a personal way to discover and explain their work in the world.

Again, Centre County gave me the opportunity to leap into something new. I developed a methodology for story discovery and applying that to business messaging for creatives: a step-by-step process to say who we are out loud, and then take the steps to build projects and businesses congruent with who we are. One friend let me use her as a guinea pig. Another friend, a startup founder and professor, believed in me enough to pay me for my services the moment she heard about my idea. Finally, in August 2017, I launched Dana M. Ray Consulting for when the personal story is the marketing strategy. Like in any new venture, it’s been a year of evolution and discovery and dead ends and new possibilities. I’ve worked with fascinating people in fashion design, dance, social entrepreneurship, software development, corporate coaches and more. My own voice has emerged in the middle of it all.

This is my final column for SCM. I’m so proud of the work I did for this publication, especially the moments when I could capture how someone impacted the world in a personal and unique way. I hope you’ve had equal pleasure in hearing each of these stories as I had in interviewing the subjects and finding the words for their special magic. For now, my storytelling has moved off the pages of this magazine and firmly into my life. I have joined the community of people I have written about these past two years, people who have also “started here.” •SCM


Dana Ray is a narrative marketer helping people tell their story so they can do the work that matters. You can learn more about her business and writing at danamray.com.

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