Many of us want to be great public speakers. Standing confidently in front of large crowds, captivating the audience with the power of our words — these are skills society encourages us to learn and develop. But what about the other side of the equation? There are loads of information on how to become a better speaker, but not much about being a better listener. Active listening is not just hearing words, but fully focusing on the message behind them. Paying attention to what someone has to say can have life-changing consequences, as shown in Luis Ortega’s story.
Ortega is a TEDx Speaker and founder of Storytellers for Change, an organization that utilizes narratives to promote social change. He travels across the country delivering powerful speeches at different institutions. Ortega recently visited the University of Washington Tacoma campus for a discussion titled “Day of Hope for Change.” I had the chance to join him and learn about his life, struggles and triumphs in this motivational talk.
Ortega‘s mother wanted a better future for her children, so she migrated from Mexico to the United States when Luis was around 14 years old. It was a harsh transition, as they had to adapt to a whole new culture that sometimes felt uninviting. At first, they lived in the basement of a house, where each sibling would take a corner of the room and mark it as theirs. Inability to pay the rent caused them to live in a car for five months. Later, they managed to find a humble apartment that offered no privacy.
Despite all these obstacles, Luis was a good student. One day, he sat down with an academic advisor to talk about college. Luis was scared — he believed his illegal immigrant status would stop him from achieving higher education. His nightmares seemed to come true, as the advisor said people like him don’t go to college. Ortega’s perfect attendance record was broken — he left the school crying in despair.
Once he reached home, Ortega ‘s grandmother noticed the sadness hidden behind his eyes. She approached him and said, “people are remembered by the stories they tell.” This phrase rekindled the fire inside Ortega, pushing him to fight back.
Ortega wasn’t sure where to begin. Nobody had guided him on what’s the path to college. However, he was used to seeing University of Washington advertisements posted around his daily route, He hoped to find some answers there.
He arrived to the University of Washington Seattle campus and knocked on every door, looking for help. He eventually encountered someone who saw the potential in him. When asked if he had the paperwork needed to apply to the school, he said no, as he was clueless about the admission process. He had three days to turn in recommendations, personal statements, transcripts, etc. before the deadline. Armed with determination, Ortega spent all night putting together these documents from the one place in his apartment that offered some privacy — the bathroom.
Ortega waited and waited, until a small envelope arrived at his mailbox. Prepared for the worst, he opened it and found out he was accepted. It was one of the happiest moments in his life. Ortega and his mother cried tears of joy, excited by the opportunities lying ahead. Standing at the university’s Red Square filled him with pride. The efforts of his labor seemed to finally have come to fruition. However, the change proved to be harder than anticipated. Ortega’s grades plummeted, going from a 4.0 in high school to 1.5 in college. Self-doubt overtook his mind.
Just when he felt most insecure and vulnerable, his favorite teacher from high school contacted him. She wanted him to go back to the school and give a speech to struggling students. She felt his success story would be a good motivator for them. The thought of public speaking had never crossed Ortega’s mind. He was the quiet kid in school, sitting at the back of the class. He was so afraid of speaking, that one time his mother had to go take him from school, causing her to lose her job. Naturally, he wanted to reject the teacher’s proposition.
After some consideration, Ortega decided to visit his old high school and give the speech. He expected maybe a dozen or so people to be there, but to his surprise, there were over 100 students waiting for him. He was overwhelmed, but decided to go along with it. After an hour of — what he describes as — awkwardly putting sentences together, he was done with his first speech. The look on the audience’s faces confirmed his suspicions; it had gone terribly. After a pathetic applause, the students left the room. Ortega began packing his belongings, when he noticed a student walking back and forth. As he was about to leave, the student rushed and threw himself at Ortega . The kid hugged him, and with tears flowing from his eyes, thanked him. There was someone in that audience who was deeply impacted by Luis’ message. That person listened.
This moment taught Ortega the value of empathizing with others. He felt that student was his “other him” — someone who through similar experiences connected with him based on something he said. Ortega’s favorite teacher took notice of the event. Soon after, Ortega received offers to give more talks. Even though he was a homeless student with many worries, he still managed to find time to give speeches. He felt education shouldn’t be kept for yourself, but be given to others. From then, Ortega has worked on projects like the development of the Leadership Without Borders Center for UW, development of youth support programs for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and creating his own organization called Storytellers for Change. I highly suggest watching a video of one of his speeches. His story and mission is a great source of inspiration.
Ortega’s moving story is a prime example of overcoming life obstacles based on the powers of storytelling and story-listening. His life was shaped by listening the wise words of his closed ones, as well as the stranger who connected with him through his first speech. Next time you engage in a conversation with someone, don’t just listen to the words they say — be an active listener.