Weaving community–through stories

weaving shuttles and multi-colored yarn in a basket

Last week, I had the privilege of once again participating in a Story Bridge event in Seattle. A very diverse group came together to share and perform our stories as a way of exploring issues facing Seattle’s historic African-American neighborhood, the Central District, now challenged by gentrification.

In an early exercise we each shared a story with a partner, in response to a story prompt to talk about a time when we rose to an occasion in our lives. My partner-in-story was a tall African-American man who offered a poignant story about surviving a health crisis. I offered him my story about moving to New York City, lonely and afraid, only to be mugged during my first week living in Brooklyn.  As I started to share my story, I looked at my partner and wondered if it would be offensive to mention that the assailant who had pointed a gun at my head was a tall African-American man. But my partner, who had lived for years in Harlem, listened with warm attention, and said, “That’s terrible, How did that feel?” And once again, through the magic of Story Bridge, I found myself feeling held and supported, and falling in love with this partner whom I had only met thirty minutes earlier.

What a gift it is to be able to see in the lives of people whose lives have been so different than ours!

When I can’t be participating in a live experience like Story Bridge, another way I learn about people’s lives is by reading memoirs. Unlike an autobiography, a memoir gives us a slice of a life, not the whole pie. A memoir is an author’s attempt to make meaning out of the shards, scraps, and stories of her or his life.

I’ve heard it said that there are too many memoirs being written today–I disagree. That’s like saying there are too many stories! Memoirs offer a way to travel into lives we would never otherwise know.

Here are a few memoirs I’ve read recently

My Life So Far by Jane Fonda

Love her or hate her, Jane Fonda’s has had a lot of influence throughout her seventy-plus years. Who would have known that behind the curtain, she was a very vulnerable woman, born to a father who could only express himself emotionally when he acted. Fonda ended up subordinating herself to men, making some bad decisions, and only beginning to feel like she could really be herself when she turned sixty. This isn’t a “poor me” story, which would have been ridiculous from a woman with such a global presence. Fonda transported me back into memories of my own youth, growing up in the 50’s and then at college during the Vietnam war when social change was exploding everywhere. Fonda, like all of us humans, is complicated: a woman who was a sex-object in some of her films, but also a feminist; a social justice advocate who married and divorced a former radical and then married a multi-millionaire; a bulimic who brought health and fitness to millions of American women. Today, she continues acting but spends much of her time helping young, indigent women in Georgia. She’s definitely not done yet.

Born a Crime  by Trevor Noah

When Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show on TV’s Comedy Central, he began as “Not Jon Stewart” (the famous former host). Reading Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime, I see Trevor Noah now as his own guy and a great choice for the show. In his book, Noah brings humor and history together, offering us a view into South Africa’s stratified society during the apartheid and post-apartheid periods–as seen by someone whose mixed-race status and education insured that he didn’t fit in anywhere. Unlike the satirical books authored by Daily Show alumni Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart that flamed and faded, Noah’s book is built to last: funny, gritty, and worth reading.

Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel by Nicolaia Rips

Who’d think that a high school student could write such a magical tale of growing up in New York City’s famous Chelsea Hotel, home to artists, derelicts, poets, and prostitutes? The setting is fascinating, her writing fresh and engaging. And, as quirky as life in the Chelsea was, Rips spins a story that reminds us of what it was l like to never-quite-fit-in at school and in our pre-adolescent years. I was captivated!

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

How do you take a truly terrible childhood, and bring it to life without trashing the people who should have taken care of you but didn’t? Jeanette Walls does this in The Glass Castle. She begins the book with an opening scene of her, as a successful adult, happening upon her mother dumpster diving in New York City. I was riveted and continued so throughout the book. This book has been already made into a movie–but I wouldn’t want to have missed her heartfelt and gripping prose.

Another way to learn from the power of storytelling is to write about your own life, whether it be in a book, journal, or on the back of napkins. In writing, we learn that stories aren’t static and we can reshape the narratives we grew up with.

Whether it be through live community events like Story Bridge, memoirs we read, or our own writings, we create a rich tapestry of community as our stories are woven together.

Create a world. In six words.

Remember when you were in grade school and you returned from your summer break, knowing that your new teacher would ask you, once again, to write a story called My Summer Vacation.

Why not write a story now that can convey the essence of your summer, in only six words?

You know that images can say so much, and it takes very few words to evoke an image.

But don’t take my word for it, have some fun and try it!

The assignment

Here’s the assignment I give to managers in my class on Leading Through Story: Write a story in six words. It will test your ability to create an image in a few words–and it’s really easy. No poetry or great art required. Hopefully, it can stir the imagination of your readers, regardless of whether they see exactly what you see.

Here are a few six-word stories from my summer:

Buffoon mocks buffoon. Scary. “Rocket man.”

Too much: Drought, Northwest. Floods, Texas.

My book. Moving forward. I hope.

Seattle housing prices rise. Teachers leaving.

Dahlia glows. Hope survives drought.

Mom lives. In hospice. Two years.

Your turn! Have fun. Then,

Please share. Your words. With me.

Here’s to fall!

When “I” Becomes “We:” Letting our stories connect us

I’m looking forward to helping a new friend work on a grant application for his nonprofit. He does critically important work inspiring disadvantaged teenagers to recognize their greatness and stay in school. He uses his own story to show how a bad choice can affect your life forever.

I was moved to help because I heard him share his story. I now carry it in my heart, thanks to an event last weekend that turned thirty “I” stories into “We” Stories.

A diverse, multi-racial, intergenerational group gathered as strangers and friends for a “Story Bridge” event. Within thirty minutes of following the artful facilitation of Richard Geer and Qinghong Wei, we began to become a community.

Tell me about a moment when your life changed

One exercise in particular shifted the space for me.

We paired up and Richard asked the question: “Tell about a moment when your life changed.”

Soon I was sharing a two minute, improvised, unpolished recounting of an episode from my life. While I spoke, my partner listened–deeply.

An instruction was then given to him: “Tell your partner back the story you just heard.” My partner captured its essence as he recounted my story. Even though he missed a few details, I felt truly heard. He then shared his story and I spoke it back to him.

Within this short period of story-sharing, you could sense a new spirit entering the room, one that would buoy us through a long day. I don’t use the word love lightly, but that’s the word I heard as people described their experiences.

Meeting a big challenge

Then Richard gave the group a big assignment: to select eight stories from those that had been told, and arrange them in an order, a narrative arc, so that they could be performed as a play. With an audience arriving at 7 pm, we had to make decisions and start practicing immediately.

The heat was on. I’ve done story-to-stage work before using processes like Tanya Taylor Rubinstein’s Story Healers work. With her process, we used four days to prepare individuals to create a story and read it on stage. Richard and Qinghong gave us little more than four hours.

From I to We

With Tanya’s work, participants performed as individuals. With Story Bridge, the work is about community. While the stories started out as the creations of individuals, once the group negotiated the final selection of pieces, and each of us took on roles, either as actors or musicians, the stories belonged to us all.

Our “I” stories had morphed into a “We” performance. Former gang members, refugees, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, Caucasians, teenagers and elders stood in front of a small, caring audience at seven o’clock. I didn’t fret that my story wasn’t performed because I was so enmeshed in the stories of others, watching them be woven into my heart.

I’ve never known what it was like to lose a buddy in a drive-by shooting, leave my tribe, or be beat up in high school. Yet my soul heard, under all of the differences, some deeply human commonalities. We had found the magic of community.

I loved Story Bridge. It’s the kind of process that lets “We” emerge in communities with big divides. Even though our event occurred in “blue” Washington State, Story Bridge has strong roots in some of the South’s most disadvantaged small towns. It has helped distressed, rural communities find their pride and get back on their feet.

Richard Geer says that Story Bridge succeeds because it taps a deeply seated human instinct to come together and share, especially in times of crisis.

Qinghong Wei documented some of the elements that make Story Bridge succeed in her doctoral work, noting that it:

  1. opens up a space that is welcoming and safe enough to encourage risk taking;
  2. fosters the collective creation of beauty in a way that also validates individuals;
  3. engages great diversity;
  4. offers participants a big challenge that requires them to pull together.

Richard’s background is in theatre, but experience has taught him that Story Bridge thrives when the direction for a show comes from the community, not from the director.

Experiment for yourself

You can learn more about the theory and practice of Story Bridge by reading Open Circle: Story Arts and the Reinvention of Community and  Story Bridge: From Alienation to Community Action.

As Richard writes, the processes of Story Bridge aren’t proprietary but reflective of what humans do when they band together to support each other. They can be adapted. So why not use story to experiment in your own way:

  • As people who are different from you tell their stories, listen deeply to what has meaning to them.
  • Dare to share your own story with people you don’t know.
  • Create spaces where people feel safe to come together and talk about their experiences.
  • Trust the collective wisdom that can emerge in a group that is diverse yet connected in spirit.
  • Make art, theatre, music, or creative stuff together, as an antidote to the growing, collective discouragement experienced by many today.

And test whether the arts, and story, can help heal our divided world.

I’d love to hear what emerges for you. And, special favor, would you throw some good thoughts and fairy dust on a deserving grant application!!!

When concise can cripple

Get to the point

In my business writing class in B-school, I learned to be succinct, concise and make my point quickly. Unlike the meandering essays of my earlier college days, business writing was about producing summaries in a page or less for executives to skim. In a time-pressed business environment, being able to boil a complex issue down to a half page, or even a paragraph, was a critically important skill.

It still is. But it’s only half the picture. Because critical insights without a story can fall flat.

A condensed, reasoned argument appeals to our intellect, but if we want our message to stick we’d better bring in some emotion. Stories that can give meaning to a fact or help us picture an issue compliment our terse communications by helping listeners viscerally imagine, feel and sense the merits of a recommended decision or path. It’s almost impossible to do that in an executive summary.

As Brené Brown once wrote: “Stories are just data with a soul.”

Stories give readers a portal to their imaginations, where they can picture a proposed scenario or discover for themselves the context for a recommended action.

How much is too long

Sometimes a story can take too long to tell, or put on paper. But how much is too long.

When I taught small business marketing, I used this adage: “Q: When is your marketing too expensive?” “A: When it doesn’t work.” The same could be said for business writing. If the words behind your message are few, but they don’t move your audience, it’s too long. If you take more words to tell a story and your message has impact, the length is probably just right.

I remember sitting at a women’s leadership conference watching the high-energy opening speaker on stage. She moved across the stage with passion and conviction, championing new approaches to leadership to a tribe of bright-eyed, already convinced, audience members. Yet after about ten minutes of listening to her, the bright eyes of audience members started to dull and their enthusiasm waned. Why? She was speaking in platitudes without telling stories. By the time she hit the twenty minute mark, audience members were looking at their phones, continuing to smile pleasantly, and tuning out.

The ever-popular message to presenters: “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them?” is all tell, tell, tell. What about helping them feel? Why not paint a picture of that future for people that helps them care?

Here’s the challenge for people like me. We have to balance our left-brain analytic skills with a new set of awarenesses. To effectively create stories, we need to nurture a more right-brain kind of intelligence that thrives on images, sensory awareness and imagination. We have to smell the roses in our imaginations before we can invite our listeners to do the same.

How to create a story that captivates

Many of the story-telling techniques used in branding are message-based. You start with a concept and then map out your story. But my colleague, master story-coach and storyteller Doug Lipman sees it differently. Story, he says, starts with an image. A specific image from a specific moment helps you to remember and recreate a scene for an audience.

By making a connection with an imaginal world, storytellers invite listeners to join them in an experience that can lead to a message.

Building our image gathering awareness

Trouble is, some of us, like me, are occasionally crippled by our desire to be concise. We may blitz over the intriguing details in a scene that would help bring to life a story we want to create. How often I have wished I were a better observer! For the sake of story, I’m practicing remedial remembering, trying to recount what I was seeing, tasting, feeling, hearing, touching, etc. at a particular moment.

I am trying to pause more to notice the small vignettes taking place all around me, from the garden to a client office. Just today on the island, the hummingbird made a loud swooshing sound as he dive bombed into the water coming out of my hose in the garden. The six foot oriental lilies, now towering in the flower bed, have a sweet, hypnotic fragrance. I swam by a great blue heron fishing on the dock of a local park, testing how near I could come to him. He watched me out of his little yellow O shaped eyes while continuing to stretch his neck towards the buffet of small fish in the water below. Finally, tired of my presence, he sauntered to the end of the dock, and with a great swoop lifted himself into the sky.

None of these little vignettes are stories. But noticing them helps me rebuild my capacity to use my senses and remember my memories. When I craft a story to bring data or a finding to life, I will be better tuned to describe a moment and help listeners enter my world and hear my message.

Maybe that’s something you’d like to try: stop, feel, notice, and imagine the world around you as if it was a scene that you could someday paint for another. It will only enrich your stories to come.

When a Story Becomes a Game-Changer

If you ever needed proof of the power of story to set a direction for an industry, take a look at The One Device: The secret history of the iPhone by Brian Merchant, just released this week. (You can read a long excerpt here.)

Creating a story about technology and the future is risky. But it’s all the more risky when it means taking on a titan like Steve Jobs. Jobs had a narrative driving his strategy at Apple that didn’t include creating a phone or dealing with telephone carriers. “We’re not very good going through orifices to get to the end users,” he said referring to phone companies. He stubbornly refused to expand on the success of the iPod by building an iPod-like phone.

As competitors began building phones that looked increasingly like the iPod, members of the executive team at Apple argued for the merits of building an Apple phone. Jobs didn’t see it.

Yet in the top ranks of Apple were engineers and executives with the courage to go toe-to-toe with Jobs and argue for an alternate story about what was about to happen in the market and the industry. They backed their arguments with data, designs, prototypes, chutzpah and a big vision of the future. They created a more compelling narrative.

Jobs finally changed his story and launched the top secret project (code name “Purple”) that produced the iPhone. What ensued had all the passion, drive, jealousy, cunning, secrecy, rivalries and obsessions of a Puccini opera. The project would make careers and break marriages.

Fun reading for those of us interested in the origin stories behind companies and game-changer products. I’m looking forward to reading the whole book. But today’s takeaway is simply this:

Big stories shape what people can imagine and what gets done.

What stories are you shaping as you think about the future?

Of course, not all stories about the future get it right. For a little fun: here are some failed predictions about technology:*

1876: “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not.  We have plenty of messenger boys.” — William Preece, British Post Office.

1876: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” — William Orton, President of Western Union.

1966: “Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop.” — Time Magazine.

1995: “I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” — Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com.

2007: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” — Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO.

*Source: Forbes Worst tech predictions of all time by Robert J. Szczerba.


8 reasons not to tell stories (a warning for consultants and trainers.)

Photo: Christine Butler –  Creative Commons license

“Storytelling is dangerous.”

I wrote this in my chapter in Sakile Camara’s book for trainers Communication Training and Development (Kendall Hunt Publishers, 2017) that is about to be published. My article is titled The Savvy Storyteller: A Guide for Trainers.  I assume that if you read this blog and do any teaching, you value interaction, engagement and learner-focused objectives. Storytelling is a great tool for that. But then I realized that there are still trainers who value control over interaction. I decided I must warn them. In their case, storytelling could be very risky.

(My husband says to warn you that in the following I am writing tongue-in-cheek in case my aberrant humor doesn’t come through.)

8 reasons not to use stories:

Storytelling lessens our control. 

I once taught 45 four-year olds at a time in a bi-lingual Ecuadorian pre-school. They spoke only Spanish. I was told to speak only English. I could never figure out who was Paco and who was Pancho. That’s where I learned the mantra: “Control is everything.” Forget the job of teaching the little ones English during the hour I had with them. My real job, I was told, was to keep them in their seats. (“Buena suerte.” Good luck with that.)

So trainers, remember the mantra. You need to keep people tracking on your  agenda. You’ve divided it into ten minute sound bites to make sure that nothing goes askance. You’ve spent hours creating those lectures and exercises which will drive home your message, so beware: with storytelling people get to discover their own meanings from the stories. That could be chaos!

Just think about Jesus, probably the world’s most famous storyteller. He told stories over two thousand years ago and people are still debating what he meant!

That’s too inefficient! Couldn’t he have just handed out a rule book? Save your students time and just type up the golden rules they need to follow. Remember, who wants to be crucified or fired for failure-to-meet-pre-determined-training-metrics.

Storytelling asks us to listen.

First, you have to listen to an audience to make sure that they’re listening to you. If not, talk louder. If they still don’t listen, walk out. Watch it though, because great storytellers are likely to be really great listeners who value other people’s stories. You can’t afford to do that. Do you have ten minutes free during your work day? No? Then, how can you even think about listening to someone else’s story? As you read this, your colleague Jeremy is walking over to you, smiling, with a cup of coffee in his hand, looking like he has something to share. On your mark, get set, RUN while you still have time!!!

Storytelling asks us to be vulnerable.  

Beware the “V” word. It’s too bad that author, researcher, and speaker Brené Brown made it sound like allowing yourself to be vulnerable was a good thing. Our rule should be: Vulnerability is OK for other people, but NOT for us! Do you really want to share your failings in public? Unacceptable! Did you hear what happened to Brené when she started becoming famous: people sent her nasty-grams telling her she was too fat! This is why you should never show any vulnerability–or at least not until after you go on a starvation diet.

Storytelling validates the truth of other people’s experiences. 

This includes dead people and people you don’t like. Our job as teachers is to establish OUR expertise. That’s why we are paid. Do you want to put your job at risk by acknowledging that the folks you are training already know a lot about your subject–maybe more than you–and might have their own stories to tell? The best defense is a good offense…talk more.

Storytelling ignites change. 

Creative storytellers have been known to let audiences make up their own creative endings, or invent alternate scenarios about how a scene can go (like Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed). Some storytellers even invite audience members to tell their stories and help act them out on stage. (Playback Theatre). Audiences discover their power to become agents of change inventing their own futures. But change is risky. Think about it, our training programs haven’t changed, and why should they? If someone suggests one of these co-creative methods on stage, ask whether he or she is planning to bring trees on stage to tell their stories about the environment. This has to stop somewhere.

Storytelling invites audiences to create their own meanings.

This happens especially when learners are encouraged to reflect. There are three reasons not to do this in our trainings: 1) It takes time; 2) They might come up with meanings we didn’t intend; and 3) It is harder to measure meaning as categories on multiple choice exams.

Storytelling doesn’t dance well with powerpoint. 

Storytelling asks us to remember emotions, reconnect with them, abandon our scripts and speak directly to the hearts and minds of our listeners. Just because national leaders can go off script doesn’t mean that we can!  Stories have a pesky way of changing as they are told and adapted to the needs and listening of different audiences. Stories refuse to stand still and they don’t like being reduced to bullet points.

But that shouldn’t be a problem since we can’t add anything to the slides that we created three years ago.

Storytelling connects us with our hearts. 

We can wax sentimental about hearts, but here’s the real scoop about what they do: make us get angry, feel really sad, or experience compassion for people we don’t even know. Don’t you have enough to worry about without thinking about the workers in China dealing with your electronic waste? Or what’s happening to polar bears? Our students need to stay focused. On our bullet points. From the talk we planned in 2014.

So please help me to send out the warning. And let me know, if you’d like to read the real chapter about what great trainers do!