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:
- opens up a space that is welcoming and safe enough to encourage risk taking;
- fosters the collective creation of beauty in a way that also validates individuals;
- engages great diversity;
- 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!!!
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.
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.
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!
Have you noticed how the fault lines between our values in the United States are becoming chasms? The distances separating conservatives and progressives, blue states and red states, pro-lifers and pro-choicers appear to be growing. That makes it oh-so-tempting for me to want to curl up in my island community and just speak with my own kind, of which there are plenty here in the Pacific Northwest.
But if we only talk with our own kind, how will we ever bridge the divides that plague our country? And how do we begin to do that?
I asked that question to my friend and colleague Real Time Strategic Change consultant, Robert “Jake” Jacobs, in our recent podcast interview, Jake responded with four magic words he learned from his mentor, famed organizational consultant Kathy Dannemiller.
Could You Say More?
Like a lot of what Jake has to say, (love him for it), these words are simple yet profound. As he said in the interview, could you say more “creates a space for other people to share their stories, and for you to more fully appreciate their experiences before sharing your own. It’s about listening—the central secret—paying attention to people in a much deeper and more profound way—so that you connect with them on a heart level as well as a head level.”
The results of such listening can be significant. Jake and his consulting colleagues Margaret Seidler and Chandra Irvin have been working with the City of Charleston, South Carolina to help that city move forward, community and police together, in the wake of the mass shooting and hate crime that took place at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on the evening of June 17, 2015. Community and police were brought together in facilitated “listening sessions” which led to mutual understanding as well as concrete proposals for action that both sides were willing to take.
Listen to the full interview here.
Bridging through storytelling
Jake’s words remind me of the five words I use in helping someone bring out a story: “Tell me about the time…” Those words, or variations, help point someone toward a memory, a real experience, and away from the report or conclusion he or she has drawn from that memory. This helps take the conversation away from entrenched positions, about which we may differ, to real experiences, which have a validity of their own.
Before you start the conversation
All of this presupposes that you actually want to listen to someone. Our brains are well tooled to sense not only what someone is saying but how they are saying it. When you approach someone with appreciation and curiosity they feel it. When you approach with judgment, they feel that, and it’s likely to trigger a cortisol-infused fight or flight response.
But how do you engage in a conversation with someone who is making proclamations that are off-the-wall-loony-tunes and possibly destructive to others? Simple answer: you don’t. That bridge is way too rickety given your judgment and the fact that person doesn’t want to dialogue with you anyway.
Better to find someone who is willing to enter into a real conversation, not to convince you but to build a bridge of mutual understanding.
Bridging the deep divides
One person who has practiced the art of dialogue around issues where there are deep divides is Francis Kissling, former President of Catholics for Choice. Abortion is one of the heated issues that has divided this country for years and Francis has made a point of reaching out in dialogue to pro-life advocates who have been willing to talk.
Key to these conversations was an agreement that she and her conversational partner were coming together to understand differences and not to reach agreement.
In a brilliant interview with Krista Tippett she says, “the pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other.” In the many years that she has been a part of dialogues about abortion, Kissling hasn’t changed her opponents’ perspectives. But she has allowed her own views to become more nuanced.
What a dialogue like that requires is, in Tippett’s words, “the courage to be vulnerable in front of those we passionately disagree with.”
Kissling offers three profoundly wise questions to consider when talking to someone who is on the other side of a deep debate:
- What is it in your own position that gives you trouble?
- What is it in the position of the other that you are attracted to?
- Where do you have doubts?
With her approach, you don’t need to change your core values. But you can deepen your understanding of an issue and embrace your doubts.
Years ago, I coached a manager whose family was broken apart because he believed his gay brother was “going to hell for his gay lifestyle.” My client was an otherwise kind man so I asked him, not withstanding the Bible he cited as proof for his views, if there was any place he might have room to say “I’m not totally sure” about his convictions. He had none. It was terribly sad because his unwillingness to consider even a shred of doubt or the possibility of a “gray zone” between his black and white beliefs was costing him his relationship both with his brother and with his son.
I’m not pretending that dialoging across large divides is easy. But we have to start somewhere. Maybe with Jake’s four words.
Can You Say More?
Is our country under a spell?
After the last presidential debate, I felt the need to wash away a residual toxicity, so I indulged in a long bath with a light read. I picked up my copy of The Joy of Witchcraft, a novel billed as “A Humorous Paranormal Romance.” I needed something light.
I admit to a secret curiosity about witchcraft. I’ve wanted to understand who witches were and who they are today. I know they got a raw deal for centuries. Folks in power labeled them as evil, while forgetting that the true evil is to label other groups as evil.
In the Middle Ages, women who were healers, naturopaths, shamans, spiritually sensitive or just strong members of their communities could be rounded up and labeled witches. If you were afraid of a woman’s power, in Europe or the United States, you could call her a witch and she would be humiliated or burned at the stake.
Thankfully today,we don’t put women on bonfires – we just use words like “piggy,” “aggressive”, “fat,” “strident,” “bitchy” or …
Anyway, back to witchcraft. The art continues today, and I’ve wondered how much it overlaps with herbalism, energetic healing, spiritualism, or using affirmations, stuff that no longer sounds so weird.
Modern day witches may have their special vocabularies and secret rituals that make them sound cultish, but then again so do the followers of self-help gurus like Tony Robbins or Werner Erhard.
Reading The Joy of Witchcraft
The book is fictional and fun, and no tricks of the trade are divulged. But one scene made me pause.
The witches at the Jane Madison’s School for Witches are under threat. As they gather on the lawn outside their school, a stag enters on to the property, followed by a huge dog. The stag disappears, and soon the dog reveals itself as a monstrous, two-headed creature with special powers, a beast that is violent and nearly impossible to kill with traditional swords and daggers.
The situation begs for some witches magic. But as the group of witches stand together and watch the dog, their special powers start leaching out of them. In the presence of this brutish animal, they cannot remember their witches spells, protections and curses. They can no longer access who they know themselves to be. All they can do is stand and watch in horror as their guardians try, ineffectively, to defeat the beast – that is, of course, controlled by a dastardly villain.
With the presidential debates still in my mind, I began to see a bizarre parallel to the witches’ dilemma.
Could it be that some of us in this country are also under the spell of a brute force that is draining away our powers of wisdom and compassion, cutting us off from our knowledge of who we are, and rendering us impotent to act in the face of a two-headed monster that will not go away?
Watching all the media hype, have we frozen in place, forgetting who we are?
What will it take to wake us out of the spell?
I don’t have time to write a novel, because the situation calls for immediate action, but I have an answer:
Vote your conscience, vote your preference, just vote.
By voting you can start breaking the spell that may be entrancing us, politically and culturally.
Don’t take what you have for granted
Years ago, I did a performance piece, a monologue, about a woman named Ly Sieng Ngo, a Cambodian refugee and community health worker, who had been a young woman when the Khmer Rouge invaded her city, thirty some years ago. As the Khmer Rouge approached, no one imagined what was about to happen. Her family, well educated and privileged, were going to lose everything. Most of them would die. Ly Sieng would be sent out to the jungle to spend four years facing the horror now known as The Killing Fields.
Often when I finished performing her piece, I was shaking. Although I was only standing in her shoes vicariously, my body imagined the smallest part of her experience and reacted. Ly Sieng once told me, “The body can’t take it,” explaining how she learned to go numb in order to survive.
Years after the Killing Fields, having come to the United States where she recovered, slowly, from the trauma, Ly Sieng would say to her nieces, “In this country, we have so much. Do not take what we have for granted.”
Ly Sieng’s lesson still rings true: do not take what you have for granted.
Returning to the idea of witchcraft, it’s time to gather our collective forces and cast off any secret spell of impotence. We cannot stand on the sidelines not using all our powers.
Break the spell.