Thursday, March 25, 2010

Stories turn up in the strangest places

I am have been an English teacher, a writer, and a storyteller. There has never been a time when I was not enchanted by stories. When I tell people that they need to tell stories because stories have power, they often think I say that from my own, peculiar, not-particularly-to-be-trusted perspective.

It's true that stories have shaped much of my life and that I am unusually sensitive to the stories around me.

It's also true that stories have power.

Today I opened my April Harvard Business Review. The final page is an interview with Jane Goodall (yes - that Jane Goodall, the chimp lady) and the final lines of the interview are these:

". . . people say you can't change somebody who's older than such and such an age, because they're set in their ways. It's not true. If you can find a story, if you can make them think and not be defensive, sometimes the toughest person can change."

Such clear words. But how do we shape our thoughts and ideas and identities as stories? That part is often not clear and not entirely palatable. For the second time, I find myself part of a linked in group telling 6 word stories. Except that most of them aren't stories - they're just slogans. Apparently very professional, creative people can't always tell the difference between selling themselves and telling their stories.

I think it might be because a story moves the teller's ego over to one side and ask, politely but firmly, that it sit still and listen to the story. The minute the ego jumps up, waving its arms and shouting its enthusiasm, the story falters. This is true whether or not the story is, technically, about the teller. Even if the story comes from the teller's life, the telling of it requires that the teller become all of the story - and so none of it. The character in the story who looks and sounds like the teller is just one of the characters in the story.

In business, we talk as though stories can be owned by their tellers. In storytelling, we talk about stories that are simultaneously created by the listener and the teller. In storytelling, it is sharing the story that gives the story power. There is no room for owners or egos, only for the momentum generated by the story as it moves among the teller and the listeners.

This sounds very esoteric. It's not. It happens around family dinner tables and office coffee pots and over beer at sports bars. One person begins a story and listeners actively (and sometimes loudly) jump in to share and shape the telling. By the time the story is done, relationships and moods have shifted and different actions are possible.

It's amazing how much can change when we distract our egos and focus on shared space. That's the challenge for businesses who want to use story to make a difference. How can we move past ego and ownership to find the stories that will move us forward?

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