The part of the story you do not hear

There's an important difference between telling a story and giving a lecture. In a lecture, it is important that the speaker include any detail necessary to understanding the key points. In a story, it is important that the storyteller use details to hook the attention of the listeners so that they will generate whatever is necessary for them to make meaning of the story.

Stories are always incomplete without the collaboration of the listener. That's why they get into our heads and stay there long after facts and figures and theories have faded. We didn't just consume them: we helped to create them.

If there's too much missing, then the story you hear and the story being told can be very different. This is most likely to happen when people tell a story without building up the context. No one exists in isolation. They live in a physical world of settings and relationships and connections. When the storyteller includes some of these, we use our experience to build up the rest. We know a little about families and communities and markets and forests.

If the setting disappears from the story, so that it seems like you are watching an individual making choices surrounded by a white blur, then you have two choices. You can make up all of the context as a listener (which means giving your meaning to a story started by someone else) or you can ask questions to bring the setting back into the picture. When you do, the meaning of the choices within the story will shift and so will your sense of what the storyteller intended to do by sharing the story.

We are all more influenced by our environments and relationships than we think we are.


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