A potential client just asked if I could teach him the craft of storytelling.
“Nope.” I answered. “I can tell you how to ride a wild horse.”
There are plenty of (great) books out there that will walk you through how to build the arc of a good story.
But Storytelling is a relational process between you, the story, and the audience (I actually refer to the audience as participants, as my number one mission it to engage them to a state of active delight and active participation).
I experience stories as if they have a soul with a purpose and have the capacity to heal and transform not only the way you perceive the world you live in, but influences how you act, what you believe is possible, and what you dare to dream about after hearing it. Weather you are stepping onto a stage at the moth, presenting at a conference, talking at TED, or standing in front of the boardroom, or reading to a child at bed time, when you are holding the reins of your story, you have the power to captivate and transform how your audience experiences the world.
Elizabeth Gilbert, in her infamous Ted talk on the elusive creative genius, spoke about poet Ruth Stone, who heard her poems riding across the landscapes like a steam train. Ruth said as soon as she heard a poem coming it was her job to run to a piece of paper and capture that poem as it barreled through her, or catch that poem by the tail and write it down before it got away. I think of storytelling in the very same way. The stories of our time, the stories that are here to explore and make meaning of the times we are living in — are hanging out in this amorphous space of our collective conscious. As a storyteller your job is to know how to listen for the story that has shown up to live and breathe in the times we are living in, ask why it wants to be given the power of your voice in this moment, and how it is here to serve humanity to become the best we can be.
When you meet a story as if it as a soul, once you invite one into your life they have the capacity to impact your mood, your worldview, your experience of the world. I have fallen so in love with stories, I didn’t want to let them go. I have met stories that held truth and insight, but I didn’t want to be held a slave to that reality for the time it would take to create it. So consiously choose what kind of stories you want to hang around with.
I’m not the only person who thinks storytellers are some of the most powerful people on the planet as they are consciously shape-shifting your reality with every word. Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson proved this concept when he demonstrated the speaker’s activity is spatially and temporally coupled with the listener’s activity. (BTW, this connection disappears when participants fail to communicate.) On average the listener’s brain activity mirrors the speaker’s activity. In other words, when we see or experience a story, our brain joins with the brains of the storyteller, and together, we create new worlds as our brains collaborate to create the vision of a shared reality. It’s just like magic. And it is a super power that can be wielded by the dark side. While I believe in using stories for social good, I would be negligent not to mention that the rise of popularity of story as a tool in pop culture has made it a target. Stories have been hijacked by marketing and the business world, enslaved to manipulate people who don’t know how to see them coming as a weapon or as a tool of mass distraction when cloaked to deliver fear, to trap you in a cycle of discontent, or leave you feeling less than fabulous.
I realize this may sound extreme, but lets play with the concept for a moment. You see, stories come from the source of creation. The place where life is born. If you want to get new agey about it and speak in the language of chakras, your second chakra is place of creativity, which is also the place in your body where we focus on the creation of new life. Life itself is a positive force in the universe. So stories, coming out of creation, just like you and me, are magic incarnate. And when we take them, and bend them, and manipulate them to use them to make people feel fear, vacuous, or plant destructive images about our future: that is an act of enslavement. So it is good style to know who is behind creating the news you consume, the entertainment you take in, and who is holding the stories of your family. At the end of the day, the storyteller holds the keys to possibility.
I digress, because you simply cannot speak about one without the other. Rather than focus on how stories can be used against us, lets focus on what telling a story has to do with riding a wild horse, and how stories can be used as a superpower for good. Ellen Schneider, the second executive producer of POV and founder of Active Voice, says that, “One of the great powers of story is that it creates a shared experience among strangers.” In other words, if can give complete strangers, or people with opposing views, something they now have in common.
You are a superhero who wants to transform the world for the better.
And that your super power is that you know how to tell a story that can:
· Captivate your audience
· Unite the masses
· Build community
· Revere and build culture
· Provide a place where people can examine the world they live in
· Give people the tools to consider how and why they react to their life experiences
· Humanize those who seem other
· Open hearts by building empathy and compassion
· Incite a sense of hope
· Create a renewed sense of purpose in the world
So if a story is a wild horse, with a soul all its own, with the same capacity to enliven the room as a powerful leader, to distract and deter as a clown, or to instill hope and vision for a better future such as a hero, provide wisdom that informs you how to handle challenging situations, provide a pathway to seeing the world you live in through a new perspective, inform your belief systems… lets talk about how you can ride that wild horse like Paul Revere delivering messages that can transform the way people not only experience their world, but behave in their world.
1) Treat your story with respect: A wild horse won’t let you ride it if you don’t respect it. You may be able to get on it, you may be able to repeat the words, but story will just buck you off and your listeners wont hear you or remember what you said if you don’t respect your story. To respect a story is to know where it came from, how it came into being, who are the people that have carried it before you, and to honor them in the telling of that story. It also means that you are willing to develop a kind of intimacy with your story so that you invite it into your life to live with you. That means listening for your story while you are doing the dishes, while on walks, and even be willing to recognize it when it is speaking to you as inspiration through the voice of that person next to you in line at the bank.
2) Embody your story: Transmit the reality of your story by living inside your body as if it that story is true. As humans we are complicated creatures. We don’t just listen to your words; we actually consciously and unconsciously take in every gesture and inflection of your voice. That means, when you tell me about a tree growing at the bottom of the ocean: don’t paint the image outside of yourself, you live as if you are inside the ocean, swimming around the edges of the tree, enamored by the branches as they sway in the current. And in doing that we experience ourselves in that scene, through you.
3) Master the art of giving: If you are with a group of 12 or 2000, you need to connect with your audience. One of the little understood facts of life in the world of communication strategy is that rule number one of getting someone to listen to you is to let them feel heard. In by doing so you are presencing them. Even if you are on the stage with bright lights blaring in your eyes and they are in the dark (Think of comedians or muscians who get their audiences to cheer). As an intern at Williamstown Theater Festival I had the opportunity to learn from Betty Buckley (the voice of memories in the Broadway show Cats). She told us that when she stepped onto stage, she sang as if she was singing to each individual. I remember sitting in the audience of her cabaret show. I felt I was watching the Mona Lisa, as it seemed like she was singing just to me. So when you step on the stage, your attention goes on the audience. You enter the space with the intention to give a gift, to transform their experience, to take them on the ride of their life.
4) Kill the Narcissist: The story you are telling isn’t about you, even if it’s your life story. Because the moment you opened your mouth to tell a story designed to transform the world for a better place, the story stopped being about you and started being about us. The difference between writing in your journal and holding an audience captive, is that the story you are telling holds a universal truth, lessons, insight, impeccable aha moments…that everyone will recognize as something they have experienced, or want to experience. In other words if you are telling me a personal story, don’t lead me into a dark cave of your life and shine your flashlight in all the dark corners. Just extend your hand and show me the gems. This is the difference between sucking the life out of a party because you are feeding some part of you that is desperate for attention — leaving people feeling vacuous and empty — and filling the room with your life force, creating an experience so that the listeners leaves feeling life affirmed, satiated, and nourished.
5) Listen for your story: not just to your story: Be a good partner, and let the soul of your story evolve. Even though a story has stood the test of time and still lingers, it doesn’t mean that a story is still true to our current consciousness. For example: At the core of Sleeping Beauty is a story about a woman who needs to be rescued by a man in order to embody her archetype as queen. That story may have been true at one point in time. But it is no longer true in our current paradigm. So then, if we listen for how the story has shifted to reflect the current values and capacity for consciousness of the times we are living in, we will hear that the story has evolved. The 2016 version of Sleeping Beauty might reveal that the only way the prince was able to wake Sleeping Beauty was after his own journey of finding self love, and it was with this kind of kiss of true love, and through meeting her with interdependence, that he was able to wake her to fully embody herself again. So the moral of the story is just because you have known a story a long time, it doesn’t mean that it can’t evolve with the times. So listen with generosity for your story, as you might listen to a young child discovering what they want to be when they grow up, as much as listening and repeating what you have heard before.
6) Set the stage: Create a Toto we aren’t in Kansas any more moment. You know how Metro Goldwyn Meyer Studios starts every movie with the lion roar? How HBO fills the screen with a logo and song before each film? They are setting the stage and preparing you to enter into another world. You can do this on the stage by changing the status quo. As a storyteller you can prepare the audience through music, song, changing the orientation of the room, asking for silence, bringing in elements such as flowers, food, or other things they aren’t used to experiencing. Whether you are telling a story at a party, or on a stage, before you begin, you prepare the runway for take off.
7) Know your intention (aka walk in Love): Since the title of this piece is about using stories to transform the world, I’m going to make the assumption that you are telling a story because you want to unite the collective, to instill hope in humanity, to create a positive vision of a better world. Before you begin: know what your intention is for the audience. Is it to leave your audience feeling the ecstasy that comes with feeling in love? Is it to leave the audience feeling enlivened, empowered, and filled with curiosity about the world they live in? Is it to break down a paradigm of thinking and recreate another? What are you infusing into your work? You can lead people through the hardest and scariest and darkest of journeys, if they inherently trust that you will lead them out to see the light again. So know your purpose, and thread every moment of your story with that intention.
8) Learn how to play jazz: Now that you have set the stage, listened to your story, listened for your story, created a sacred space, and engaged your audience so fully that they feel enlivened and their passion and zest for life has been awakened: you need to learn how to play jazz. Now you get listen for is happening in the moment with the unique alchemy of people in the room. That means… you might go off script and embody a certain part of your story a little differently, play up one part, play down another part, and ride the current of your audience as they ride the great wave of your story. Because if you just blindly press the go button on the rollercoaster when you start your story, you just made the story all about you~ and you might leave a few people behind. But as a transformational storyteller, your intention is to keep everyone with you, you have a flock you are tending, taking them from one hillside to the next, helping them connect the dots in-between. So learn how to play jazz, trust yourself and the story you are working with so much that you become so present to the space and to your audience that their reactions have a place to live in the telling of your story, and influence your delivery.
9) Know your medicine: Now that you know that you are magic and can create new worlds and destroy old paradigms, you need to know what your unique medicine is as a storyteller. What do you have to give that is so uniquely yours? Are you inspiring the people you work with? Are you providing a place for people to do deep healing work as a therapist? Are you changing the world and instilling hope and vision about the future as an entrepreneur? When you know what your gift is, it comes through, without you having to speak one word out loud.