Story — or maybe more properly, storytelling — is the new black. It seems that leaders everywhere are concerned about telling a better story, individuals are aware of the need for a personal brand story and political campaigns are raising our awareness of what happens when stories become polarised and crash into each other. The trend towards seeing everything as a story means we are are challenged on two levels — first that we are overwhelmed by a fragmentation of stories in every possible media, and secondly that we start to see storytelling as simply the latest fad or the most shiny tool in the box.
As many who work with the subtleties of communication and human nature warn us — a bulldozer is simply a tool, it depends on what your intention is in using it. Do you want to tear down the house or do you want to build a road? The same tool can do both of these things. It can be destructive and it can be constructive — it all depends on how you choose to use it. And the awareness and skill of the user makes the difference. A hammer can be used to create something both purposeful and beautiful or it can make a mess of both the object it is used on and the one swinging it.
It seems we are on the edge with storytelling in more than one way. We are at risk of having storytelling and story work be just the latest fad or commodity at the same time as we are struggling with the challenge of finding a new narrative that can hold the complexities and challenges of these times. These were two of the powerful warnings I heard while listening to story practitioners around the world last Monday.
Together with story colleagues David Hutchens and David Drake, I made an invitation to a group of colleagues to gather for a conversation about the future story of story. We were asking ourselves about the edges of story work in our practices and in the world. We were wondering what might shape a focus to the field of story work and connect practitioners of all kinds. And we wanted to share our burning questions and our ideas about what we might create together.
Here are some of the nuggets of our conversation that make me thoughtful about how important it is to be aware of the power of stories and become skilful at recognising and working with them:
- “There is a high amount of distress going on everywhere, people are looking to stories for meaning and at the same time wondering if the meaning they are making is valid.”
- “Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had the same conversation with three different companies. The idea of purpose is on everyone’s mind. How can we have a conversation about purpose? Story is part of this. Meaning is something we add.”
- “I find people talking, arguing, influencing, persuading each other — there’s a lot of telling and not so much listening. I know that the listening aspect of story has a much greater role than we’ve been giving it of late, especially during election time.”
- “I need new inspiration. I need a new tribe. I say to myself my work is about re-enchantment, one story at a time. One story at a time is not getting us very far. I’m less grandiose about my work than before. How can we explore relationships to our stories in ways that are healthy?”
- “What critical skills do we bring to assess stories and their power? How do we get out of stories that beguile us but don’t work for creating a common, generative future? We wondered if what is missing is the story of a future, that we seem to be in some sort of nostalgia for the past that never was, but the power of the story makes it feel real, and more attractive to what might be ahead. Fear is being used as a tool to perhaps drag us back.”
- “The addiction to the hero’s journey narrative has become so endangering. We are living in a more complex, beautiful world. We are not the hero who decides. We may be in the post-hero time. What stories can sustain and support us now?”
- “What if we got away from stories as a commodity, but only as a way of being in the world? What would that do to the way we approach the world and dealing with people on the margins?”
- “Actually telling the story is, at the moment, for me less interesting than creating a shared story and seeing all of the small stories come together, where our similarities are. Also interpreting and reframing stories. We spend a lot of time on how to tell a better story. But how can we receive, distill and move with stories in a more useful way?”
- “We’re living in radically different stories. We’re all wading through the same pool of data, selecting different data and creating coherence out of it. Here in America there is a mass awareness of how dangerously easy it is to create narrative coherence. You just have to say something with conviction enough and it becomes real. But there’s opportunity too. If there are people creating a poison narrative, we can create a beautiful shared, creative narrative as well. We can choose a different reality.”
Wondering how to make sense of the deluge of stories out there? Concerned to take a stance and make a difference? The Story Activist Intensive is a 6 session online course starting 14 November. Becoming a Story Activist means becoming a story change agent. The Story Activist Intensive supports you in using your capacity and skills to work with the stories of people, places and things to discover and activate their greatest potential. For more information and to register click here.