‘We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say-and to feel- ‘Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it.’ You’re not as alone as you thought.’
Storytelling has been in our blood for thousands of years. Even a cave painting created over 30,000 years ago depicts a story. In more recent, though still ancient, times Sheherezade is said to have saved her own life by telling more than a thousand stories (‘The Arabian Knights’) and Homer’s epic storytelling through ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ are still widely studied, shared and quoted to this day.
Twentieth Century US philosopher, Richard Rorty, considered one of the great thinkers of his time, advocated influencing people’s feelings rather than their minds, asserting that one of the best ways to do so is to tell sentimental stories. He maintained that great stories ‘reduce cruelty’ and ‘expand sympathy’; creating solidarity and enabling us to move towards a just and equitable culture.
And culture is malleable. It can be influenced and transformed, as well as preserved, as it is in many indigenous tribes throughout the world. The Native American tribes have kept their great oral tradition of storytelling alive. Thus preserving their culture as well as entertaining, educating and informing each other and subsequent generations. The same is true for the Aboriginal tribes of Australia.
As Robert Moss says in his book ‘Dreamgates’:
‘Australian Aborigines say that the big stories—the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life—are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush.’
Stories appear in various guises. They can be cautionary tales and teaching tools. Often their themes are universal; the greatest of them transcending cultures, borders and barriers. Many stories are told through dance and movement as well as the spoken word. Others through the words and music of a song or a poem. Still others through film, theatre and photography.
In the performing arts, the actor or artist is as important as the writer in conveying a story so that the audience can relate to the characters, their motives and actions. If we can’t feel what they are going through, the story often has little meaning for us.
Our appetite for giving and receiving stories seems insatiable appetite. The enduring fascination with Shakespeare’s genius for retelling well-known stories illustrates how important storytelling is still to us as adults in the western world.
So, what of the relevance of stories in our business lives? As Michael Margolis states in his widely distributed e-book ‘Believe Me’, the best stories create continuity (from past to present to future). In doing so, the audience is drawn in rather than alienated. From this standpoint, the author can influence and persuade.
There are many more of us now writing and publishing our own stories. Some do so better than others, of course, as blogging sites proliferate across the internet.
Perhaps more interesting for those of us in the business of coaching people to speak persuasively, more and more of us are taking to platforms and stages across the commercial world to share our opinions and ideas and, ultimately, to sell and market our products and services. Every day, I receive dozens of emails inviting me to hear this or that speaker on how to make millions through internet marketing, publish and sell a book, or negotiate a pay rise.
Storytelling can be a compelling part of these presentation formats. We often hear of the ‘gift’ of the performer or storyteller, but really this is about mastery of your craft. Developing well-balanced content, perhaps using some images, or sometimes only images; then using the power of your voice to illustrate and enhance the visuals and written word.
Whether you do this frequently or occasionally, in a meeting of five people, a pitch to a client with ten people in the room, or from a stage to an audience of hundreds, even thousands – it makes a difference.
There’s something thrilling about an orator who has mastered all the tools at their disposal. Those speakers who can truly entrance and engage an audience do so through these and other tools of our trade, whether it be the pitch of their voice, their modulation or intonation; eye contact with many audience members, as well as a good vocabulary of gestures and facial expressions that align with the words spoken. They set the scene for us, using not just facts and figures, but bring it to vivid life; appealing not just to our reason but our emotions and sense of fairness to persuade us to their point of view.
Who knows… perhaps our stories can prove Rorty right and make us more humane and sympathetic through being inspired and transformed by stories in all their many forms.
What’s your favourite personal story and how do you prefer to share it with others? Or does it depend on your mood – or your audience?