Category Archives for The importance of storytelling

A story brought him home

Epilogo by Daniel Zedda, via Flickr Creative Commons

Epilogo by Daniel Zedda, via Flickr Creative Commons

The children from the Seattle hospital’s burn unit were brought in on stretchers and in wheelchairs. Some were ambulatory and pushed IV poles. The youngest was 5, the oldest 15. The 15-year-old was burned over most of his body. He faced years of skin grafts and a lifetime of unwanted attention from people who would not know how to react.

I was having the same trouble people outside the hospital would have with these children, wondering where to put my eyes, how to reach beyond the disfigured surface to the spirit within. The stories I had chosen seemed puny in the face of their overwhelming needs.

I decided to tell them a story I had learned from Bill Harley called “The Freedom Bird.” It is the story of a hunter who shoots a magnificent golden bird, only to find that he cannot kill it, no matter what he does. It is the Freedom Bird, irrepressible, rising from any adversity. The violence often makes adults uncomfortable, but children love it.

Halfway into the story, I looked at the 15-year-old. In my mouth was a story of hacking, boiling, and burying. In front of me was a boy who had lived the bird’s fate, through fire, surgeries, and pain. I wanted the floor to open and swallow me.

The floor refused. I finished the story, tucked my tail between my legs, and slunk home. For the next week I practiced mental flagellation, knowing I should call the burn unit and apologize, putting it off until tomorrow.

The burn unit called first. One of the staff members wanted to tell me about the 15-year-old boy. He had been despondent, wishing he could die. The story changed his mind. Each time the hunter shot or hacked or buried the bird, the creature rose like the phoenix, until at last the hunter realized that he was trying to destroy an indomitable spirit. The boy decided he was the Freedom Bird. No fire or surgery or pain, no insensitive staring or comment would destroy his spirit. He would rise and rise again.

That boy taught me to trust the stories that call to me, to give them truly, knowing that they may heal or harm, but that I cannot predict how anyone hearing them will react. Life is in control, not me. A burned child may see the Freedom Bird as a reflection of the years of agony and reversals he faces. Or he may see in it the soaring of his own brave spirit.

I continue to learn to let go of the need to control. If we believe we can always choose the right stories and tell them at the right time, we are fooling ourselves. Everyone who hears our stories filters them through the lens of experience. We cannot know the hearts and lives of all our listeners. What we can do is tell with care and love, sharing the stories that touch our own lives, that make us laugh or cry or ponder. Release stories like butterflies, knowing they will fly their own crooked paths and land wherever they will.

[This essay first appeared in The Healing Heart: Communities as part of a longer piece, “Seven Lessons”.]

The Art of Medicine in Metaphors

Photo by mconnors, via morgueFile

Photo by mconnors, via morgueFile

In our western, disease-care system, the power of stories has been pushed to the periphery, even though they are central to the spirit that promotes or undermines our healing. Fortunately, a whole field of narrative medicine is blossoming. Rachel Naomi Remen was one of the first people to introduce me to the field, then Rita Charon and Jack Coulehan.

After I moved to British Columbia, I met Arthur Frank and read his powerful book, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. I became aware of a B.C. program to honour stories, the Patient Voices Network and Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program.

So when James Borton contacted me about his new book, The Art of Medicine in Metaphor – A Collection of Poems and Narratives, he piqued my interest.

Borton is a teaching associate in the Department of English at Coastal Carolina University. He is also a blogger (All Heart Matters) and writer on medical humanities. Here’s how he describes the incident that prompted him to collect the poems and stories of people’s experiences with health care:

Three years ago I learned a painful lesson about how a patient bleeds a story. Following a triple bypass, I emerged after nine dark days from a coma after losing all of my blood from a ruptured coronary artery. It’s no wonder that my call to others to learn about their broken health stories met with remarkable responses.

In 2011 he organized a symposium for physicians and professors, “The Art of Medicine: Metaphors & Narratives.” And in courses and workshops, he gathered the stories of medical personnel and patients. Now he has published an anthology of illness narratives, told through stories and poetry. In his foreword to the book, Dr. Coulehan writes:

The Art of Medicine in Metaphors represents the process of encountering illness by dividing it into three stages—recognition, tension, and transformation—that form sequential sections of the book. While there is often overlap, the stages constitute a useful way of conceptualizing the material. First, the person’s familiar world is swept away. A wave of new images and alien feelings overwhelms them and he or she must attend to (recognize) the changed reality. Second, the person’s language, beliefs, and emotional resources confront this new world of illness, creating tension. Finally, but unfortunately not always, the person emerges with greater self-understanding (transformation). The dynamo that drives this process is language with many resources—mental, emotional, verbal, and written.

Borton sent several searing excerpts from the book, including Debra McQueen’s story of a young man dying of AIDS and his determination to travel to the Philippines to see a faith healer. Sam Watson contributed a poem about the moments between being wheeled into the operating room and succumbing to ether, ending in a breathtaking moment of clarity. Patricia Dale’s story of depression and self cutting was painful to read, yet ended with hope.

The seed of healing lies within our illness narratives. Our bodies eventually succumb to age, illness, accidents and death. No matter how much our medically trained allies patch our bodies, we all carry around an expiry date. We give meaning to our fleeting journey through our stories.

Barry Lopez described it well in Crow and Weasel:

The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.

The Non-Profit Narrative: A Review

When I made the shift from performing storyteller to storytelling consultant, I had no Dan Portnoy to hold my hand. His new book, The Non-Profit Narrative, could have shortened the journey.

My switch from performer to consultant was a matter of survival. For years I suffered from the “imposter syndrome”. Storytelling was what I knew. Consulting was what I was learning with each new contract.

Yet everything storytelling taught me proved absolutely on target, whether clients were developing a mission statement, launching a fundraising campaign, writing proposals or evaluating their work.

In his book, Dan comes at these things through a narrative lens. What I struggled to articulate, with no guides to follow, he lays out in a friendly, simple methodology, shot through with stories.

What sets this book apart from what I learned in my consulting years (the early days of public-use Web), is that Dan is thoroughly steeped in the new technology. He takes his audience’s hand and walks them through a social media campaign that starts with developing the story line and ends with a full-blown plan for moving an organization forward.

The first part of the book will be of particular to help to those not quite certain how to create an organizational narrative. He writes, “If your organization is barely surviving, I would argue that you’ve likely lost the ability to unearth or communicate your true story.” And then he tells the reader how to do it.

We all know intuitively what draws us into a story, but Portnoy digs into it and identifies the elements. Numerous examples of good organizational storytelling help the reader understand what he’s driving at, such as Domino’s narrative about going from a cardboard pizza to a product they could be proud of.

For every element of the good non-profit story, Portnoy gives an example that will be recognizable to most readers. He calls on such cultural icons as Harry Potter and Star Wars to illustrate each part of a good story.

With story structure out of the way, he dives into the broader issue of what organizations can do with their stories. Non-profits will find bite-sized advice to follow, whether they are redefining their mission, raising funds for a particular project, keeping supporters engaged, or reporting to funders.

The book is well laid out and a whole lot more attractive than most e-books. A good proofreader could have caught some of the errors, and a good editor might have given the book a smoother flow. But Portnoy delivers on what he sets out to do, give non-profits a story-based approach to success.

This is a book to add to your shelf or tuck onto your e-reader and refer to at each stage of organizational planning, marketing and evaluation.

Storytelling and social media

Stories and Social Media: Identities and Interaction sounds like a book I’d put at the top of my reading list. It’s hot off the press, just released by Routledge in November 2011 so I immediately surfed over to Amazon to see if I could buy a copy. Alas, the academic publisher has not embraced the digital world. It’s not available for e-readers, and even with Amazon’s discounting, the hard copy would set me back $111.37 before taxes. I’ll order it via interlibrary loan, but if your book budget is higher than mine, don’t wait.

For anyone as intrigued by storytelling in social media as I, this new work by Ruth Page sounds like a fascinating exploration of the phenomena. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s description on the Routledge Web site:

The online stories are profoundly social in nature, and perform important identity work for their tellers as they interact with their audiences – identities which range from celebrities in Twitter, cancer survivors in the blogosphere to creative writers convening storytelling projects or local histories.

Stories and Social Media brings together the stories told in well-known sites like Facebook and lesser-known community archives, providing a landmark survey and critique of personal storytelling as it is being reworked online at the start of the 21st century.

Reading that sent me in search of more about Ruth Page, and I found her Digital Narratives blog, with its wealth of observations and insight. Page is a lecturer in Birmingham, focusing on digital narrative and the impact of gender on storytelling. Her research has uncovered differences between the way women and men tell their stories through social media and also in the ways celebrities use Twitter.

A review of Stories and Social Media: Identities and Interaction for Science Daily quotes her:

The study shows an increasing trend for using ‘expressive language’ in Facebook (for example, for emphasis or to project friendliness), which is being led by young women aged between 19 and 25 years. Between 2008 and 2010, for example, the style used by young women was later picked up by other women, especially those over 40 years old, and by teenage boys; but not by men.

The role of young women as leaders of the changes in the styles of storytelling in social media is significant as it is at odds with other statistics that show that they are under-represented as the developers of social media sites and software.

Page also looks at the way celebrities use social media. While many use it only to promote their work, others, such as Jamie Oliver, make a more personal connection with followers. Again from the Science Daily review:

At the time I was looking at Twitter for this book, he was promoting his Food Revolution tour in the US. Many tweets are telling the Followers to join the campaign, watch a programme, try a recipe etc. (more or less selling his products) but all of that is countered by his efforts to engage with the followers by writing back to them, telling snippets of his family life and so on.

I’ve embraced social media. Though I’ve sampled a lot of others, I’ve settled on a handful: WordPress (for blogging), Facebook, and Twitter. I’m a fan and regular user of which makes it easy to share links in a curated form that is like an online newsletter. I know that the choices of what I share through those social media outlets tell my story. They don’t tell everything, of course, but they leave a trail of breadcrumbs that are easy to follow. They reveal a lot about what is important to me and how I see the world.

The turnaround for me was blogging. I avoided it for a long time because it seemed narcissistic. Besides, with the number of blogs exploding daily, I couldn’t see the need for yet one more.

An eight-month trip to Australia changed my mind. Blogging became an easy way to respond to the “tell us what you’re experiencing” requests from friends. I could post to Crossroads and send out a brief e-mail. Friends who really did want to know about our trip could read it. Everyone else could ignore it.

I was hooked. As someone with a passion for storytelling and a definition of it that is broad and inclusive, I came to appreciate the possibilities of telling our stories online in a way that mirrors another quote from Ruth Page in the ScienceDaily review:

“Although there is a lot of talk about how digital technologies will lead to the end of the book, social media shows us that storytelling remains a key way of how we make sense of each other.”





When storytelling is too powerful

Since 2001 the Center for Women’s Global Leadership has designated November 25th to December 10th as 16 Days of Action on Violence Against Women. This year the Central Okanagan Elizabeth Fry Society is participating through a “Write for Rights Blog-A-Thon”. The purpose of the blog-a-thon is to raise awareness about violence against women, encourage support of local work that is being done to assist survivors of violence, and demonstrate solidarity with women affected by violence.

The Central Okanagan Elizabeth Fry Society works tirelessly for social justice. Learn more about how you can help by visiting their Web site. Read stories of hope and survival on their inspiring Beyond Crisis site.

road rash is in fashion

Photo by Nathan Lewis, via Flickr Creative Commons

The request

“We want you to tell stories about violence against women. It’s for a national conference.”

My husband and I were entertainers—storytellers and musicians—not therapists, so we hesitated. The organizers of a conference on domestic violence wanted us to not only tell stories about the issues but to actually portray rising tension, culminating in an episode of violence between us.

They hit us in our weak spot. They actually believed in the power of storytelling to thread the labyrinth of professional distance and find the soft center, the place where the barrier of protection is breached. Still, we refused until they promised to let the audience know what they had asked us to do and to make sure counselors were on hand afterward.

Both victims of abuse and abusers sit in any audience. If we were as effective as the organizers hoped we would be, we would be unleashing emotions that might shatter the shields of degrees, licenses, and professional objectivity. The conference committee understood our concern, agreed to our terms, and sent a contract.

The performance

We chose stories from folklore and mythology that were metaphors, thinking they would provide just enough distance for safety. We added some contemporary songs. Around them we wove the thread of tension between us that was to culminate in my husband’s pretending to hit me. Rehearsing was emotionally draining.

On the day of the performance, the organizers failed us. They did not explain to the audience of counselors, social workers, physicians, and therapists what they had asked us to do. And we realized in the aftermath that they also did nothing to make sure counseling was available for those who saw their own stories played out before them.

In the silence at the end of our performance, we knew we had met the organizers’ hopes. The audience sat in that quiet space where even moving feels like sacrilege. Then someone broke the spell, and the audience applauded enthusiastically.

That’s when the organizers failed us again. They were to lead the question period but left us to do it instead. Most of the questions were variations on the first, and they were all aimed at trying to get my husband to tell them when and why he had started abusing me.

In the hours that followed, many women waited until they could catch me on my own. They wanted to pour out their own sorrows, confusions and fears, the complicated ties that kept them from leaving abusive relationships.

The acknowledgement

The only person who would speak to my husband, whom the group now identified as a monster, was a woman who approached us together.

“Thank you,” she said. “You got it right. That’s exactly how it starts.”

She was one of the speakers, a woman who had just been released from prison. She had murdered her husband after years of horrendous abuse. Gradual awareness of the vulnerability of women in abusive relationships had led to her being pardoned. She had become a powerful speaker, sharing her story in an effort to make the world safe for women being battered by their partners.

Her appreciation was the one bright spot in the day for us. If we had had any lingering doubts about the power of storytelling, they disappeared that day. The experience drove home a lesson we had tried to impress on the conference organizers, that finding the dark heart of human emotion is accompanied by responsibility. What we had feared, and the reason for our insistence they set the context for the performance and then offer counseling, had proven true. We had the capacity to reach inside the hearts of those who had experienced, or perpetrated, domestic violence.

We were asked to perform at the next year’s conference. This time we refused until they agreed to set the performance up so the audience knew what to expect and then to clearly identify where anyone traumatized could receive help immediately. They did a miserable job on both counts so we never agreed to participate again, but at least the second year we built into the performance a lifeline that left the audience more hopeful and more empowered.

The world we want

Our storytelling at those two conferences and my community development work with numerous women’s groups before and after were driven by the vision of a world where women no longer have to be warned not to go out alone after dark, a world where no one is afraid to go home, where no woman has to turn herself into a pretzel trying to appease her abuser. That is a story worth working for.

Domestic violence and sexual abuse continue to imperil the lives and emotions of millions of women. They are our neighbours and friends. They are the family members who are afraid at home and shamed into believing they are at fault. Their stories haunt me.

Until the assault on women ends, none of us is truly safe. But I believe a different world is possible, and it is the world envisioned by Donna Milner in the poem she wrote for a production of The Vagina Monologues in Williams Lake. She titled the poem, “A community, a world without violence against women or children.”

Read it, and let’s work together for that day.

No Story, No Fans – a review

No Story, No Fans is available on Amazon as an e-book

If I don’t have a story, I won’t have fans. I believe Raf Stevens when he delivers this message in dozens of ways, through dozens of captivating stories and through concrete steps to find and deliver that story. I believe him because I know what he says is true. I know it in the only way one can truly know anything, through direct experience.

I wish I had had a copy of No Story, No Fans when I was floundering to reinvent myself as an organizational narrative consultant (aka community developer, though that’s not how I thought of myself). Annette Simmons held my hand, with her Story Factor. David Armstrong led me too, with his Managing By Storying Around.

Mostly I felt like a lonely charlatan, waving the flag of storytelling without really knowing how to make the leap from performing storyteller to organizational narrative consultant. I managed, and even succeeded, but it was a scary journey.

Earning trust by demonstrating it

Things are different now. A lot of books and Web sites explore what storytelling means within the context of defining a vision, conveying it, and trying to turn it into sales. And sales are obviously important. A company with fabulous stories that operates in the red is going to sink.

Raf talks a lot about trust. That’s what his subtitle refers to: “Build Your Business through Stories that Resonate. Using the power of corporate storytelling to create loyal customers, fans, and friends.”

He earned my trust right off the bat. In an era of smartphones, I don’t even carry a cell phone. When I’m away from my right arm, er, computer, I don’t want a leash. So when I clicked on the PDF of Raf’s book and saw all the QR codes, I bristled. “Oh, yeah. He’s going to make me feel like an outsider.”

I was wrong. If I’d had a smartphone, I could have pointed it at those squiggly squares and called up fascinating Web sites. Instead, I accidentally moved the cursor over the first one and was startled by a dialog box asking me if I trusted the link or wanted to block it.

That Raf Stevens! So smart. He wanted even semi-Luddites like me to enter the realm of wonder. I ended up clicking on every link. Darn you, Raf Stevens! I’m busy. I don’t have time for all this Web wandering, but your links were so good I was afraid I’d regret not clicking on any one of them.

So here I am, weeks after accepting Raf’s invitation to download his book in exchange for a review, just starting to formulate a response to a book that makes me want to rewind the clock and re-start my consulting career with No Story, No Fans in hand.

A generous book

One thing that leaps out for me, in reading the book, is generosity. Raf gives a lot away. Stories, links, ideas, tips, resources. He just keeps dishing them out, some within the text itself and others a click away. By the time I start Part I: Trading Stories, I’m already feeling as if I’ve stumbled onto a gift exchange. He has already demonstrated his advice to first give something away, to engage emotionally, and to promote trust by promoting other people’s stories.

Partway through Chapter 2, “Flipping Your Script!”, two sentences stop me in my tracks:

Most communication nowadays fails to connect and is not trustworthy because it is too descriptive of situations and facts instead of sharing actual stories about what occurred. That is the script that needs flipping.

I think maybe Raf got hold of the first reports I did for clients when I started my community development career. I was so afraid they would find out I was really a storyteller in consultant’s clothing they wouldn’t trust my work. I overwhelmed them with numbers and facts and insider language so they could see I knew what I was doing.

Only thing was, it was never the heavyweight data that worked. It was always the stories. I could have spared a lot of trees if I’d had Raf’s book to hold my hand while I was learning the ropes.

So I feel like cheering when he writes:

It is tempting to continue to use terms like internal branding, positioning, brand voice, brand identity and so on, while explaining the power of story and storytelling in relation to brand and organizations. Many business leaders are more familiar with these terms than they are with storytelling. Storytelling is for wimps, right? But I am not giving in. We need to flip the script!

Make room for this book

Raf doesn’t try to impose one good model of storytelling. Instead, through dozens of examples, some solid advice, and some well-formulated tips, he encourages readers to find their own storytelling voices. That makes the book useful to a wide range of audiences in both the corporate and non-profit worlds. The book will hold an important place alongside books by Annette Simmons, Stephen Denning, Peter Guber, and Lori Silverman, but it will occupy its own niche.

The field of storytelling books has a lot of entries these days, but No Story, No Fans proves not only was there room for one more. There was a need for this book.

[Note: You can read the first part free on the Web site.]

Telling a new story

Lips on face stone sculpture

Lips on face stone sculpture, photo by

David Korten’s writings often move me. They always make me think. He is board chair of YES! Magazine, a publication that always poses solutions instead of just pointing out problems.

In the August 8, 2011, online edition, he throws out a challenge to culture workers. He calls on those in media, education, religion and the arts to use their influence to tell a new story. He writes, “For better or worse, you are engaged in crafting and propagating the cultural stories that serve either to legitimate the devastation the old economy causes or shine a light on the possibilities of the new economy.”

Whether we stand in front of an audience or work in the broad field of organizational narrative, storytellers bear a responsibility that is, at the same time, an exciting opportunity. Our stories can shore up a status quo that keeps the world teetering on the brink of global disaster. Or they can engender a sense of possibility that will lead us to something sane and life-affirming.

I’m reminded of the four levels folklorist Barre Toelken once told me characterized Navajo storytelling. That was many years ago, and my memory has likely shifted the explanations to fit my own sense of the impact of storytelling. But roughly, these are the four levels:

  • Entertainment: The first task of the storyteller is to capture the audience’s imagination.
  • Education: Once imagination is focused, learning can begin.
  • Spirituality: Here the possibility of transformation begins.
  • Witchcraft: Only a shaman can safely tell stories at this level because they unleash forces that cannot be contained in less skilled hands.

From many directions we hear stories that seem to have skipped right over the third level and are wreaking havoc on our environment, economies, and family lives. They are told by culture workers who have sold their talents for pieces of silver, skilled liars whose arguments play out in election campaigns and corporate marketing.

Korten’s charge to artists is one storytellers can answer:

“Talented artists can help us see beauty, meaning, and possibility where it may otherwise escape our attention. They can take us on an imaginary journey to a future no one has yet visited to experience possibilities we may not have imagined. Our movement needs the contribution of millions of artists devoted to liberating human consciousness.”

The YES! essay is based on the 2nd edition of David Korten’s important and encouraging book, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth.

US debt crisis as a clash of stories

childrens museum tug of war

Children's museum tug of war, Photo by Paul J. Everett, Flickr Creative Commons


I’ve been listening to politicians from the left and right as they tell their versions of debt in the U.S. The right insists no agreement is possible without a constitutional amendment capping debt. The left insists no agreement is possible without raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Each side claims the other’s story is a false interpretation of the way things really work.

I confess bias toward the left. The gap between rich and poor in the U.S. is the worst in the world, and it keeps on widening. The trickle-down story, where leaving money in the hands of corporations and the wealthiest ensures jobs for everyone else, has proven fictional but still has incredible staying power.

It’s clear the U.S. needs a new and healthier story of how government should function in a democratic society. The minimal-government right is suspicious of anything that gives power to those not in the producing sector, as if roads, hospitals, schools, libraries, and parks were not of benefit to everyone. They are suspicious of all regulations, as if industry would, on its own, stop polluting our streams, land and air and poisoning our bodies.

No side has a corner on The One True Story. Life is far too complex for that. However, it seems to me that any country in which the predominant story is focused more on accumulation of wealth than on egalitarian principles is doomed to failure.

An article published on Oakland Local last December said of the need for viable stories, “In a world so out of balance, we need landmarks and milestones to help us see the way forward. Narrative is like a series of virtual cairns that help us stay on the path.”

May the U.S. build new cairns before once again bringing the world to its financial knees.

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