Storytelling is about creating connection – it’s an essential part of building trust and relationships with clients, customers, affiliates and investors. This blog is about the role of storytelling in times of crisis and how it helps us survive them.
As a Storytelling Consultant and someone who worked on the relationship between story and trauma for over two decades, it is sobering, tragic and painful to follow the crisis in Eastern Europe and around the globe.
We know that the war and suffering of today are tomorrow’s trauma, which for the most part will be left untreated and unhealed.
So what has storytelling got to do with war? Does it even have a role to play when lives are being destroyed every second?
While stories don’t stop bombs or bullets, nor bring back lost loved ones, stories are a form of power in times of crisis. Stories are a different and very important form of power.
A different form of power
For so long history, with its claim to objective truth, was given prominence in how traumatic events were remembered and who remembered them. That has changed over the last two decades as stories about experiences that were once silenced are now being told.
Stories bear witness to those experiences and their aftermath.
Stories are the voices of those who managed to survive the despots and their war machines. They are also the voices for those who didn’t survive.
And stories are the memories for the individual and for the community in the present and the future. That’s vital for the other form of survival – how do we make sense of what we’ve witnessed?
If stories connect us, then in times of crises, they connect us with the past, help us emerge from the silence and build relationships in the future.
How Stories give Meaning to Experiences beyond our Reach
It’s the stories we tell that help us give meaning when meaning is well beyond our reach. In times of crisis the writer Ursula K Le Guin shows how art and story do that:
“One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience. There are always areas of vast silence in any culture, and part of an artist’s job is to go into those areas and come back from the silence with something to say.“
I’m sure another great writer, Maya Angelou, was also referring to storytelling as a sense-making tool when she said that in times of trouble, the artists go to work. The Nobel Laureate for literature, Toni Morrison, echoes this sentiment. Here’s how she put it:
“Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that […] only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, […] A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.”
It’s artists and writer that help create the future out of the silences and the ruins of the past.
And a society that doesn’t support and nourish art and artists leaves itself defenceless in times of crises.
In a recent post I asked what kind of heroes were appropriate for the new normal unfolding in the world. It’s clear they will be vastly different from the old ones. And the same goes for our stories!
The coronavirus is not the first pandemic in history – and it won’t be our last! We have a rich library about life during and after plagues, spanning over the last thousand years, whether it’s about the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century, the Black Death in the 14th or the Great Plague of London in the 17th century (to name just three).
There are two things we can learn about storytelling from that history
- During a pandemic we tell stories to entertain, distract and fact-check. These popular narratives include: conspiracy theories, bawdy tales, what-if setups, high drama scenarios & futuristic escape. Does this sound familiar?
- Once the pandemic dust finally settles, there is no going back to pre-pandemic ‘normal’. Our existing stories, the ones that made sense of our old normal, are irretrievably broken. A corner stone of modern physics was developed by Sir Isaac Newton – theory of gravity – while cocooning at home in 1665 from the Great Plague of London.
The biggest challenge we face is this: our story has no closure. We see the challenges, but no resolutions.
History tells us we’ve been here many times before and we have two choices:
- We try to retell the old narratives to cover the gaping cracks created by the crisis. But these fragments quickly collapse into the cavernous holes left in its wake.
- Or we stare into the uncertainty and the unknown and after a time realise we are different now – wiser, more compassionate & more resilient. We begin to tell stories about the experiences and the insights that got to this point and how these can help us set our compass for a way out.
We tell about the lack of solid ground, the absence of a pathway ahead, the challenges of sitting with uncertainty, the faint outline of new possibilities emerging, the flicker of hope in the darkness.
Then, one small story at a time, we slowly begin to create a new normal.Learn More