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.
There are many reasons why the race to embrace storytelling in business has often ended up being a swift race to the bottom. Here’s just one example of bad storytelling advice:
“Tell YOUR story”!
The idea behind this advice is that ‘your’ story will inspire people who don’t know you to do business with you! Think about this. Would you want to do business with someone you knew absolutely nothing about after you heard them talking about themselves? No, you wouldn’t.
Why the rush to tell your story?
Plain egoism is a biggie here. There are lots of people who love talking about themselves and live under the illusion that others find their stories interesting. How many times have we been cornered at a party or a business event by someone like that? Another popular argument put forward for telling your story comes from Simon Sinek’s theory Start with Why. As I pointed out in a previous post, he applied his theory to established, well-known businesses and he has since revised his theory.
One of the keys to successful storytelling is correct timing!
No one is interested in YOUR story until they are almost ready to buy from you. So telling your story too early is bad timing and bad storytelling advice! Basic neuroscience helps us get the timing right.
When we talk to strangers, we are operating from the reptilian brain. That‘s the part of the brain that is responsible for our survival mechanism. It knows only yes/no and fight/flight responses. When we are in the reptilian brain we cannot hear the other’s story. We can only ‘hear’ someone else’s story, connect with it and respond to it after we have moved into the part of the brain that is responsible for our emotional and logical response, located in the front lobe.
How do you move someone out of survival mode into receptive mode?
Tell them THEIR story.
Until that shift in the brain has happened, the only story you should tell your potential clients is the one they are able to hear, i.e. THEIR story. That’s how connection happens! To get their story right, you have to know their story. To know their story, you have to have listened to them so closely that when you tell it, they can say:
“That’s me!” “That’s exactly what I struggle with!”, “That’s what I want now!”
If that’s not their response, you need to go back and listen again so that when you tell them their story you are holding a mirorr in front of them in which they see themselves more clearly than without it.
Only when you have successfully done that, are they are ready to hear your story. Otherwise, your story will fall on deaf ears!
If you could do with some help with telling the right story at the right time to the right audience, I’m here to help you!Learn More
If you’re still struggling to create a post-Corona business model, don’t worry. Change is coming. Lots of it and it’s heading our way!
Change is the new normal!
The Corona crisis has marked a major turning point. As the weeks and months pass, we’ve come to realise that the changes it introduced are not temporary. What’s actually happened is that Covid has destroyed existing templates for the ways we live, think & work.
For example, in our pre-pandemic world, employers dismissed working-from-home arrangements as unworkable and untenable. These arrangements are now fully operational and here to stay! Wearing masks in public and speaking through glass partitions are also part of our daily ‘normal’. Some jobs that were ‘lost’ due to the pandemic are gone for good and more are about to disappear – forever.
And that’s only the beginning! We’re getting mere glimpses of the magnitude of the changes that are shaping our future. Changes that will see robotics and AI as part & parcel of our daily life.
How do we prepare for the changes ahead?
It’s no longer about managing the disruptions, it’s about preparing for the beginning of a new era – without a roadmap. We have to be willing to re-imagine our lives in an emerging world. And one of the best places to start is to ask yourself a simple question.
What can I bring to the table that is uniquely ME?
If we’ve learned one lesson from this crisis it’s this. Our ability to survive and succeed is dependant on our willingness to connect with others. The days of the solo super-hero, braving a hostile world alone are over.
What’s needed now is knowing how to express our individuality AND connect with others.
One way to do just that is in the way you communicate with the world.- your ability to listen deeply to what’s being said around you, the words you choose, the stories you choose, the ways you tell those stories. That’s how your response to this changing world is shaping the outcome.
Developing your storytelling skills is a good place to begin exercising your unique perspective on a changing world and creating connection with others.
If you want to know how to begin, I can help you get those storytelling wheels moving.Learn More
Do we talk to get a reaction or a response from others?
Our intention defines the quality of the exchange and it’s outcome – whether the audience reacts or responds to us. That difference can be explained in terms of whether our communication is a ‘monologue’ or a ‘dialogue’.
Even when the trendy communication props are in place, it isn’t difficult to spot the self-serving monologues – often masquerading as interactive dialogues. You’ll get an insight into how the ping-pong game of monologue is played out by watching two politicians talking, or the typical political interview – each side is simply delivering their respective sound bites and not engaged with the other’s arguments.
To help you spot the difference when you talk between getting a reaction or a response from others, here are a few guidelines.
Some typical characteristics of a ‘monologue’:
- talking AT someone
- a closed form of communication, i.e. one-way messages & viewpoints
- curated comments and explanations that push a specific agenda, i.e. create a REACTION
- no ‘real’ attempt to listen to & reflect on what the other is saying
- impersonal language filled with jargon, sound-bits and buzzwords
Being in a ‘dialogue’ with someone is about a deeper, richer and more textured form of exchange.
Some typical characteristics of a ‘dialogue’:
- two-way exchange
- talking/engaging WITH someone
- an open exchange of active listening & deep reflection that can lead to a shift in opinions – on both sides
- exchange is the result of mutual RESPONSE, i.e. actively responding to what the other is saying rather than waiting for the opportunity to speak
- direct, personal language that is jargon-free
Here’s a short quote by Andy Sivell that will help you understand the profound difference between getting a reaction (monologue) and a response (dialogue) these two forms of communicating:
“Two monologues do not make a dialogue“Learn More
Has story become a means to deceive and mislead; a manipulation tactic at odds with ethical marketing?
I’ve been drawn into three different conversations in as many days about the ‘end of storytelling’ for business. The arguments made were that all storytellers are ‘liars’, that storytelling is a polished decoy, that it has been ‘ruined’ for business by ‘unconventional’ politicians who don’t even try to conceal the political agenda behind their ‘fake’ stories.
I agreed with every argument – to a point. Here’s why.
I’ve had my own ‘dark night of the soul’ since leaving academia to work as a storytelling consultant for business. I’d spent my final years in academia researching the relationship between storytelling and trauma and knew I’d have to ‘shift gear’ for the business world.
Nothing could have prepared me for the way the market had emptied storytelling of its primary purpose in service to profit. Instead of creating meaning in a world gone awry & helping us understand each other better, story is used as emotional bait, a sophisticated selling tactic, peddled by endless books, articles & cheat-sheets that told us ‘Story Sells’, ‘Tell to Sell’, etc.
Story had become the Trojan Horse of marketing.
Just like in the original Greek myth, story is used as a ploy to win a war, in our case, to breach our defences against the onslaught of selling. Story is the poisonous apple that lured Snow White with its shiny red skin to dismiss the danger. Story is the puppet cleverly manipulated by the invisible hands of the puppeteer.
So, why do I do what I do?
The uncertainty and trauma caused by ‘corona’ has given us the perfect opportunity to restart, realign & reimagine. We’re witnessing first hand how human relationship is an invaluable tool to create a different model of ‘normal’.
If story has become a manipulative tactic, then simple, honest storytelling has a huge role to play in helping us build our business around trust, credibility & community as we search for a sustainable way out of the current crisis.
My on-going mission to revive authentic storytelling as an integral part of meaningful, honest business communication is gaining in relevance. My work is to help you and other businesses become part of this revival.Learn More