These days, it’s easier than ever to see the power of story and narrative to define a moment – and, just possibly, to shift the course of history. Yet so often I see people in the business of social change hiding their own stories and, worse, putting off learning how to tell stories that speak truth and move others.
For a big shot of motivation and meaning-making, check out Marshall Ganz’s Why Stories Matter, a hyper-distillation of the “why” of storytelling. Ganz connects the dots between public and private narrative, and situates storytelling at the heart of all social change work. Storytelling must reside at the center because we do not do this work alone: “change” has a before and an after, and our starting point when interacting with others is helping them see both of those states and motivating them to act, often in risky ways, in support of an as-yet-unrealized vision.
This starts by giving people reason to hope, which, in Ganz’s words, happens through the stories we tell:
Hope is not only audacious, it is substantial. Hope is what allows us to deal with problems creatively. In order to deal with fear, we have to mobilize hope. Hope is one of the most precious gifts we can give each other and the people we work with to make change.
The way we talk about this is not just to go up to someone and say, “Be hopeful.” We don’t just talk about hope and other values in abstractions. We talk about them in the language of stories because stories are what enable us to communicate these values to one another.
Storytelling, then, is not simply narrative. It is an opportunity to communicate values in a way that is resonant and memorable, allowing the listener to position herself in the story, see its relevance to her current situation, and then play forward a narrative about her role in the story of now.
How does this happen? It happens through stories in which a human protagonist is presented with an unknown and has to make a choice. At this moment of choice, the listener feels the tension of what might go right and wrong, projects herself into that situation and, in so doing, experiences the values with which the protagonist wrestles. Ganz continues:
In a story, a challenge presents itself to the protagonist who then has a choice, and an outcome occurs. The outcome teaches a moral, but because the protagonist is a humanlike character, we are able to identify empathetically, and therefore we are able to feel, not just understand, what is going on.
A story communicates fear, hope, and anxiety, and because we can feel it, we get the moral not just as a concept, but as a teaching of our hearts. That’s the power of story. That’s why most of our faith traditions interpret themselves as stories, because they are teaching our hearts how to live as choiceful human beings capable of embracing hope over fear, self-worth and self-love over self-doubt, and love over isolation and alienation.
While this is all powerful and inspiring, it can also feel far away. This kind of storytelling sounds like it’s for Leaders with a capital “L,” and while we can listen to and admire their skills as storytellers, that has little to do with Us, right?
The moment we conclude that “this is for someone else” is the moment we let fall from our hands the power of storytelling as a tool to connect and move those around us. In so doing, we abdicate our seat at the meaning-making table at exactly moment when our voice is most needed. And here is where Ganz’s words strike closest to home:
A leadership story is first a story of self, a story of why I’ve been called. Some people say, “I don’t want to talk about myself,” but if you don’t interpret to others your calling and your reason for doing what you’re doing, do you think it will just stay uninterpreted? No. Other people will interpret it for you. You don’t have any choice if you want to be a leader. You have to claim authorship of your story and learn to tell it to others so they can understand the values that move you to act, because it might move them to act as well.
It’s the ‘I don’t want to talk about myself’ phrase that really hit me, because it is one that I’ve heard so often. It’s often said with a healthy dollop of humility, a “this isn’t about me it’s about the work” utterance. This can sound right until we grapple with the assertion that leaders have no choice but to be storytellers because either we will interpret our calling or others will interpret it for us.
This is why there is s no neutral, story-free space. There are just the stories that we supply or the stories that others supply for us. There is either the meaning we make of the world – including the articulation of our purpose, values and the “why” behind our actions – or the meaning that others make in our stead.
This is why it our job to find our own stories, to explore the values that move us to act, and to practice uttering words that help others see and feel what we see and feel. This is the work of finding the language to describe the choices we have made and are making in service of our work, so that others can feel the hope that we feel, and so that they can learn to use this hope to deal with their fears, including fear of acting on our behalf.
Once we begin to find our voice we begin to narrate the world around us, we begin to practice the art of meaning-making to ourselves and to others. It is at this moment that we truly start the dialogue with ourselves and those around us about the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now.
This is the moment when change begins.