In search of a storytelling grid | Part I

By Limor Shiponi

This search is going to take several posts to complete and I hope it provokes a good conversation. The idea: to create a frame of reference for many story-work forms that represent truly good intentions and work, while helping everybody realize what part of storytelling they are actually referring to. I also intend to clear some misconceptions about oral storytelling referred to by many as ‘the old ways’ (trying to keep it polite). Needless to say but I’ll say it anyway – they are not trying to show appreciation and we storytellers have had enough of this attitude.

This is a complicated endeavor for several reasons – lack of agreed language, complexity and the fact we are dealing with a dynamic living act that cannot be fully represented in 2D or 3D graphic forms. There is also the matter of subjectivity but that word will not help (in this conversation) justify comments like ‘storytelling is whatever I want it to be’ because it is not. So let’s see how much we can frame and agree upon first and then leave the stage open for interpretations. On the other hand we can never reach perfect objective agreement about storytelling issues and I don’t think we need to fully analyze to death everything. I’ve been tackled with this issue before and my reply is simple – if you will fully analyze all the components of a woman, do you think you will actually fully understand her? It’s the same with art and in this case with storytelling.

Possible grids

Several ideas came up concerning grids: required skills, preferable outcomes (story work applications), storytelling-storylistening, oral-technological and some more. I’m suggesting what I see as the core model of storytelling – the threefold I’ve named partnership in exchange. Why? Because from where I’m looking, storytelling is a concentric form that contains its own decoding devices. It is self explanatory.

If anyone would care to suggest another storytelling model which he or she finds more lucid – please do.

The importance of approaching the issue from the ‘ancient art’ side

I’ve been observing things like ‘visual storytelling’ ‘intentional storytelling’ ‘interactive storytelling’ etc. which people refer to as ‘eureka!’ moments in the ‘evolution of modern storytelling’. Sorry to spoil the party but the above and much more are already contained in the ancient art form and they are nothing new. We (storytellers) are just quite astonished to find out how little people actually know. There is no need to add any kind of adjective to the word ‘storytelling’. It is full of meanings, devices, intentions, possibilities and that’s exactly what we are going to find out here.

What will not be part of this conversation?

Marketing promises of any kind. No quick wins, super riches, legendary leadership, supernatural management, no mass brain messing for monetary gains and all the rest.

To be continued…

22 thoughts on “In search of a storytelling grid | Part I”

  1. Thanks for starting this interesting conversation Limor. I love your hand drawn diagram of story, storyteller and listener. As story (the utterance) will be a core element of your grid, how does one tell if you are in fact hear a story and not something else, like an opinion. Of course you know I have been talking about the importance of spotting stories and have a view, but I’m interested in your take on this.

  2. Well, my drawing of these models is improving although it is light years away from what I see in my mind… I’ve decided to use the word utterance from story for a reason that will be revealed later on but since the use of story is so common I’ll keep it for now. Interesting to notice though that utterance makes you think, where when people say story most of them are sure they know what it is.

    I think that’s where your point is and yes, I know and others should too about (check it out people). You’ve done something really Important there – you’re not giving a set of rules but rather putting to the test what storytellers call ‘sense of story’ which according to a survey I will present later on is considered the most highly ranked skill concerning storytelling among experienced storytellers. I’ll get there but as you can imagine, the complexity of the ‘grid task’ requires careful planning so the process of unraveling a grid will be as lucid as possible. Otherwise I’m going to create another dead-end debate instead of something which I hope will bring clarity.

  3. “Storytelling is a concentric form that contains its own decoding devices.” I am hearing echoes of graduate school deconstruction debates on the self-referential nature of language. That is a black hole from which Alice took years to emerge. And the academic rabbits still keep trying to throw her back down there. I find it fascinating that you speak of grids and draw circles. I don’t know what it means, but I find it fascinating. 🙂 I am also fascinated by the possibility that social media is doing for written communication what storytelling does for oral communication – make it more fluid and interactive, more shaped by dynamic interaction between writer/teller and audience. Is jargon like “crowdsourced knowledge” geek-speak for rediscovering zeitgeist? And what does this means for storytellers for whom physical presence is critical to that dynamic interaction? Re: What will not be part of this conversation: Now I see why you wanted clarification on where I stood re: Guy Kawasaki, storytelling, and the art of enchantment. And there, I think, the best answer is in the story you tell in your interview on Eric Wolfe’s Art of Storytelling podcast, about the bird and the businessman.
    Sorry no answers, only more questions. Hope they are more than my own wild musings, and strike a useful chord somewhere.

    1. Hi Paula, thanks for this comment. After reading it, all I can say is this – you are possibly watching my attempt to bridge between what perceive themselves as different worlds. I’m talking some deconstruction talk while my real preferance and domain is holistic, I talk about a grid and draw circles, I’m writing while prefer telling. Yes, the caged bird story is key to the way I observe the entire issue, you are very right. Warm regards…

  4. Limor, I agree with Shawn: I’m happy to see your exploration and curious to see where you will end up. But my take on frames of reference is, if different people have different graphical models of story, it may be easier to simply use them all side by side than to look for a super-model that represents and merges everything. We do not all need to say the same thing to agree, and complementarity can be more useful than unanimity. I think your swirl, Shawn’s yin/yang, and my life cycle all bring meaningful elements to the overall picture, and I’d be happy to keep them (and any useful others) as a complex family of understandings rather than try to force them into perfect agreement. Still, I’m interested to see where you go with this!


    1. Hi Cynthia, thanks for joining in. I guess a lucid holistic model will not necessarily serve everyone and every purpose in their everyday work, just like we don’t use one mandala for the entire world population. I think this kind of grid I’m searching for is connected to the storytelling meta-discussion which as you’ve noticed is causing a lot of irritation. I see this search as part of the way of the storyteller which very often is about seeing the small details while zooming-out on the big picture to find the communality of themes. Anyway, what will eventually elovle is something I’m still curious about.

  5. For me this grid illustrates the co-creation element of story. Something happened to someone at certain place and time, and in the act of telling the experience is shared, with oral telling the experience is then co-created. As my teacher Martin Shaw says “It’s a wild beast that flies through the room.” To Shawn’s point (and I am a big fan of his test) the same shared reality does not happen with an opinion or a message — those you can argue against — so when a space of shared experience opens up you have a safe bet you are in the realm of story. A story happened, once and in the telling it lives again. Nothing to contradict. In marketing we often have messages — pity one line statements of value propositions. They all sound the same without a story. They become pltatitudes or reasons to start an argument.

    Given that, my one suggestion is that you might avoid using “messenger” for the “storyteller” title since it’s likely to get confused with the “lesson” or “conclusion” of story (whether full blown of short anecdote.) This is merely one component, and not always the most compelling part. If I buy into or share you story, I am likely to accept your message, but there is much more gong on.

    1. Hi Karina, interesting remark about the use and perception of ‘messenger’. I reckon that if I insist on using it, it will always have to come with an explanation which is not ideal. What I mean in it is the representative of a congregation or a community to channel the event, regonizing that although he is doing something everybody can naturally do, he is more able and holds higher skill, devotion or practices storytelling as a main agenda. The co-creation of a story during a storytelling event is essence. Thanks for taking the time to comment and share!

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  7. I think I’d echo Katrina’s comment on co-creation…but for me it goes further. I have thought for a long time that this is a diagnostic feature (or necessary condition, if you prefer) of oral storytelling. If you’re looking for the thing that the oral sharing can achieve that the written word (electronic or otherwise) simply can’t I would argue very strongly that this is it.
    It’s not just the imaginative engagement (important though this is) – good writing can achieve this, as can good acting. Not sure about visual media…

    It’s the collective nature of the experience, that and the multi-directional attention…

    I’ll break that down a bit 🙂

    It’s a collective experience because everyone in the group (audience, tribe, room etc etc) is engaged in creating, the world of the story. I’m convinced that being part of such a group, one is aware of the process in others at some deep level and – crucial, this – also at some level aware that although there’s a deeply shared aspect to all of this, everyone’s individual imaginative construction is unique to them. And each person’s construction is right for them, even though they may differ widely…

    (Strange thought in passing – language is a very blunt tool for describing such a subtle web of interdependent contradictions 🙂

    By ‘multi-directional’ attention I mean that one is constantly scanning in three very different directions (in this sense I think your triskel shape is bang-on, Limor) checking the shifting strands of the story, the various languages (spoken and otherwise) of the carrier/storyteller/messenger (whatever you choose to call them) and one’s own internal imaginative creation, and the images and echoes that evokes.

    Just to complicate the picture, I also think that each of the ‘listening directions’ – for want of a better phrase – has a rather different relationship with time.

    The tellling of the story is happening *now*, so a part of one’s attention is held in the now.

    The story stretches back into the past, and even if the audience has no previous experience I think most people will be aware of this, but also may represent a more or less familiar pattern, so a part of the attention looks into the future, anticipating where the story will lead.

    Most temporaly complex, I think, is what happens internally – a powerful image in the story may evoke many levels of memory echoes, stretching back over years and years – and if we are really *in* the experience we have some awareness of all these times, memories, at once….plus, of course, we might imagine what’s going to happen in the future, what we’d like to happen, what would happen if it was us in the story…

    Good theatre (possibly even good cinema) takes you out of yourself – you can see people leaning forward on their chairs, leaning towards the action.

    You sometimes see a storytelling audience doing that as well, at moments of high action, but you also sometimes see them leaning backwards, moving deeper into themselves.

    Nothing else can do this – accept no imitations 🙂

    1. Allan, this is superb. Language is a very blunt tool for describing what happens in storytelling yet you have a great way with it.

      1. Thanks for the kind words 🙂 – been thinking about it for a very long time, sometimes the word-bear just rolls over so you can tickle his tum (as opposed to scoffing the thesaurus and running off through the woods, laughing)
        Hope you (or anyone else) can get something useful out of it…the only real criteria in this context, I think

    2. Ghislaine Walker

      Just love the way you have described what happens to time in stories:
      I’ve often struggled with scientific explanations of the way time works but what you have just described makes perfect sense. Of course time can be moving in different speeds and directions to different people in the same room, it happens every time I tell a story. The concept looks complex when you describe it, although you do make the ideas very clear – thanks for that, but the way it happens is so organic and natural that it never occurred to me to try to give it a shape!

      1. Hi Ghislaine – all these illustrations can only try and stop the dynamics for a split second to look at, but they can’t fully represent what really happens. What really happens is way more complex and interesting just like the perceived time behaviour you’ve described.

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  10. I like what you are doing. What I enjoy more is watching folks “talk” through this. Below are just my thoughts, in no order or fully expressed ideas:

    1. There are no solid lines between story, storyteller and audience. The lines are dotted or dashed. The flow of each of these parts plays with and against each other at all times. If the lines are solid, then this is acting and not storytelling.

    2. Doug Lipman has done some of this triangle work already in his book “Improving Your Storytelling.” On page 17, to be precise. While I disagree (with complete respect) with Doug that the teller does not influence the interpretation of the listener/witness, I do find that his model makes it very clear for the beginning storyteller (which most “business” storytellers are these days) that the creation of a storytelling event requires all three pieces of the puzzle. I usually use his model (with attribution) when working with neophyte storytellers.

    3. I think that most “(Some Super Adjective!) Storytelling” phrases these days are primarily for marketing purposes. There was a time that we could just say that we specialize in storytelling for business, but not any more. The field is too crowded with piles of marketers all trying to stand out, thus we get all those adjectives you refer to in your post. This is all part of the mythology that is developing about “Biz” storytelling. I hope to have my first post about these myths up later this afternoon.

    Just my two cents here.

    1. I love the “talking” too. The solid lines on all illustrations should be trated as cell walls – they contain and protect yet are permeable to some extent.

  11. I love the talking too…we all do, of course we do, we’re storytellers – imagine what a blizzard of hand-waving there’d be if this was an actual rather than virtual symposium?

    I love the writing as well, though…particularly when dealing with subtle, slippery and challenging ideas, as we are here, because it gives me the time to properly digest everyone else’s words free from their ‘performance’, and then hopefully imbue my responses with the appropriate levels of clarity and precision.

    I’m lost in admiration for Limor, even attempting such a thing in a second language 🙂

  12. Pingback: In search of a storytelling ‘grid’ | part V | Utterance : Limor's Storytelling Agora

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