Last night I told stories to kids in 4th to 6th grade. One of them, sitting right in front of me, was constantly asking, “is that a true story?”. After the first time she asked I replied, “it’s truly a story. Whether it actually happened or not, whether it did but in a different way, I can’t really tell. What is it that you want to know?” she shrugged, smiled, but didn’t have an answer. I continued and after some time she asked, “is that a true story?”. Another kid said, “it’s a story. Some things in it are not exactly like they would happen to us. I don’t think I’ll ever meet a talking owl, but what’s the problem?”. The kid with the question looked puzzled by her own question. Later she asked again, “is that a true story?”. “And what if it is?” asked I. “I don’t know, I just want to know if that’s a true story”. “Ok,” I added, “it is. How does that feel? still have a question?” she didn’t know. During the next story I paused and said, “by the way, this isn’t a true story.” She laughed out loud. “Well?” I wanted to know, “are you ok with the stories?” “Yep,” she said smiling, “I just need to know if that’s a true story. I don’t know why, it’s just a question I have.” Like the answer I had, I suppose. But now I have a question:
What’s with the TRUE story thing?
P.S. before I walked in, I overheard this -
“Who’s the storyteller?” “Limor Shiponi”. “Oh no! I know her! She’s frightening!” [Hope to stand up to my reputation] #storytelling
— Limor Shiponi (@LimorShiponi) February 14, 2014
Well, I did, but with a wink in the eye which I owe to the boy I overheard. I love the way an audience can move a storyteller to a new place.
The simple answer is – it won’t, since it has no reason to. If people are suggesting there needs to be a change, first check why they are making such a suggestion and if the root of their suggestion is actually connected to a need within the art, or the people practicing it. Reading most of the answers here, these suggestions are related to various techniques used to deliver, share and craft a story, but they don’t derive from the core of storytelling.
The word ‘craft’ sends the question down a misleading road. So does the division between ‘story’ and ‘telling’ when related to ‘storytelling’. Storytelling is a single word, not a combination of two. Therefore, if you really understand what storytelling is, you’ll realize the storyteller holds only a third of a dynamic partnership, sharing it with an uttered story-text and a listener. In this partnership and during a storytelling event, everything changes constantly, in real time. What the question and the answers relate to as ‘craft’ is in the hands of all partners which practice mutual influence constantly. One story-text is not like another for every event, even if you’re telling the same text; the storyteller is constantly influences by both text and listener – in real time – which effects the way he storytells on the spot; the listener is not passive in any way and we don’t use a craft to influence only him – the story and the storyteller are constantly influenced by the listeners, the storyteller being one of them himself.
I know that in a world busy with “owning” every bit of information and skill the above ideas are difficult to accept, but not if you realize that storytelling emerged in the oral culture where it reached the level of high practice. We’re just enjoying the fact people who lived way before we do have brought it there. Sustaining for so many thousands of years, still highly effective as it will be in the future, storytelling for what it really is has no need for change in ‘craft’. It’s at top performance. The only change required is having more outstanding storytellers than there are right now.
Yesterday I conducted yet another workshop for HRs who wanted to learn how to apply some storytelling principles into their work. I can’t remember how many “applied storytelling” workshops I’ve conducted through the past fifteen years, nor can I tell how many customizations for various professional domains I was requested to perform. It always happens that at some point the people requesting the workshop or the participants themselves, get so worked-up about dissecting what I present into bits and pieces trying to compare them to what they do, that all the happiness disappears. No mind-body-spirit connection, no community or communion – only intellectualization.
Once they think they’ve “got it” – which they haven’t, since storytelling is long gone into ashes under deconstruction and adaptation of irrelevant fragments – they label what they’ve grabbed “storytelling” and from that moment on, they declare they know and do storytelling. Some say they see themselves as storytellers – although when you check their CVs and blurbs, the word “storyteller” is mysteriously absent…
If they want to consult more about storytelling they look for a “storytelling guru” of their own professional kin – or someone rich, famous, even better – connected to a renown organization or brand riding the storytelling hype, that will tell them what they really want to hear: that by doing storytelling (whatever that means by now), they will win friends and influence people and become rich and famous and young and beautiful in 30 days or less.
Now, if that was to be true – how come there is no storyteller leading a life-style that looks like the above promise? that should make people think. But they don’t; instead, they intellectualize. When you do that, you drift away from the real context of things and might land on some cloud, thinking it’s a safe haven, when the only thing actually holding you up is the intellectualization balloon, full of hot air.
Up on that cloud you might think, “those people who call themselves ‘storytellers’ really don’t know how to adapt to modernity. We are the 21st century revolutionaries of storytelling, and they are so behind.”
Yeah, sure, just watch that balloon…
Collecting thoughts about artists’ daily routine, it is pretty clear to me that most of these routines are the outcome of an educational framework. I’m not using the term “formal education” since it might be interpreted as ‘academic’. Art education starts much earlier and in many cultures and along many centuries didn’t pass through academies as we know them today. Did artists lack in skill and knowledge because of that? no, they didn’t.
What is clear about those educational frameworks is that they were a stable, well paced, guided, long paths. If you wanted to become a storyteller, you knew in advance it will take years to become one – in your masters’ eyes, in the eyes of your community and in your own eyes too. Knowing that, if you were really passionate about it, you would give your consent to walk the long path and do whatever needs to be done. Through the journey you acquired habits of the art, and those habits turned eventually into your daily routine. Same as “formal education”.
Missing: an educational framework for storytellers
Some of today’s storytellers were lucky enough to receive their storytelling education as part of their families tradition. Some were blessed by the elders in their community to carry the tradition. Some were not ‘officially appointed’ but were burning with such desire and devotion, they eventually received full recognition.
Most of today’s storytellers picked-up storytelling somewhere along the road and continued from there: with the help of peers, workshops, training, performing, coaching, attending conferences, traveling, reading and so forth. Each of us accumulated experience and knowledge until they integrated to a certain level – for better or less. Before the question “says who?” kicks in, I’ll repeat – an educational framework for storytelling is missing. If it was in place, storytellers wouldn’t become so touchy about rating the outcome and discerning storytelling for what it is and what it is not.
Call to action (to adventure in our language)
A year ago, The Storytelling Company’s team decided to address the issue seriously. We’ve accumulated a full curriculum in order to see for once and all what the mysterious creature might look like. We use this body of knowledge when training in various settings and are slowly establishing the rout towards a collaboration with a cultural center that is willing to help carry such an initiative through – the storytelling way.
We are not the first group to do so. Pop over to The Crick Crack Club and see what can be done when you take it seriously and work to find the right partners. There are more of those groups out there.
Thing is – the artform sees more lower moments than bright ones. We need to unite our power in some way so people can see a path in front of their eyes. Locally, there is a lot of good going on. Still, something is lacking and I think that those who have managed to establish a “disciple’s path”, should meet and work out this issue for the benefit of all and especially the artform. True, we can manage very well keeping to our personal success but I feel we have a greater responsibility.
When there is a will, there is a way. Is there a will? I don’t know, I’ll be happy to know more.
Hinting about a possible daily routine
Hinting – mainly because there is no agreed educational framework I can point at. Anyway, you might want to consider this advice:
Attend other storytellers’ performances as audience – on a regular basis.
Read stories, listen to stories and craft stories just for practice. Do it with stories from genres you don’t usually tell in. Take stories apart and reassemble them to understand their structure, what dramatic patterns they use, what performance patterns hide within them.
Do vocal work, movement awareness, expand your vocal and kinesthetic repertoire so you have many possibilities; so you can let characters in story and audience pass and live through you without having to fix and judge them to be your size.
Engage in some sort of physical and mental practice that enhances focus, mindfulness, being present. A storyteller’s brain is a busy place, you can become very tense for many reasons. If your being is taken care of, your doing flows with ease. You get to choose every single second.
Perform research and not only about the stories you want to tell. Find a detail or a challenge about storytelling that keeps you curious and dig in. Trying to understand what this art is made of teaches you a lot. Teach others too.
Research the path between folklore and art. Research the other way round.
Improvise massively. Send yourself into less convenient situations and do some storytelling there. Find the way. Hitting rock bottom in storytelling is a good way to learn and practice. The inner debate you’ll experience is something no one can teach you and it will make you dense. Dense is good in storytelling (aware of slang – that kind of dense too).
Try and find whatever you can about our predecessors – ancient and not so ancient storytellers and storytelling traditions.
Sing, learn to play something. Music and storytelling both use patterns that exist IN TIME. Texts are coded situations. If you want to decode them and make them live in time, you need to know the patterns. Music can help a lot with this issue.
If you’re involved is some sort of storytelling application – storytelling in education, in business, in training, in coaching, whatever – take a break for a while and focus on storytelling in storytelling. If you teach others on a regular basis – take time off, be the artist you need to be.
Perform massively, tell the same stories again and again, find them audiences.
And finally for now – travel. Go visit the places in your tales, meet storytellers from other cultures and sit with them for a while. It’s not for your daily routine but try and keep it annual.
I think we have enough here to initiate a daily routine…
As more details are revealed about the NSA’s ‘naughty habit’ to brutally invade people’s personal data even when the US government has no security issue with them, the question that rises is – why are they doing it?
Educated ‘guess’ – someone is asking (and paying) for that data, named elegantly “human analytics” and sought after mainly by advertising, media, marketing and PR agencies. It’s not that much of the data can’t be obtained via civil data mining services, but hey… the NSA records far and deep without too many legal restrictions.
What can they find out about us? everything we put out there intentionally and unintentionally. Everything like in – EVERYTHING. Including “personal” channels, chat and inbox features, phone calls, snap chats, turned-off device location, spoken conversations made next to a device – just to mention a few tidbits. If you see an ad that seems as if “they took the words out of my mouth” – that’s exactly what the people behind the ad did. They are targeting us with engineered messages (by agencies), leaning on the analysis of every bit of data collected by most efficient robots (by NSA & Co.) NSA might eventually stand for ‘National Storytelling Agency’.How does this connect to storytelling?
It doesn’t. ‘Storytelling’ is just being used as a soft word, good enough for covering up invasive commercialism, making the people involved in this practice feel-good, and attracting more fools to think they are doing something creative.
What all this really means is – agencies following this practice have weak creative power. That is why they have to cheat massively. If you are a client paying to one of the agencies following this practice, my advice is – consider carefully. Think about the implications for your company and brand when this entire stunt blows up in your face.
Because it will.
I’ve received this question by mail. Answer:
I’m not the Joan of Arc of Storytelling, that’s not what I stand for – purist storytelling. In addition, I’ll never agree or want to know I’ve become a martyr – it contradicts my faith and my personal preferences. Glorifying life is way more crucial, to my opinion.
What do I stand for? for what photographer Jimmy Nelson labeled “their absolute proudest” referring to the tribes he photographed, before they inevitably disappear under the wheels of modernity. We deserve to be at our absolute proudest, we are amazing creatures.
As writing this, I too can hear the little virtuous voice in my head sounding “pride is not a good virtue”. I don’t believe that to be true. I think our humanity, beauty, feelings, thoughts, truthfulness – are trampled all the time, almost everywhere. We’ve lost our dignity; we are not in our proudest. We lie constantly, mainly to ourselves. We are losing the ability to handle real life. We’re designing it all the time and telling ourselves it’s life – it’s not.
From everything I’ve been involved in, storytelling is the activity that is the best at reminding us of our dignity.
(Not the things people today call storytelling like – marketing, trans-media, social media, content marketing, photography, visuals, info-graphics, UX, design, science-talk, data analysis, training, coaching, lecturing, presenting, gaming, screenplay writing, authoring, storyboarding, advertising, re-labeling storytelling, calling it names without knowing what it is, and speaking on TED.)
Storytelling – a face to face situation, that “I can smell your breath” kind of an event. Only that. The more I can contribute to storytelling and helping young and not so young storytellers remember and keep their pride – that’s what I want to do. Through us, humanity remembers it’s soul, it’s absolute proudest. Professionally, I stand for having more of us.
Thank you – the person who asked the question. I’ve finally found my “artist statement”.
Searching for a daily routine I went snooping around to check out what’s happening with our neighbors. Being a professional musician for many years, a musician’s routine is known to me so I’ll start there.
Depending on what part of the musicianship ecosystem you are situated in, you’d be practicing your instrument or learning scores, attending rehearsals, practicing new repertoire, attending concerts, listening to recorded music, performing in live events or recordings. If you’re on the more theoretical side you’ll be composing and arranging music, conducting, researching, teaching and training others. You might also be a critique or a lecturer, where you’ll be reviewing, researching, attending concerts, working on your next presentation or class. You might get to be a musical director or producer, where again – you’ll be attending concerts, listening to recordings, meeting with performers, traveling, researching, reviewing, etc.
Even if you are an independent musician, there is a system you are connected to. That system may provide an infrastructure, administration, artistic management, connections, opportunities and everything you need to bring your art in front of an audience.
If you’re a professional dancer you’re most probably part of a troupe or a group. You’ll be on your feet between 10-12 hours a day, moving between warm-up sessions to rehearsals for various choreographies, visiting the physiotherapist occasionally, doing some choreography, dressing and performing. You’ll also attend others’ performances, mingle with musicians and occasionally with other stage artists. If you are a choreographer, you’ll be researching for a concept, listening to music, and working with dancers. Again, if you are on the more theoretical part of the ecosystem, you’ll be researching, preparing lectures and presentations, attending performances and reviewing. Here too – you are connected to a system.
Skill expands artistic possibilities and opportunities
But how did all these people become part of the system or even better – how did the system emerge? the system emerged because skill is involved. Skill expands artistic possibilities and opportunities. This creates demand for more musicians that can match-up. Trying to reach top performance on your own is a possibility, though you might get there and you might not. If you want to make sure that every performer walking into a rehearsal can actually do what is required – you’ll need a system that prepares them to do so and a system that will employ them or provide opportunities. The path is long but if you want to be part of the ecosystem, you’ll walk it. It’s the reasonable way.
Does everybody achieve top performance? no. Everybody can achieve their own top performance but that might not be enough to meet any position in the system. Musicians know from young age they might not become a solo player, a composer or a conductor. Even if they do, they know they might not be the best. Still, there is enough room for everyone and you can find your best place. In light of these understandings, the ecosystem creates a methodology. This helps people proceed to a good level or beyond and helps them find a way to match their aspirations – if they want to do the work. It also helps them make a living.
Moving to the lonely planet
You might think, “ok, but musicians and dancers work in groups. Playing or dancing solo recitals isn’t common practice for most of them. Storytellers work alone.” True, but we don’t grow alone from thin air.
Authors & Painters
These artists are closer to storytellers if we’re looking at the “loneliness” aspect. They might even be self made, like most storytellers. Still, no person is an island – there are influencers and mentors, there’s history and critique. Both arts can be learned via formal education and if you’re looking for skill and even a methodology – you can find them in more than one place. There is another common denominator between storytelling, authoring and painting: “they are a matter of taste, no?” maybe, but the outcome of our work does have to pass a certain level if it wants to be considered worth anyone’s while.
“Mirror mirror on the wall”
I’m writing this past midnight, back from a storytelling lesson. The participants are what you might call – advanced students; that’s what the system they are in calls them. I’ve never trained any of them or met them before this course. One thing I can say – advanced in storytelling they are not. Advanced in this case is just a phase-name given by the system’s administration, with no artistic justification. It’s supposed to make them feel good but it gives me cramps. On the other hand, if there are no rules there is no ruler. How should they be able to decide about the level of a student?
One of the participants lingered long after the session was over to talk with me. She couldn’t realize how I didn’t think her telling was awesome. As she was unraveling her thoughts about why I didn’t “get” what she was expressing I heard a little voice in my head reciting, “mirror mirror on the wall”. She couldn’t see anything besides what she wanted to look at – you can guess what that was. The guidance she received until we’ve met gave her no tools to evaluate what she was doing beyond, “I felt I was really expressing myself” “I liked the dramatic touch I gave the story” “didn’t you think that little dance in the middle was pretty cute?” the latter I would agree with – it was cute – but it wasn’t storytelling.
“You seem to have some sort of theory,” she said, “what is it good for?” “knowing where I am on the map of artistic skills required for being a fine storyteller, so I can develop, for one. So I can help you develop, is another,” I replied. She found it very difficult to agree with the fact there is a path there. “But what about you? what about what you want to express?” she asked. “What about individualism you mean?” her eyes lit up, I was finally “getting it”. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that question from storytellers. Never heard it from a musician though. Do you think musicians lack individualism?” it was my turn to do the questioning.
She seemed to have not met such a person – a professional musician worried about their individualism. “You might have met someone 17 wondering but not a professional. I’ll tell you why – all this deconstruction, theory and practice eventually re-combines into the ability to perform well upon demand. From that moment on, you can choose to fly wherever your wings take you. It can’t happen without a solid framework or else you’ll be constantly worried about the frame. If you seek freedom you need a frame.” That was a little too much to swallow I suppose. “I’ll have to think about it,” she added. I hope she does.
What disturbed me even more was the fact participants were complimenting each other in a false way. I’ve seen it in many other places and from my point of view it’s a bad habit leading people nowhere better than they are, just a little more numb. Is that where we want to be?
Mentioning numb, I need to get some sleep, so… to be continued.
I started my voyage in the arts from classical music. Meaning – I’ve been sentenced to practice for life. Practice was always there – practice my instrument (oboe), practice the piano (ambivalent relationship here), new manuscripts, solfeggio, harmony, counterpoint, singing, orchestration, composition, chamber music, playing in an orchestra, conducting an orchestra, practice-practice-practice. No matter how much more there is to add to this list, it will always go hand in hand with – practice. During ten of those years I was also a ballerina (you’ll have to stretch your imagination a little…) and it was the same thing – practice.
Then I arrived to storytelling. We were asked to prepare, but practice?! Eventually I found practice and realized it’s a very subjective issue among storytellers, highly dependent on what we wish for ourselves – artistically. How come many manage without stable practice? How come most storytellers don’t have a daily routine like other performers?
Observing the daily lives of musicians and dancers, I came up with two main differentiators that effect everything else:
#1 When you start learning music, the little pieces you play are handpicked by your teacher, keeping her eyes on the methodological and artistic arcs of becoming a musician while closely observing you. When you manage to handle those pieces, the teacher pushes up the bar and does so continuously. If you want to enjoy your music, you’ll have to practice. Same with ballet. Knowing they don’t want to “break” the students, ballet teachers will allow some time for free-style during each lesson, but that you’ll enjoy anyway.
#2 Musicians, dancers and many actors – learn, perform and grow within an artistic ecosystem. There are academies and institutions, theaters and orchestras, ballet troupes and groups, there are halls and stable audiences, composers, choreographers, writers, directors, trainers and many others, all rotating within the system. If you want to be part of the artistic ecosystem, you’ll have to practice and keep to a daily routine.
What about storytellers?
Once upon a time, there were artistic storytelling ecosystems you could be part of; very little of that still exists today, so most of the time we have to do it solo. After some contemplation I see a storyteller’s routine situated somewhere between performance arts routines and those followed by authors and painters. More about it in another post.
In the meanwhile, I found something that might not be suitable to all storytellers, maybe to some… at least in the frameworks of “applied storytelling”…
Some time ago I crossed roads with someone in the marketing automation business. “Great!” he exclaimed upon recognizing me, “we’re both storytellers!”. Hell not. But as storytellers know, right now we’re told again and again “everybody is a storyteller”. Can you argue the opposite when huge media forces, journalists, corporate CEOs, data analysts, scientists, business consultants, advertizing agencies, app developers, authors, educators, designers, photographers, Pixar and Coca Cola say so?
Yes, you can. But you’d be wasting your time and energy. It’s enough that a few of us are doing it occasionally. Those forces don’t really want to know the truth and there are too many false promises and dollars involved. As we well know – this too shall pass. Storytelling was never about big bucks anyway.
What we need to look at
I think we need to look at storytelling. No external applications, only becoming better in storytelling as it really is. The good news are that people recognize storytelling for what it really is when they meet it. The bad news are there is not enough of the good stuff to go around.
I know we all come from different backgrounds, arrived to storytelling for different reasons, with varying ideas about what we want to make out of it. But eventually we stayed for a long time and made storytelling an important part of our agenda. Some of us are full-time storytellers, some part time; we all take it seriously. Sticking with storytelling you find out there is no other way but being serious about it – as much as life allows you to be.
If you’re looking into learning those tech, media and marketing “applications”, look at it as a side hustle or your full-time business, not as part of your storytelling. A lot of what you know as a storyteller will help you become good with those occupations and storytelling will go with you everywhere, but don’t think you’ll be storytelling in a different way or appreciated/compensated for what you know about storytelling. On the contrary, you’ll have to find a way to keep your storytelling fresh and sound, untouched by those influences. If you don’t, you’re going to damage your art and this is from experience: I realized it the day some generalizing words and jargon got into my telling. It was a clear warning that made me back-off and relook the way I want to lead the double strand – being a storyteller and being in business.
Keep away from storytelling generalizations. If by explaining exactly what storytelling is you’re excluding someone – so be it. Being kind to everybody but not to yourself and what you’ve worked so hard to achieve won’t get you very far as a professional. You’ll just become a me-too-every-body-is-a-storyteller, you know, in general as if?
In general is where all the powers I’ve mentioned on top are gathering. Fighting your way there is close to impossible because when it comes to being hired under “storyteller” they’ll be asking for your “other” credentials, not for storytelling as we know it. For some reason they don’t appreciate “people” as a good clients list.
Remembering there is always another bend in the road
Learn how to get critical about your storytelling ability, in detail. It will help you map your skills and decide how you want to proceed with improving on them.
Get as many gigs as you can afford to handle. Paid or not, practice makes better and better is the best way to market.
Decide what kind of storyteller you want to be (this list of applications can help you think) and take your path over there. Be in the suitable ‘zone’ for your preferences, the audiences you want to meet, resources and skills.
Enlarge your repertoire with stories of rich substance. Develop your own taste for stories and don’t overlook fairytales, legends and folktales; telling them is walking in the footsteps of giants.
Tell to kids, not only to adults. I know there are places where storytelling is treated as “kids stuff” but there are places where it’s exactly the opposite. Not telling to kids is like trying to fly with one wing.
The real question, posed by a someone who arrived to “check out” the possibility of joining an intermediate storytelling course, sounded slightly different -
I’m a storyteller. What do I need to improve on?!!!
I had a bold answer which I didn’t speak-up. Instead, I used my Jewish birth-right to answer a question with another question, “are you a good storyteller?” I asked. “Yyyyesss…,” came the suddenly not-so-sure-of-itself answer as the person uttering it looked around at the other attendees, hoping to grab some collective assurance, “I’m pretty good”.
“How do you know?” I asked. “People tell me my stories are entertaining and that I’m a captivating performer. My friends always ask me to tell a story when we meet. That means I’m good, don’t you think so?”
“Does that mean YOU know you’re a good storyteller?” I asked another, which brought back thin silence. The protagonist was looking more humble, as was the collective. I walked to the board and placed the original question at the top:
“I’m a storyteller. What do I need to improve on?”
I invited answers and wrote down everything they had to say. As the answers accumulated I realized how much they could say which was connected to performance, literature and theater, and how little they could say which was directly connected to the core of the art of storytelling. We had a good discussion and learning that evening, but on my way home I couldn’t stop thinking about the gaps they had and what those gaps mean – concerning the art, the practice and the state of storytelling and storytellers in general. It really bothered me.
When I arrived home I hit the blog to find a research paper I wrote during 2007. ‘Accumulative wisdom and the Golden Fleece of Storytelling’ was a huge survey conducted among experienced storytellers. (If you fancy, scroll to the bottom of the post and you’ll find a link to the research paper download). One of the questions I was most curious about was “components important for a storyteller” – you’ll see the list in the post.
Reading the list, it makes sense to me. At the same time, it is only an appetizer for someone asking “what do I need to improve on?” which is instantly followed with “but how?” for each one of the issues appearing on the list. In addition, many of the issues are too broad to answer as is, they need a storytelling related focus.
After some head scratching I realized it’s about time to put fingers to keyboard and create a body of knowledge that will help answer the question, “I’m a storyteller. What do I need to improve on?” and add enough about the “but how?”
So I’ve decided that’s going to be the Agora’s content plan for 2014. It’s not that I’m not going to kick some empty alleged-storytelling cans, or contribute to the better understanding of story and storytelling related business applications and B2B marketing; but the main focus is going to be – the way of the storytelling artist.
Since I know there is great wisdom out there, I’m inviting it over here. Any contribution will be warmly welcomed.
Well… this was an interesting year, wasn’t it? reviewing the Agora posts brought back memories about moments of revelation, breakthroughs, harsh discussions and many virtual hand-shakes. I thank everyone who invested time in reading, commenting, sharing, mentioning, re-tweeting, both here and in other virtual spaces.
The posts listed here were not selected via analytics. They are here because I find them either helpful, mind provoking or worth a second thought.
I wish us all an interesting, prosperous and a little more sane and peaceful 2014.
Storytelling is not a combination of two words. Here’s why…
Journeying away from ‘Professional Storyteller’
From the mouth of ‘babies’ to the ears of media and marketing ‘professionals’
Characters, Script and Orality
Two anecdotes about the physical element of storytelling
Business Story, Strategy & Marketing
The day I came up with the Content Requirements Document (CRD)
My stories of failure and how they turned into a Business Plan
John Hagel: dropping story in favor of narrative is dangerous advice
Coca Cola Journey Enfolds The Sad Story of Content Marketing Storytelling Hype
The state of B2B Marketing – Summing up 2013
Culture, Politics & Society
And in case you’re a storyteller bumping into this space for the first time, don’t forget to visit the page ‘How to become a better storyteller’.
Our current storytelling beginners’ course is a wagon full of marvels. Last time it was the guy in marketing who came up with a profound insight, this time it’s a lady about my age with a brilliant spin-off that left us all in awe.
One of the exercises I use in training, leads participants through a process that transforms a personal story into a folktale. During the various phases of this exercise participants are requested to shift partners, so eventually no one knows who the original story-owner was, what it sounded like or what it was about. An hour later, we have a room full of new-born folktales…
In a small village in Romania, lived a woman who had an only child – a beautiful, loving young girl. The mother and her daughter had very little by means of property and finance, but they had one another. The mother took close care – to tell her child the most beautiful stories, sing songs with her, dance, walked in nature, and visit friends as often as possible. The mother wanted to give her daughter a life of beauty and joy, of wisdom and friendship. They were happy with each other and with what they had for many years.
One day, a distant relative came to visit. She was from a far-away land over the great oceans. This woman was very elegant and she had a lovely smell of perfume. The girl thought to herself, “She looks like a queen”; the girl was very curious about that woman and the things she brought with her.
A day after, the guest said to the girl, “I have a present for you”. She opened a special-looking box, gently pulled out a round, shiny object, and offered it to the girl. “What is it?” asked the girl. “It’s a crystal ball,” answered the guest, “and it’s only for you to use. If you look into it you will see the most beautiful, exciting and interesting things. If you look through it at anything, you’ll learn very fast what’s worth looking at and what isn’t. Take it, keep it and enjoy.”
The girl took the ball and ran outside to look into it and all around. She was fascinated by the sights and sounds in the ball. She was excited to look at things around her through the ball. Some of them looked nice and interesting, some were plain and boring, so she decided not to look at them anymore. She was happy with the beautiful, exciting and interesting things in the ball; They were endless, and every day there were new things in the ball to explore. Gradually she looked more into the ball than around here, spellbound by the magnificent, out of this world sights.
After some time, she came into the tiny house where her mother was working in the kitchen. “Hey mom!” she called, “look at my present!” The girl lifted up the ball to show it to her mother, but as she did, she saw her mother through it and thought, “My mother looks empty. She isn’t very interesting.”
From that day on, the girl drifted away from her mother and clutched to the crystal ball. Her mother tried to call her – to eat together, to tell stories, to walk outside – but nothing would bring her child back. Although she had a lovely daughter whom she loved dearly, she was very much alone.
As the woman telling the story spoke this last sentence, another woman in the class clutched her head between her hands. It seemed she was about to break into tears. The teller fell into silence looking at her. “That’s my story,” said the distressed listener, “it’s about me, my daughter and what happened after she received an iPhone as a present”. “How is it, to hear your story told as a folktale?” I asked. “It’s even more distressful than I thought reality is, but it is truly how I feel.” “Would you like to hear the rest of it?” I asked. “Yes” was the answer. The teller continued with a glint in her eye and brought the story to a surprising twist and conclusion. It was surprising because her story had a solution for the distressed mother in it.
The story-owner smiled, “I like that and I’m going to follow the story’s advice”. Then she added, “folktales are really clever” which made us all break into laughter.
At the end of the lesson she asked the teller, “how did you come up with such a great solution and folk version for my story?” which upon the other student replied, “well, I have three daughters with iPhones. I know what it feels like…”
This statement, made by a very close peer of mine, might look somewhat extreme to you yet it carries more than a seed of truth. Made by someone who has over 25 years experience in performing with people of all ages, she experiences the shift in audiences perception and attention – and she’s not alone.
Some kids can no longer listen to stories, they need to be shown something.
Some kids can no longer look at drawings but light-up when shown the same image on screen.
Some kids can no longer look at photorealistic images – they need a cartoon or an icon.
Some kids look deaf if you don’t shout at them or over animate every word you say.
Some adults can no longer listen to stories not about the present or the close past.
Some adults can no longer listen to stories not about themselves.
Some adults can no longer listen to stories not told by them.
They find folktales irrelevant, not utilitarian enough.
The power of the spoken word hasn’t disappeared and it never will. But with the enormous forces applied by hardware, software, advertising and media corporations – to consume, consume and consume some more – kids brains are being rewired. What to? pretty simple – to consume media. Lately becoming a synonym to advertising.
Maybe not (yet).
The physical element of storytelling, that which is connected to the body, differentiates storytelling from any other story based art-form or work. Our natural limitations bring us closer – where intimacy, truthfulness and kindness can thrive; the more amplification and magnification we add, the more we drift apart – clearing the way for corrections, masking and a need for ownership, a grip.
Every storyteller has tales of the physical in storytelling. I’m sharing two anecdotes I really like because they are both gentle and profound:
M is a storyteller I mentor for quite a while now. She chose to work with very young children who are under the risk of various kinds of abuse. She has the great gift of being able to feel and show love to the most hurting young people. This quality works the other way round too – she feels their pain – and she had to learn how to contain it so she can help them in her gentle ways through storytelling.
One day she called to tell me about what she named “a peculiar experience”. The facility she visited that week would not arrange the room where they were holding the storytelling session in a reasonable way. Furniture was cluttered to the wall, leaving very little space for her and the kids. “I managed to seat them but the space I had left for myself to move in was tiny. I felt trapped – the kids were too close and I couldn’t animate the way I usually do.”
Being very self-aware and listening closely to what was going on inside her, M realized that a couple of minutes down the road the feeling of being trapped will make her loose contact with the kids – she was about to go into a defense state. “And then I thought ‘they are your partners, look at them, what do their bodies show you they need? what can you receive from them to make this work?’ what I received was ‘we need the feeling of life, of movement, but not from your body, it’s too close’ so I moved everything I had by means of movement-intention into my voice, and the situation ‘clicked’. I could continue and so could they. In fact, it was a very magical session.”
The second event happened during a large festival. We were a troop of about fifteen tellers and we told stories in shifts through four days and nights, in a small, round tent. The noise around us was enormous since the festival hosted about 30,000 visitors. We sat in a circle, the audience sat around us in two circles, some of them receiving some of our backs. We were given an amplification system but after a very short while we found out that telling without it, elicited better attention from both tellers and listeners, so we left it aside.
At one point, one of the tellers joining the shift walked in with an impressive tall hat, and sat in the circle on his knees. The telling continued and after a couple of minutes I could see him take the hat off. After a few more he shifted from his knees and met the ground like everybody else in the tent – on his butt. Finally, he was at eye-level, both physically, mentally and emotionally. Only then could he join in and tell a story.
I think these anecdotes are important to share among storytellers. Often I receive hesitant questions from storytellers who go through these “peculiar” physical experiences and it takes them quite a while to decide they want to share the experience with someone – afraid they will be misunderstood or looked at with a bad eye. Nothing wrong, it’s part of what it means to be in storytelling.
It’s pretty odd that scientists are so surprised and puzzled by Göbekli Tepe. If you know anything about mythology, it makes perfect sense that this kind of advanced civilization existed. Must admit I envy storytellers who lived back then; think about the audiences they had and what those audiences pushed the tellers to perform!
David Bowen, I’m sure you’re doing a great job. You seem a serious, thoughtful professional. Nevertheless, your clients and your peers have been trespassing my and my peers’ domain for over three years now. You have the power of ‘hefty editorial budgets’, mega-brands, workforce and distribution. We don’t.
We never intended to, because storytelling has never been about owning the storytelling threefold equilibrium – listener, story, teller. Your work is about creativity – so is ours – the difference is in what the equilibrium is connected to. Yours is eventually – corporate communications. Can you guess what we are looking at as the main reason for perusing our art?
If you ever get to read this post, you might think “what does she want?” I want you to help stop using the word ‘storytelling’ as a synonym to content marketing, MarCom or just solid good corporate communications which seems to be what you are really involved in. Using ‘story’ is fine – although many current applications of this word are abusing its meaning, but using ‘storytelling’? definitely not.
There are several reasons for making such a request:
What you are doing isn’t storytelling, so why use the wrong word? storytelling isn’t a concept or a framework, it’s not that everything goes if you just find a way to reframe it. If it would be only about living in self-deception, I wouldn’t mind. The problem is that all that tech, the big names and resource power facilitating what you call storytelling, are placing many storytellers under the label “traditional” – and not in a respectful way. We are not in the same profession, we’re not your predecessors or competitors. By putting us into the same context, you’re suggesting something wrong which is doing us wrong.
You’re covering storytelling with noise storytellers can’t break through. We’re too small on the web. That means that some storytellers, dependant on the web for marketing their work, are losing business. Considering the miniature size of a storytelling dependant family income, you can guess what that means.
There are several more reasons I could list here, but I’ll jump to the most profound – you can go very wrong these days if you talk about storytelling.
“A site people can’t keep away from”
“We need to expand websites”
“Monitor Journey stories’ popularity like a hawk”
Partner these few quotations with ‘Why storytelling is the ultimate weapon’ (Jonathan Gottschall) and other opportunistic publications and what does it read like to you?
I’m sure you don’t like the re-frame of your quotations. I don’t like the consequences of the above messages – not for real storytellers and certainly not for the soul of humanity.
Some people reading this might think, “she’s telling him it works! why stop?!”
I’ll spell it out anyway – if you’re idea for a great future for your kids includes heavy consumption of technology based branded communications and thrills, where person-to-person storytelling exchanges will seem pale next to a talking robot and they will prefer to touch a screen instead of their kids – you are in the right direction, proceed. I’m not sure you can have kids with a Cola, but who knows? maybe I’m not innovative enough.
Mr. Bowen, please consider, you are in the position to help. From reading your words I reckon you know very well ‘storytelling’ can stay out of corporate communications, content marketing and all the rest, with no damage to the effectiveness of your work whatsoever.
“Where can I see your work, your art?”
This question, innocently asked by an interested person while standing together in G’s atelier, sent me into introspect:
I have nothing to show him.
There is no place I could take him.
There is no permanent display or collection he can experience as my body of work.
I can show him wonders in his imagination.
I can take him around this world and through other world in minutes.
I can tell him any kind of story he might desire, and stories he can’t imagine exist.
But I knew that’s not what he was asking for. He wanted a place to visit and experience for himself without someone in the middle.
“Storytellers don’t have an atelier. In this world, it seems a problem and considering some facets of making it as an artist – it is. But think about it this way – it takes three to storytelling. May I?”
That got him curious enough and smiling. He pulled a chair and there was storytelling.
A month ago we kicked-off another long storytelling course. One of the participants introduced himself as, “I work in marketing and I came to learn how I can use storytelling in marketing”. I smiled.
Four lessons later I ask the guy, “so, can you see how you can use storytelling?” He replied, “I realize storytelling uses me. It doesn’t work the other way round.”
That’s marketing Eureka and a great lesson for marketers who listen.
This long post describes some new realizations I’ve reached lately about the transition from oral to written. If you’re a storyteller, I think it’s worth your while reading. Here’s the story…
Call for adventure
So I get this phone call asking me to arrive to a meeting. They wanted me to lead a storytelling peers group that will “look into the sources of our culture, and transform the ancient literary treasure into an inspiration for current creations”. Judaism, that is. For some reason unknown besides an inner wish to connect to my community, I agreed.
The woman I met was fascinating as was the information about the project she leads. She was fascinating mainly because she spoke fluent “Jewish” although she is secular, and she spoke naturally, painlessly, with no evident identity crisis or inner argument what-so-ever. The magnitude of activities around Judaism and Jewish-Israeli culture under her devoted supervision is impressive, even before considering most residents of that area in Israel are totally, religiously – secular. Again, I agreed.
On my way home, it hit me. “Me?! Judaism?! leading a peers group?!” I grew up far away from religious life, I have my self-earned-by-curiosity knowledge, but this called for much more. So I kicked into my automatic response, reserved for these situations: “I need to learn everything there is to know”, I thought. Sure… it took me two hours to realize others have devoted lifetimes to get close to understand tiny particles of Judaism. I had to ditch my ambition, perform a little farewell-to-that-crazy-aspiration ceremony and find a different way to approach the matter. After all, they didn’t call me for something I don’t know. But what was it that I did?
After two days of reading from the Talmud, from the Bible, reading different scholars and God knows what else, I found the entrance. In very short, and if you’re Jewish please forgive me for the huge leaps and generalizations I’m going to make so I can move to the point of this post:
Jews are often referred to as the “people of the book”. Truth is, we are the people of many books. The knowledge accumulated in Judaism is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. There is so much of it and it is so highly regarded that you could think all we should do, is sit and learn all day. Many of us actually do exactly that.
The learning though, isn’t only about accumulating knowledge. It’s mainly about trying to understand things, figure out. Reaching understanding isn’t the final destination either. From what it seems, there is no final destination; it’s a never ending path of improvement, healing, repairing, transforming. There is also a lot of love involved. I think the “Coolest” definition for the spirit of the Jewish people I’ve ever read, is by our president Shimon Peres:
“The greatest contribution of the Jewish people in history, is dissatisfaction.”
We are a polemic clan. It keeps the mind sharp way more than books. We argue about everything, we argue with God too, and I’m not referring necessarily to debate – we argue. This argumentative nature makes us a very oral people. Orality is considered powerful in Judaism, starting with:
“And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” Gen 1:3
Parallel to the written scriptures, books and law (Halakha) there is an oral Torah. Although a lot of it was written down through the ages, it’s actually fluid, living material. Part of it is what’s called “Agada” meaning – legend.
Halakha and Agada (law and legend) are supposed to be combined in learning, but through the years, the focus shifted in favor of Halakha. Quite similar to focus shifting in favor of law and science over art. One of the reasons has to do with methodology – the methodology for studying Halakha is pretty clear (although we can always argue about that too), but for teaching Agada – there is no clear methodology – unless you are a storyteller curious about figuring out a storytelling methodology… I found my way into the possibility of leading the peers group!
Looking at the world from an oral point of view
From that moment, everything about my new Jewish adventure is treated from a storytelling point of view. It helps knock down barriers, connect dots that seemed disconnected for a long time, and brings new ideas into old discussions (arguments really).
Two weeks ago I participated in a Hevruta (partnership in learning) looking at a tiny segment from the Talmud, dealing with language:
Mar Zutra or, as some say, Mar Ukba said: Originally the Torah was given to Israel in Hebrew characters and in the sacred [Hebrew] language; later, in the times of Ezra, the Torah was given in Ashshurith script and Aramaic language. [Finally], they selected for Israel the Ashshurith script and Hebrew language, leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the hedyototh. Who are meant by the ‘hedyototh’? — R. Hisda answers: The Cutheans. And what is meant by Hebrew characters? — R. Hisda said: The libuna’ah script.
Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin, Folio 21b
Say what?! leaving out the human characters in the story, here’s an explanation:
Originally, the Torah was given to Israel (the people) in Hebrew characters and language.
Later, when the people returned from the first Babylonian exile it was given to them (again), in Ashshurith script and Aramaic language (which was Lingua Franca, the bridging language of that time. Like English in today’s world).
Finally, they (the leaders) selected for Israel the Ashshurith script and Hebrew language (a new combination), leaving the Hebrew characters and Aramaic language for the Samaritans (Cutheans, those from Cuthea). Hebrew characters are The libuna’ah script.
This was where I got really curious. I wanted to know what that script looks like and I was wondering about the alternate use of “characters” and “script”. Here is the script used by the Samaritans until today (libuna’ah) -
The first thing that popped into my mind when I saw these signs was – Runes. I have a set of them at home. People like buying runes just like we like buying Tarot cards, but you can’t do much with them if you don’t know the meanings behind each symbol or card, and how to combine those meanings for various purposes and requests.
Was The libuna’ah script the Jewish version for runes? not exactly. It’s a script, so are runes, but runes are also symbols that can be treated separately or in various combinations that don’t make up a word. The text did give me a hint though – originally the Torah was given in Hebrew characters – not necessarily script.
So I collected some small stones and made myself a set of JRunes to play with. I studied the meanings of each symbol until I got fluent in “reading” combinations. The more I played with it, the more I realized this was about orality – there are no set texts in reading symbols. The reading is done on the spot upon request. You ask something and you get a direction for finding the answer, you understand more about the dynamics around your request.
Pulling it all together
There is a word in Hebrew which appears in several known stories as written on a piece of parchment. Sometimes it falls from the sky interpreted by many as an answer given by God. In other cases, a great Rabbi wrote the word and used the parchment for some powerful deed – like in the story “The Golem of Prague”.
It means “truth” and is considered the word of God. But, what if it isn’t a word? what if it’s a combination of characters which in JRunish would look like this
If you lived way back then, when those characters where the only symbols used and from your point of view there was nothing else, would your experience about the parchment be the same as with the symbols? I don’t think so.
Something happened in Jewish culture between the first and second temple periods. From being a people of prophecy, nature, poetry, war and love, we’ve transitioned into being a people of wisdom. Claiming we’ve lost all those vivid expressions of life would be far from the truth, but we did lose some in favor of systematic knowledge, sophistication and law. It helped us excel in the mind but it also created a split from nature, myth, the physical, the deep feminine.
So it seems that knowing how to work with Agada, can help heal that split. The word Agada has another version – Hagada. Meaning – storytelling. The common belief among storytellers that storytelling can help heal the world one person or one story at a time, isn’t that far from the truth – אמת – which is the word of God.
Come on oral wizards, go balance out science and law before they manage to dry-out the world completely
The other day I gave three consecutive workshops about stories in digital media, to kids in 7th grade. The organizers’ assumption was that ‘digital’ will attract them as ‘cool’. Knowing that once you expose people to new tools their attention wanders to the particulars and features, I decided to do three things:
- Story experiences – show them various mediums people refer to as digital forms of story – and see what they think and feel about them.
- Teach them how to formulate a story that will have a good chance to get someone interested – from scratch
- Give them a URL to a web-board where I’ve accumulated for them the workshop material, together with many references to digital tools, platforms and other things they need to know – for them to try out for themselves.
The board was good for their teachers too, which if decided they would like to use the ideas furthermore, could get everything they needed in one place.
We did a story together, they got the ideas about prompting and crafting, realized that working with others on a story can help keep it in context (you don’t need supersonic multiplying ‘others’ in every story to keep people interested…), they wrote down some stuff for themselves (I have no idea what it was but they looked very serious about it), and scanned the QR code to get to the web-board. Cool.
The reason for writing this post arrived from the first part – their reactions and ideas about the story experiences. Bringing together all those young people’s words, here is what adults should start realizing, and stop lying to themselves about – especially media and marketing “professionals”.
Spoiler: I cheat at the end of this post.
Wow, this is really interesting. It’s here, happening now, with us. There is a story in it, and it’s told in a way which is interesting to everyone present, we feel involved in making the story although you’re the only one talking, there is an interaction going on between you, us, the story, our minds and hearts, your expressions, voice, images in the story, our reactions, imaginations – it feels everything is connected and curiosity doesn’t stop for a moment.
One of the groups was combined from Hebrew speaking students and Arabic speaking students. I invited one of the Arabic teachers fluent in Hebrew to tell with me, and translate to Arabic as we go. This made everything they said about the reciprocal nature of storytelling even stronger: at any given moment, half of the people in the room couldn’t understand what was being said – but they were interested, and helped us carry the event.
Storyteller on video
The storyteller on video is ok yet much less interesting. She told a nice story, you could see she was doing here best but we were not part of it – she was telling other people, not us. Because she can’t see us or anyone else who might bump into this video, she can’t make sure we are involved. Some people will like it – mainly if they like the story, most won’t.
They suggested storytellers keep away from video because it’s the wrong medium for us. I asked them if telling directly to the camera would be a different experience for the viewer. They came up with the notion it might feel more engaging because when someone looks at you, you feel more obliged to look back; but that didn’t, in their eyes, change the fact the telling couldn’t adapt to each viewer in the feeling it created and that they were not part of the real-time creation. This point I find to be tremendously important in the context of interactive and customization – it’s not giving me the tools to participate or customize – it’s showing me the other side notices my existence and has the capacity to get me involved and adapt to me at the same time.
Reading from a scanned book on video
Listening to someone reading a text you can see but not touch, is pretty frustrating; for some she might be reading too fast, for others too slow. The illustrations block imagination – what if we wanted to see something else? Not seeing the person reading is also very weird. When someone sits next to you and reads, you sense their presence, you can watch their face.
It’s also childish. If she was sitting in front of us she wouldn’t talk like that, but being only a recorded voice she can’t know much about us, can she? And, why video? you expect something to move, but nothing did.
People expect things from the different mediums. Disregarding the medium and using it only for reach and distribution, results in a video like this – which isn’t the only one out there…
Photographs with music
This is like wedding videos made of stills. Great music by the way, no story if you’re asking. On the contrary – no story is needed, that’s not what this kind of presentation is for. It’s more for eliciting memories and anecdotes about someone you know or somewhere you’ve been. If there was a story in it, it was most probably intrusive to memory, a single version of many possible reflections.
When I told them some people claim this kind of presentation to be “visual storytelling” they looked at me as if I fell from the ceiling and bumped my head really hard. After I pressed for a more articulate response they came up with – storytelling elicits visuals, visuals don’t elicit storytelling – they elicit story fragments and ideas.
A Zen story in digital format
This is much more interesting than all the other digital examples. Especially because although the visuals somewhat disturb the imagination, they allow for some self-generated imagery too. That’s interesting although it would be better to have less images and transitions. Still, not everybody will like it because it’s not done on the spot face-to-face. The storyteller might have chosen something else to tell us if he was present here. He might have told differently which would be better and more engaging.
A personal story in digital format
This was interesting since none of the kids could clearly understand what the person was saying. I did have a prepared translation for them waiting in a text file but I showed them the video as-is to see what will happen. They all grabbed it was a personal life story and that there was sadness present. Some kids could sense that alongside the sadness, there was also a sense of acceptance. Quite a few of them realized the sofas represent phases in that person’s life, or relationships. The most striking realization to my opinion was the fact they all recognized it was an entire life story, not something short or anecdotal. I wanted to know how they figured that out and the reply was, “you can hear it in his voice”.
At the end of this part I told them, that while teaching them about stories in digital media I was also conducting a little experiment: I’ve added a story experience at the beginning, that wasn’t digital. See, I warned you I would cheat. I told them there are people who claim everything I showed them is storytelling, together with social-media, user generated content on the web, marketing material, brand stories, UX, gaming, applications that ‘tell’ stories or enable you to assemble and share etc.
I wanted to know what they think.
They all nodded their heads sideways. In each group I had kids saying, “nope, nothing of all this besides the first experience is storytelling”, or asking, “don’t they get the differences? why on earth are they claiming that?!”
Great questions. Really, why are you claiming that?