They have stolen storytelling from you! Take it back!
Story is a powerful format to get your message across. Ever since ancient history, storytellers have been the ones who shape our reality. Not only do they give meaning to our world and everything that's happening, storytellers also pave the way for new ideas to emerge and change to take place.
I'm wondering if storytelling, as a knowledge domain, is in the hands of all the right people. Because, it's not the things that we do or make or the businesses we run that shape our (personal and shared) world. It's the stories we tell that do.
Storytelling is more than stories: it is us
A story - more than other formats of information transmission - is not just the sender's (the storyteller's) idea. It literally nestles in the receiver's brain and tends to evolve there. From 'some guys idea' into 'my idea' to 'my vision' to 'my focus and action'.
By the time it is his or her vision, the receiver is already not aware anymore that it was 'some guys idea' at some point. The stories that move us get incorporated into our brain so deeply, that they become part of us. You yourself, everything you stand for, the things you do and the way you do them, are entirely shaped by story.
I might have to pause here for a moment to elaborate on that last statement. Because, you might think: "No, I was shaped by my parents, my teachers, my heroes and myself. Not just the books I've read or the movies I've seen." And you're right. Books, movies, games, art, even big TED Talks, they are only part of the system shaping you. And they might not even be crucial. But the thing is: something doesn't have to be a story to be storytelling.
How storytelling shapes (what we call) reality
I was raised in a children's books publishing company. Already at a young age I had a vast interest in storytelling as an art form. It didn't take me too long to develop a strong understanding of the craft of making stories. Yet, I have the feeling I am only at the start of understanding the workings of storytelling as a social and network function in human society. And I've been giving this subject my full attention 24/7 for over a decade.
Consider storytelling as a knowledge domain about 'giving meaning'. To what, that depends on where you apply it. It is easy to recognize a big, impactful story. But 'meaning' also resides in the smallest semiotics, the most modest remarks and the least important gestures. And it is all storytelling. By giving meaning, storytelling creates ideas. And by doing it a lot, storytelling has created - and continuously evolves - our idea world. This is what we all draw from to create our sense of reality, to communicate and to act. Thus, it shapes who we are.
If you ask me, or many other storytelling practitioners, storytelling carries a huge responsibility for the current state of our global society, our 'zeitgeist'. On a human scale: it forms the way you interact with others, how you collaborate and what you focus on. On a global scale: it builds our cities, it gets us into space, but it also depletes our planet, generates war and gives populism leverage.
Would you let random people run your business?
When I left home to study theatre, my grandmother pleaded with my parents: convince him to choose a 'real trade'. It is interesting to see how, in our modern world, we have the tendency to think of storytelling as something that belongs to the realm of arts. Why would you even try to beat all those wondrous movies, theatre plays, literature, games and what not? Well, because they have got no business with your business, and yet you let them run it.
More often than not, I notice leaders throughout organizations (and thus entire organizations) to 'leave storytelling up to the professionals'. We only seem to be interested in the craft by occasion, be it an important pitch or presentation or when rebranding. We'd rather stick to measurable facts and targets the rest of the time. Of course the numbers are important, but the process of 'giving meaning' is taking place continually, and in most organizations, this is not actively directed... Which is where storytelling comes in.
(Read more about that in my earlier article The Urge for Storytelling in Modern Organizations.)
When chaos governs culture
By not actively directing the storytelling process (the process of giving meaning) in and around our organizations, this tremendous gap was created between the inside world and the outside. How many companies' brands (or images) don't match with their internal cultures? How many markets are so easily disrupted? How many businesses stay behind with necessary innovation?
What's more is the tremendous chaos of perspectives, frames and messages that govern internal culture. I don't know if you have been online lately, but don't you think it's more than curious that the same chaos seems to exist out there? Don't believe me? Look at the agenda for your next big meeting: how many bullets are on it that really, really matter? You'll be astonished when you Google the rest of them... Even the meeting agenda is governed by all the chit chat out there.
Don't believe in fairytales - use them!
The thing my grandma overlooked when she urged me to learn a real trade is not the fact that arts is a real trade, but the fact that this craft is able to create cultural focus and efficiency. I went to study this domain with the dream to help reinvent our world. Fourteen years later, I realize that my best chance of doing so, is in making others aware of their capability to give meaning to their worlds on a microscale. Chaos in our worlds is as functional as gravity: we need it (for creativity, innovation, discussion) but eventually - if you really want to get somewher e- you'll need to be able to overcome it.
My grandfather (on the other side) has a daughter and three grandsons who are all creatively schooled. He himself, like all his forefathers, is great at telling stories. If you ask around in your family, you'll notice how pretty much every family used to have these 'household' storytellers.
This is the catch of this story: throughout history storytelling was done by 'normal people' (although I think of my grandfather as a hero, he also belongs to this category). Some were a bit better and became politicians or activists, priests, judges or kings. But there was no television yet, no newspapers, no books. 'Giving meaning' was something that belonged to everyone.
And it still does. Through storytelling, you give meaning to your world. With your colleagues you govern the meaning in and around your organization. With all mankind you define what it means to be human.
Storytelling is yours. Don't leave it up to professionals!
Ruben Blom is founder of ROTYS and guides leaders and teams to discover the story that connects them - and benefit from it to reach their goals more effectively. Join him for an impactful team storytelling workshop.