LEARNING TO BE STORY-COMPETENT
Everyone can learn to tell a good story. A lot of great courses and great teachers will train you how, and no wonder they are popular. But not all of them offer the same thing.
Storytelling 101 is surely a good basic skill to have. These introductory courses aim to make us story-competent. It will help us at our daughters wedding or our son’s bar-mitzvah when we have to give a speech. We will deliver that staff report with more panache and even get people laughing at our jokes. Who wants to be story-incompetent anyway? One doesn’t have to be boring or collapse in a feverish sweat every time we have to speak in public.
LEARNING TO BE STORY-SMART
Next, you can pay a lot more money and sign on to the real masters of the story-craft who not only teach you the skills, but take you across the bridge to the world of branding and marketing. These are the high powered consultants who will teach you as a leader or as a company exec to make your story stand out, to be clear, to be resonant, to be memorable, to be sticky, to have buzz, to delight clients, to create attraction, to set up force fields of attention, to be a purple elephant, to be a springboard, to be fresh and current.
These are all what I call the add-ons that promise to make us story-smart. And who wants to be story-dumb? Products like cars nowadays are seen as stories on wheels. That is what you are selling, stories. Strategic plans are no longer turgid point A-F memorandums but Future Stories, Visioning, Dreams of Possibility.
We go to a seminar and get inspired to chase that budget allocation to bring your staff and executive team away on a story retreat. Getting them story-competent and story-smart promises to transform your organization. That’s the story at least. Right? But will it?
What if no matter how powerful these shiny new set of tools are, that you have missed what most practitioners have missed-about the real power of story that lies beyond its sheer instrumentality.
SOMETHING IS MISSING
Something essential is missing from the thriving story-expert industry right now. We give you a user’s manual on how to use stories, but no bible of why, when, or to what end? What we don’t teach is the most obvious thing about stories. Stories are dangerous!
Stories cause wars. Stories bring famines. Stories protect dictators. Stories abuse women. Or to put it another way. Anti-semitism is the result of a well told story. Think Protocol of the Elders of Zion or Mein Kempf. Racism is the result of a time-tested story. Think Birth of a Nation. Homophobia is the result of a compelling story. Think Sodom and Gomorrah. Sexism is the result of a macho story. Think Playboy. Even the economic recession is the result of brilliant stories told to us by all those highly sophisticated story competent and story-smart people at Lehmann brothers and AIG and the Fed. Watch the old AIG ad , for instance, about the kid who can’t get to sleep and his Dad tells him, “Buddy, we’re with AIG.” We bought this bill of goods because we thought being story competent and story smart was enough. But clearly it wasn’t.
STORIES ARE WEAPONS OF WAR
Stories are not some bright new, shiny, faddishly fascinating bundle of tricks for the board room, or the marketing team. No, they are the oldest and most lethal weapons known to man. In ancient times, someone could put a story curse on you, and you would shrivel up and die. Today, they call it character assassination, and who needs to point a bone when you have Facebook or Youtube to expose you to the world? It is not vodoo, its stories. World wars start because a leader buys a deadly story that he sells to his people, Predictably, a story will start World War Three. We live in dangerous times made even more dangerous by dangerous, out-of-control stories. What we most need to learn is how to resist their seductions, to discern, to decide, to become storywise.
COMPETENCE AND SMARTS ARE OVERRATED
As valuable as it is, we don’t all have to be great tellers of tales. To fail as a fabulist is not fatal. We don’t all have to be marketing gurus, the seth godins of our tribe. Sometimes, just making a good product that speaks for itself can be a successful strategy. We might be story-competent, and that is good. We won’t be boring anymore. We might be story-smart, and that is great, because people will buy our product, our ideas, our bundled sub-prime mortgage packages. But the survival of the human project demands much more than that right now. We have to become storywise.
Our planet, our species , even our culture itself is poised on the brink of enormous change. Technology can broadcast a million stories a second. Advocates and lobbying groups assault us with competing arguments that so contradict and confuse us that we end up overwhelmed. Climate change, vaccinations and autism, cell phone radiation, diet supplements, gas pipelines, Toyota cars, Israel and Palestine, you name it, there is a compelling story on one side as compelling as the story on the other side. It is no longer an issue of knowledge, not even an issue of competence. At the end, it boils down to wisdom; making the wisest choices about what story to buy, rather than the easiest, cheapest, or the most popular.
REALIZING OUR VULNERABILITIES
If we are not storywise, we end up being storystupid. That means being totally vulnerable to all those other motivated people out there who are paying their big money to learn how to be story-smart and story-competent. All these graduates are being taught how to use their stories on us! Stories are their most effective tools for selling, to persuade us that someone is a friend, someone else an enemy, like those WMD’s in Iraq- a great story! Or to cajole us to vote for their brilliant presidential candidate, like John Edwards! Now wasn’t he so handsome and charismatic! Or stories told so we will believe that women need men to decide their reproductive rights, or that God will smite us down for same-sex marriage , or that some ethnic minority from across the border is bad, mad, and stealing our jobs.
We are story consumers far more than we are story creators. Hence what we need most of all is some consumer protection, the protection that only becoming storywise can provide. What does it mean to become storywise?
I am glad you asked. Stay tuned for the next few columns in the Republic of Stories where we will we explain our narrative philosophy, one we have been applying for the past 17 years at the Center for Narrative Studies. We want to give you some practical examples, tell you the results of our applications of this Storywise method to politics and peace around the world. We also want to offer you some affordable chances for training and coaching in the coming months.