Washington, D.C., 2006. Golden Fleece, a loose network of storytellers, consultants and businesspeople in Washington. A young consultant has signed up for my workshop to find stories that show the power of storytelling. My presentation at the Golden Fleece seminar is more or less the same as what's in this book. It's something completely new to the Americans. The content really makes them sit up and listen; the room is filled with energy, and new knowledge emerges.
After the workshop, the consultant is not satisfied. It turns out she wants to tell about her own experience with the power of storytelling, not other people's. I criticize her for not taking the opportunity at the workshop, while we were working with the stories. She smiles evasively. I tell her that this moment will never come again. Then she looks up at me with the most amazing eyes and asks if I would work with her stories now.
We run around a little, looking for a place where we can sit. We end up in some oversized armchairs in the middle of the lobby of the activity center where the seminar is being held. She tells me she's left the safe and secure world she knows. She was active in volunteer organizations, where, among other things, she saw Native Americans solving conflicts by telling stories. She saw how storytelling could be used to reach agreement on important issues. Now she will be working with some of the big players in the American corporate sector and is a bit nervous about it. She doesn't think her stories will hold up. I listen to one of the stories that she intends to present for these business leaders.
I stare at her, horrified. The woman sitting there is deadly boring, no sparkle in her eyes, and she's saying something that sounds most of all like homework. I interrupt her and tell her that I think it's one of the most boring things I've ever heard. She stops and looks at me, horrified. She thinks I mean the content of what she's saying. I wasn't thinking of the content at all; that will come later. No, I'm thinking of her face, her eyes and her body language, all of which very clearly indicate that it's not her personality that's there, only what's going on inside her head. She is pure will, nothing else, and that is deadly dull, let me tell you.
I tell her there are three things she has to remember when she tells a story:
1. Tell your story because you can't stop yourself. You are so filled up with what you want to say that you simply need to communicate it.
2. If you don't know what to say, then be quiet. Storytelling is not so much the words you say. It's more all the words you don't say. Some people call these "pauses." It is an unfortunate description, because what happens to the audience is not that they are put on hold: quite the contrary. It is during these short pauses that your audience is invited inside your story.
3. Feel your feet: if they are not planted firmly on the ground, I won't be able to feel your story. I will understand it, perhaps, but it's a poor effort if you just use a small part of your brain, and it's really also disparaging me as a listener if you only appeal to that ridiculously small part of me.
She tries to be the good student and does everything in her power to follow her teacher's advice. I'm still bored, so I stop her. I steer the conversation away from this task that she clearly has way too much respect for. At one point in the conversation, we laugh. Suddenly there's life in her eyes, and she feels great again. So I'm blunt: I tell her to take that energy she now has and put it into the story. She looks at me with surprise, but she's at least starting to understand. Then something happens. She does it, very slowly and quietly, tentatively. She sits with both feet solidly planted on the ground, throws her hair back and begins.
The change is amazing. The story flows, and there is now life in her eyes. I look in wonder at her hair: the light plays on it now, with a glow that definitely wasn't there before. Once we've cracked the code, the rest is easy.
I hear three of her stories and draw the following conclusions:
When you lay the foundations for a story, you must be as brief and clear as possible.
You must be one with your story.
Telling a story should first and foremost be a delightful thing to do.
1 N.F.S. Grundtvig, former of the Scandinavian Folk High School.