|We had some friends over for dinner last night, and one couple brought their 12-year-old daughter and her friend. Over dinner I listened to the two girls recounting recent episodes of the TV program Ghost Whisperer. At first I intervened only to ask if they were aware that the recurring theme of the show was giving closure to those suffering from grief over the loss of a loved one (and to some extent, closure to those who died suddenly with ‘unfinished business’). They didn’t seem too interested in this information. As one of the girls related another plotline from the TV series, I told them that it sounded similar to the children’s story There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon*. I told them this story, rather badly I thought, but they listened attentively (much more attentively than they did to my point about closure). I wondered if, had I told them my own personal story about closure, they would have been both more interested and more understanding.
I concluded that that story was too ‘old’ for them, and instead transitioned from the dragon story to its predecessor, the ancient HC Andersen story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Once again, I was amazed at their attentiveness, as this time I drew out the story a bit. When I finished, they expressed no interest in the common tie-in or moral of the two stories but instead said to me:
Tell us another story.
I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know any more stories. I didn’t know how to tell stories (despite having taken a course in it by Dave Snowden and having read Steve Denning’s book on the subject The Springboard).
I had been told, and thought, that the power of stories lay in the personal joy of discovering and learning their meaning. In fact, I had just delivered a presentation at KMWorld that argued that stories add meaning and value to information by adding context and allowing people to become engaged by filling in the details from their own experience and ‘making the story their own’. Yet here the pleasure of listening to stories seemed to lay in just listening and imagining and visualizing the events and details of the stories themselves, and their lessons and moral were unimportant. Was this unique to children, or did adults also not care about what stories meant, as long as they found them entertaining?
I thought back to a memorable story Dave Snowden had recounted at KMWorld, about his experience walking unawares at night through an extremely dangerous part of New York City after attending the opera in a tuxedo, having been informed by Google Maps that this was the fastest route to make his connection to his next scheduled appointment. The message, which Dave stated explicitly near the end of the story, was that Google Maps software was unable to manage the complex arc of information that would have allowed it to suggest a better (safer but slower) route. But what delighted the audience (me included) was the image of Dave being stopped, scolded and escorted to safety by the police. I could even imagine listeners retelling the story, perhaps with embellishments or even in the first person, appropriating the story as their own, and omitting the message or even the reference to Google Maps. Would the omission of the lesson about complexity diminish the story’s power and value? Would this omission actually enrich the story, by making it accessible to people who didn’t care about complexity or know what Google Maps was? Is the truth, including essential information and learnings, often and easily sacrificed in the interest of making a story more entertaining?
When we tell stories, are we in fact giving them away? Can we presume to trust that what we consider their essential details and veracity will be retained in their retelling, or do we immediately give up all rights to such presumption, much as we do when we gift anything else, like a piece of jewelry or a book? Even if we authored that book?
The truth about stories is that that’s all we are. If that’s the case, when we ‘give away’ stories, are we giving away a part of ourselves? Do we dare, then, get attached to our stories? Do we owe it, to the truth, to learn to tell true stories carefully, memorably, completely, so that those who ‘take them’ from us will be more inclined to recall and retell the truth when they pass them on?
Conversation has two purposes — to inform or to entertain. There are ways to inform without entertaining (I’m reasonably good at this — in presentations and dialogues I give people a lot of ideas, links, reading suggestions and other ‘useful’ stuff). There are ways to entertain without informing (ask a stand-up comedian how — I’m terrible at this). Stories allow you to do both, separately or at the same time. But they run the risk that the information will be lost in the entertainment.
I’ve resolved, once again, more than ever, to learn to be a better story-teller, mostly by practicing.
But I’m asking myself why. Do I want to tell better stories to convey information better, with more context, more memorably? Or do I want to tell better stories to be more entertaining, more popular, even if it may mean being less informative?
* In the business world, the metaphor substitutes an elephant (‘in the room’) for the dragon.
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 80 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
Community-Based Resilience Framework (Poster)
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
What Happened When the Oil Ran Out
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
If We Had a Better Story
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Systems Thinking & Complexity 101
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self:
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
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Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
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