“To hell with facts! We need stories!” — Ken Keysey
“Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.” — Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
I love being told a good story. We all do. It happens, this love, when most of us are children–parents cooing soft stories in our ears to calm us, entertain us, teach us. Over the years most of us lose the connection to storytelling, relegating good yarns to bar talk or dinner conversation. And even in those settings a well-told story still captures our hearts and imaginations.
My good friend Michael Goater, a professional sales coach and all-around nice guy, recently wrote about the power of storytelling in a sales setting. He argues that telling stories is a better tactic than pitching a product or an idea. Essentially I agree with him and hope that he and I can collaborate on a storytelling project together. Whereas Michael is interested in storytelling from a sales perspective I’m equally interested in a different set of questions:
Why do stories work? What makes storytelling effective? Whose story should be told?
First, stories work because the audience self-identifies with the characters, conflict, and resolution in the story itself. A good story often has an Everyman accessibility that permits imagined participation. Without forcing an idea on a listener a story magnetically invites tacit involvement. Great stories have gravity.
Second, storytelling shows us things about ourselves that we may know, suspect, be searching for in our hearts and souls, or have buried away. Poetry does this better than storytelling in my opinion, but that takes a whole lot more work. Stories “hold a mirror up to nature” and cast light on the truth of the human condition–that we’re all pretty much the same. That “the mystery is that there is no mystery” to who we are as individuals, as a collective. Great stories contain transcendent elements that result in overt or slyly smiling introverted recognition of a truth. Human is Human.
Finally, whose story should be told? Michael approaches this from an outside-in perspective. A salesman tells a story in order to advance an agenda, build desire, create agreement. I’ll argue a slightly different perspective: the best sales stories are the customer’s stories, not the salesperson’s. That, of course, requires that the storyteller tell a story that includes the audience–breaks the fourth wall–and creates a narrative inside of a narrative. Complicated, but when done well resembles something closer to an ancient dance around a brighter fire than anything else. When the participants help create the narrative then the narrative itself transforms and is impossible to ignore. That, I feel, is the deep and hidden power of storytelling and superb storytellers. They understand that any story is in part co-created by the reader, listener, dancer.
As children we love stories because they reassure us that we’re not alone. From a parent’s whisper to the imagined darings, we are connected in the context of the tale and the teller. As adults stories connect us to our matured humanity, and we’re still not alone. Time and the weight of experience and perspective enrich the stories even further. Stories light fires along our midnight beach and, if we’re lucky, we find warmth and community in the darkness.