I spend a lot of my time telling stories.
When I teach, I use stories. When I consult, I use stories. When groups of us come together to collaborate and scheme and envision our futures, we use stories. And, certainly, storytelling is at the core of the work I do with TEDx.
But something happened last night that made me think hard about the way I approach stories and the way I communicate.
The thing that happened was an event I was privileged to attend, “Stone Soup.” Invented by my friend Stuart, the idea is simple: a group of people comes together for a dinner. Each brings a dish. Each brings a story. There’s a theme. The evening is co-created. In Stuart’s words, the soup is only as good as what each of us puts into the pot.
It started like any other potluck dinner party -- a bunch of people sipping drinks, standing around, chit-chatting. But then Stuart convened the session, the stories began, and the dynamic changed entirely. Each person stood at the front of the room, sharing whatever chord had been struck by this month’s theme, “Mystery.” We heard stories about childhood friends. Near-death experiences. Family secrets. The storyteller reigned supreme; we were taken on journeys through lifetimes and continents, through ghosts and generosity, through unexpected adventures and hearts laid bare.
The stories were told the way stories ought to be told: casually, conversationally, conspiratorially. Interestingly, this created an odd dynamic.
Normally, when I’m hearing a casual, conversational story, it’s in a peer-to-peer environment -- sitting across the dinner table, perhaps, or having a coffee. When we tell stories in this environment, the atmosphere is often one of interruption: side jokes, murmurs of agreement, tangential commentary. We’ve all had the experience of beginning a story, having it waylaid, and never seeing it to completion.
But the whole standing-at-the-front-of-the-room thing gave an element of formality to the proceedings. What we were left with was the respect you give someone who is performing on stage, coupled with the intimate connection you feel when your closest friend opens his heart to you.
What Stuart has created isn’t just a space for storytelling; it’s also a space for storylistening. And what I realized is not only how rare that is, but how much my storytelling has adapted to not being in that kind of environment.
I tell stories that are short, that get to the punchline quickly -- more anecdotes than narratives. I want to get to the end before someone’s side comment derails me. I write that way, too: for Twitter, for Facebook -- even this column starts to max out at around a mere 600 words. I communicate, digitally and verbally, according to the assumption that I will only capture your attention fleetingly, that if my soundbite isn’t self-contained and delivered in a tiny digestible packet, it will be intercepted and never arrive at all.
In the online marketing space, this is a safe assumption and good practice. But it is not conducive to deep human relationships. There is real value in stopping, in closing our mouths, opening our ears, and listening attentively to the people we love, for as long as it takes them to get to the point. We process through story; we reveal ourselves; we learn from each other. The Stone Soup magic doesn’t happen when we put our stories into the pot; it happens when we focus our attention and give each other the gift of being heard.
And that’s my 600 words. Thanks for listening.