the art of storytelling

Ernesto Lago (Argentina)

Everybody has a story.

Maybe you played an obnoxious prank on somebody you didn’t like in high school and stuck plastic forks all over their lawn. Perhaps you unknowingly shook hands with the mayor of the city one night during a rally. Maybe you witnessed a bad public transportation accident. Or maybe you know a family member who immigrated from another country during a time of war to start all over in a new place.

Storytelling is a tradition that pre-dates every living person on the earth. Before the advent of the written word, history was passed down from one generation to another purely by oral tradition. If you remember anything from your ninth grade English class, recall that Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey were both composed and transmitted orally (and received aurally) for years before it was finally recorded in written form.

All right, so not all of us may have been blessed with Homer’s eloquence, but we all have something to say for ourselves, and I think that’s very powerful. Stories drive conversations when you meet somebody new. (“So this one time, I…”) Stories are what we delve into when we reminisce with old friends. (“Remember when…?”)  Stories compel us. Good stories inspire us to think about our own lives.

Ever hear the saying, “If I don’t tell anyone, it’s like it never happened”? In a way, stories help us validate our experience in this world.

Even Disney’s business philosophy is based on storytelling and keeping the company’s history alive. They believe that the story of Disney’s humble beginnings reinforces the brand today. Even if you’ve never worked for Disney, you know about the man and the mouse (Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse) and their relationship to each other. Think of how many jobs you may have had in which the initial training period takes you through the history of the company itself – when it was founded, when milestones were, leading up to where it stands today.

I’ve been listening to three shows that have stimulated my ears and mind: RadioLab of WNYC, This American Life of Chicago Public Radio, and StoryCorps on NPR (based in Brooklyn, NY). These three shows have one thing in common, and that is they are an amalgam of stories from different people in all different parts of the world. Through them, I realized that although we all exist in different contexts, we share a breadth of common emotions that come with being human.

There’s something about listening to someone’s story that sparks the imagination. It opens up their world to you. Unlike when you’re reading and imagining the tone of the author, you can pick up on tons of nuances from a speaker when you are listening to him or her convey a story to you – how they feel about certain things, tension, enthusiasm, nostalgia, reluctance, sadness. There’s something about listening to someone else’s experience that makes us feel more connected to others and more in tune with ourselves.

Everybody has a story. What’s yours?


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