Why should we work with story structures?
Updated: Jul 22
The image on the left is of a birch tree that was cut a little too early. You can see the sap has poured out and become frozen. The internal life force of the tree has become visible, held in place for us to witness and marvel at.
I offer this as a powerful metaphor for why we should work with story structures. I remember reading that when we share information using story structures, people experience the information almost as something that they had forgotten rather than something completely new to them. There is a truth to this. As humans we contain story structures within us as deeply as the birch contains its sap. These structures enable us to make sense of our lives, make sense of each other, make sense of information, remember that information and act upon it. Yet these story structures are often unknown to us, invisible in fact. In his critically acclaimed book, The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall states that, "human life is so bound up in stories that we are thoroughly desensitised to their weird power." Stories are powerful, they inhabit us and we inhabit them which is why working with them, when we design training or presentations or press releases or any type of communication, is something we should be doing, consciously.
Story was and continues to be, crucial for our development as human beings. Yuval Noah Harari in his fantastic book, Sapiens talks about how it was our ability to 'gossip' and tell stories that enabled us to survive and also how when the critical threshold of 150 people is crossed, we need a shared myth in order to bring us all together. He goes on to say that "any large-scale human cooperation - whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe - is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imagination." Often we are sadly unaware of the 'common myth' within our organisations; be they schools, hospitals or neighbourhoods - as we are too immersed in living the myth without being aware of it as a myth.
Yet if we want to evolve or if we want our organisations to evolve we need to become aware of how these stories shape us and shape others. Lisa Cron, in her book, 'Wired for Story, puts it brilliantly, " Story was crucial to our evolution - more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare us for it - a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not." With recent developments in neuroscience, (that I have written about in earlier blogs;) we know that storytelling can be used to motivate, inspire and persuade people far more effectively than the sharing of facts and date - but how where and how can you start?
There is a very traditional start to many fairy tales which is; in a time that once was, is now gone forever but will come again soon, or, in the time that was, the time that is and the time that is yet to come - this is where I start when I am designing my training, with the three different times: the past, the present and the future. The past is made of the stories that we have chosen to carry into the present, (often without even knowing we are carrying them,) the future is made of the stories we wish to inhabit. We cannot start our journey towards our imagined future without unpacking and deconstructing what has caused our present; the stories, beliefs and prejudices that we carry. Once we have started to identify these and explore how they might serve us or hinder us, then and only then can we look towards creating that imagined future.
Some of you reading this may be thinking that it does not apply to you or your work - but it does and your work will be richer and have greater impact if you incorporate the power of story. If you work in finances, you should be sharing the story of what happens when 'it' works. The story of how it links into the bigger vision of the company - the story of what that means to the people in front of you and also the customer or employees. Yes it might be a new financial system that everybody has to learn - essentially a new way of inputting data - but think back to the opposable thumbs ..... tell the story of why this system is better, what it will mean to people. When you are sharing the information think of story patterns - the number three is important. Goldilocks and the 3 Bears, the 3 Billy Goats Gruff, the 3 Little Pigs - 3,3,3! Even think of many languages and the number 3 - we have big, bigger, biggest, fast, faster, fastest. We have the 'Trinity' in many religions, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, or Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in Hinduism. Use this 'magic' number in your training delivery or presentations. In fact, in every story we have the beginning, middle and end, another type of 3 - use this knowledge! Repeat something 3 times within the training, break the training into a story arc with a beginning, middle and end. Use anecdotal stories, from customers, from your life ... all of these techniques enable people to inhabit the information and make sense of it in a meaningful way, in a story way. It is easier and more accessible than you think.
I want to add something here that is important - we should not just be working with stories in order to create richer experiences for the people we are involved with. Another of our jobs has to be in dismantling and challenging the stories that impoverish people, especially people of colour, queer folk, neuro-divergent and people with disabilities. In her brilliant book 'We Need New Stories - Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent,' the writer Nesrine Malik starts to do just that - I suggest you take a look, it is challenging and great.
If you would like to develop your knowledge and skills in training design using narrative structures you will be happy to hear I am offering two training course focussed purely on this. One of these will be a virtual online course where you will have no interaction with me but have online access to processes, strategies and techniques that I have developed. The other will be a 7 week live training course where we will meet, (as a group of no more than 12) every week for two hours plus you will have access to an online training platform too! If you are interested please subscribe to my website www.narrative4change.com and you will receive my newsletter and sign up information. I hope you make storytelling part of your New Year commitment - it truly helps us realise who we are, where we came from and how we might better travel together towards a shared future.