My experience as a storyteller for nonprofit organizations and a social-mission book series has taught me that sharing stories has tremendous power to transform both the teller and the receiver. I think it’s because, besides giving our bodies sexually to one another, storytelling is the most intimate way we have to share who we are.
One Shift Changes Everything
I used to write articles about the positive outcomes possible when we keep youth in school and create dignified jobs for their parents. My nonprofit coworkers would say, “You story passed my tear test!” meaning, they felt so connected to the subject that they cried in anguish over the challenges or joy over the strength. Something far greater than a string of words was happening here: I called it connective tissue between the story-teller and story-receiver.
And then something magical happened to shift my storytelling away from the journalistic documenting of our clients’ courageous battles against systemic poverty and inequality, with me tromping around fields and farms and villages, invading prison cells and school classrooms and small-business meetings.
All I did was to turn the microphone toward my story subject, and listen. Muhammad, a bicycle rickshaw puller in Dhaka, Bangladesh, was perfectly capable of telling his own story. I could use my “editor’s note” to frame his context, explain how he’d lost his father in the civil war and worked as a sharecropper to earn one plate of rice and vegetables for his mother and siblings, striving without hope for years of barely earning the next meal, until a slum school offered free education to his two youngest children.
Listening = Honoring
From then on, I just listened. Google product designer Matt explained his fear of coming out as a gay man to his traditional Taiwanese mom. Guitarist Makana described the excruciating uncontrollable bipolar highs and lows that inspired his songwriting.
Midwife Sandra recalled being beaten by her father for dating a young man outside her church, and how it took three years to leave that church and begin a life without bruises.
Admissions counselor Nadine shuddered at the memory of a faded photograph of her two-year-old self in the Rwandan Holocaust Memorial museum—she was supposed to have died, but later dedicated her career to enabling low-income girls to attend college.
Banana farmer Mary shook her head recalling her Ugandan husband divorcing her, uneducated and penniless, for miscarrying too many children, leaving her at age fifty to buy up farmland one meter at a time and teaching herself to survive . . . Their stories go on, through two books so far, and whatever volumes may come next.
And more miracles followed.
Narrators lit up when I listened. They started off shy, but perhaps bolstered by the knowledge that their story would raise funds to create jobs for those in need, they began to open up. Hours would pass and they would tell me about their early childhood trauma, their first love, their irrational fears, their visions for the world. They would lose themselves in the telling while simultaneously getting to know themselves by hearing (and later, reading on the printed page) the words coming out of their mouths.
Daring to expose their inner selves, far beyond the story of their job, they discovered pieces of themselves and saw the beauty of the whole.
Telling = Daring
And so did I. Let me tell you this: There is nothing more humbling than to witness the person in front of you sharing who they are. It might be your mother or father, mumbling “I remember” tales that you encourage them to flesh out. It might be your child in the backseat, prattling about how she loves soccer, and you realize she is telling you what makes her feel alive. It may be your best friend, collapsing in tears at your kitchen table, trying to figure out how to move on after a devastated marriage.
What Makes a Story Authentic
Sharing stories means more than recapping the events of the day, gossiping about others, or pontificating about convictions. Authentic storytelling requires willingness on both sides: for the teller, to be vulnerable; and for the listener, to be receptive. The teller gains power in self-assurance, gets to know who they are, and maybe even feels safe in being seen. The listener gains power in the connection offered by the teller, discovers new ways to be and see the world, and maybe even feels affirmed by what they have in common.
Top 10 Tips on How To Do It Yourself
- Safety: Start with one person with whom you feel safe. Tell your trusted person about an even that shaped who you are today, and gauge that person’s reaction. Empathy? Respect? The more you practice with trustworthy listeners, the more confidence you will gain not just in your storytelling but in yourself. If you must speak to groups, you may be surprised to discover that almost everyone in your audience wishes you well and will greet you with warm eyes and open hearts, if you lead with authenticity.
- Sensory details: Take the listener with you to the time and place of your story: the sound of the wind in the trees, the sweltering heat soaking your shirt, the aroma of foods your grandma was cooking, the silky down of your baby’s hair. Get vivid. Your story is your chance to take someone along with you to a place they’d never otherwise get to go, so fill in their senses, and that will bring it all back to you, as well.
- Connective tissue: Maybe every human being is as unique as a snowflake, but under the surface, we have much in common. Can you find that? One day while in a remote village in northern India, I was interviewing a woman who’d just received a cow to milk for income. She had no electricity or plumbing in her mud hut, and she was ecstatic about the cow.—But the real story was about her sullen-faced teenaged daughter, whom the translator and I surreptitiously pulled aside while her mother was boiling tea for us. Just like girls in the U.S. (where my readers lived), she wanted freedom—to hang out with her girlfriends, get out of the village and go to college, and live a glamorous life in a big city. The mother-daughter dynamic was relatable, and so was the girl’s determination to have a life very different from her non-literate cow-farmer mom’s.
- Purpose: Do you know why you’re telling this particular vignette? We always have a purpose, although sometimes it’s unconscious. Are you trying to show yourself as virtuous, being a martyr who’s endured far too much, dissing a neighbor whose lifestyle you cannot condone? There are hundreds of reasons for telling a story, but I’ve found that the purest, most powerful stories simply take the listener there with you, to your memory, to experience it alongside you. Journalism teaches us to “show, don’t tell,” and it turns out that letting your listener derive their own conclusions will leave far more impact upon them.
- Humor: If you’ve got it, use it; it’ll get your point across and make you unforgettable. Both the Buddha and the Bible have declared humor as the highest form of wisdom. I once worked with an American photographer in Africa, where we didn’t speak the language but needed to get the story. He used nonverbal humor by jumping around and getting goofy with the kids, and guess what?—He got eye contact, smiles, and lots of personality in those pictures. What I learned from him was that even if I’m not naturally funny, I can poke fun at myself to get a laugh, I can be clumsy and self-deprecating to establish rapport with either my audience or my interviewee.
- Open-mindedness: Set aside your preconceived notions of what the homeless man or stylish woman might be about to tell you. People will always surprise you if you allow them to shatter stereotypes; even people you think you know very have layers and tales you had no idea were in there. Other times, loved ones like my eighty-year-old adopted mom may repeat a story over and over again; but there could be new nuances and if you probe, more juicy details she’d forgotten until just now.
- Non-comparison: Until you practice active listening, it can be almost impossible to hear about someone else’s experience without immediately thinking, “Oh yeah, something similar happened to me!” But that distracts you from getting all their details, and it puts a layer of yourself on top of their story. Try to hear their story as a child would, with the magic of discovering along with the teller where they are taking you with their words.
- Patience: Getting below the surface takes time. Your teller may need to talk in loops for a while, to warm up or build trust in you. I can’t count the number of times that, as soon as an interview ended, the story got really interesting—maybe because the pressure and recorder were now off. During the waiting, this is when you might jump in with humor (poke fun only at yourself) or understanding (“I can relate; my sister also had breast cancer”). However, no one can resist a pair of soft eyes focused on them, and an ability to hold silence while they figure out how to put their story into words.
- Side-tracking: The best stories I’ve ever heard have gone way off-topic, like when my friend was telling me about her dedication to Catholicism and ended up confiding about her affair with a priest, or when a man I was dating segued from his affinity for cooking to the way his stepfather hit and kicked him as a child. People want, desperately want, to tell you who they are; if you can refrain from interrupting or reacting, or bringing them back (So, how did you learn to cook?”), they will go down that rabbit hole. Later you can check back and ask, “Is it OK to include that in your article?” or “Is this something you need me to hold in absolute confidence?” Unless what they’ve told you indicates that they or someone else is in danger, oftentimes just the sharing of the story can be quite therapeutic.
- Empathy: Empathy looks nothing like what I used to think it was. It’s not sobbing alongside them. It’s not grabbing and hugging and rescuing. It’s not even problem-solving. It’s staying power: remaining present for the teller, hearing what it’s like to be them, taking their word for it, believing and respecting them. Perhaps the most radical example of this from my book series came when Chapter 15 narrator Mickey told me, “Even a terrorist, even a suicide bomber, is rational, within their worldview.” His ability to hold steady as an Al Qaeda member shared his story with Mickey, absolutely blew me away. But that’s what makes Mickey a diplomat.
If you’ve read all the way down to the end, here, you’ve probably already discerned that the basis of authentic telling and hearing stories is love. Daring to reveal who you are, and conversely, opening yourself to witness who another person is, is a profound metaphysical sharing that will leave both sides forever altered. You grow stronger for the telling and receiving, and both of you end up feeling a little less alone in the world.
Cover image courtesy of Toronto Storytelling Festival.